By Rich Beedie
At the end of last August, the book ‘Football’s Black Pioneers’ was released, it contained the stories of the first black players to represent the 92 league clubs. Sadly, Bury were missing due to the timing of the release. There were plenty of ex-Shakers in there; Winnie White, Efe Sodje and the iconic Stevie Johnson included. This inspired me, especially with our new beginning, to look into who our black pioneers were/are and took the opportunity – in what happened to be black history month by the time I spoke to them – to catch up with Steve Johnson, the first black player for Bury FC and Liam MacDevitt, AFC’s first black player. I wanted to ask them about their careers, how they came to Bury and their experiences in the game, and life, as people of colour.
Liverpool born, Steve started his playing career in the 1970s at local non-league side South Liverpool where, like our currentplayers, he combined a day job with playing football. At thattime, he was a French polisher for Liverpool music store, Rushworths, but in 1976 shone in a friendly for Altrincham against Bury and earned a professional deal with The Shakers.Steve told me that he was approached by Bury officials after the game; they asked if he’d signed anything with Alty, when he confirmed he hadn’t they said ‘Well don’t, sign for us instead.’
He did and so started a mutual love affair. He genuinely enjoyed his time at the club, the presence of several Scousers there when he signed helping him settle, especially during his first year when he car-pooled with them, prior to getting digs in Bury when he signed full-time. When researching this piece, I went on-line to ask for fans’ memories of him – his time at the club ending just as I got into the Shakers – and he was fondly remembered; ‘not the quickest, but strong and would fight for everything’ was one quote that stood out, I’m sure his hat-trick against Rochdale – in what sounded like atrocious conditions – helped. For Steve the feeling was reciprocated and still loves catching up with fans about his times at Gigg over a coffee in Bury town centre, as an Everton fan the FA Cup game at Anfield in 1980 was one of his fondest memories.
He left for Rochdale in 1983 and it started something of a nomadic career, not always at his own choice. In February 1984 he joined Bristol City from Wigan – he was their first black player too – who he’d only joined 13 months previously. The move meant Wigan could afford to pay the wages that month but meant Steve missed out on a Wembley win in the Freight Rover Trophy Final and lead to an unhappy time for him so far from his family. It did lead to a strange story many years later though when a thread on a Bristol City message board saw condolences at the sudden death of their former striker. It was in fact the brother of then Robins manager Gary Johnson, another Steve, who had died but left our Stevie struggling to convince his then boss – post football by then – that he really was still alive! Our Steve genuinely did have a health scare back in 2016 though when he was hospitalised after suffering a brain haemorrhage, thankfully he made a full recovery and is now enjoying a genuine retirement with his working days also over.
For Liam it was a slightly different route to our part of Lancashire. Born in Reading a professional career seemed possible as he made his way through the ranks at Yeovil, but it wasn’t to be at Huish Park and saw a succession of loans as he sought a new club, including Limerick City where he first crossed paths with Tony Whitehead. Another included Stoke City where Liverpool fan Liam trained with his childhood hero, Michael Owen, but admitted the standard there was probably a little too high for him. Shortly after Liam suffered the injury that changed everything and temporarily saw him fall out of love with football. A ruptured quad kept him out for 18 months and he returned to athletics on recovering, a sport he’d competed in nationally when at school, as ‘a stop gap’ to satisfy his competitive edge. He returned to Ireland, where his mother’s family came from, and won silver at 400m in their under-23 championships before being approached to see if he would compete for Ireland in the Rio Olympics in their 4 x 400m team. He declined, football was still his dream and via the PFA an opportunity came up to forge a new career whilst returning to playing.
Liam embarked on a degree in English Literature and Journalism, which included a scholarship that allowed access to facilities to fully recover from his injury whilst playing in the Conference South. A full-time career in journalism was a possibility at the end of his studies but the lure of full-time football was stronger, even if it was on the other side of the world. An opportunity arose at New Zealand’s Southern United where he met up with Whitehead again and the pair have been inseparable since!
New Zealand did not quite work out but the offer of a job with the BBC brought Liam – and Tony – to Manchester, and to Stalybridge Celtic. This led to a dream life professionally for Liam – talking football by day, playing at evening and weekends – and in turn to Bury.
I asked why Bury given his career, until now, had been played at a much higher level than the NWCFL. It was too good an opportunity to miss, he said, and fitted with what he wanted to do next in the game. From the first minute of training, it felt right. He and the rest of the squad know the significance of the club after everything we’ve been through and sees AFC as one of the best things to come out of the worst year ever and can’t wait for the day we can pack out the ground given the support shown so far.
Ultimately the question of racism came up with both and despite playing in different eras suffered similar problems. For Steve it was a whole stand or a ground insulting him, with Liam’s abuse more isolated but surprisingly still quite frequent with him admitting he’s suffered upwards of 20 racist incidents against him in his relatively short time in the game, both from fans and opposition players. Both used the abuse to fire themselves up, to work harder, to score and silence the abusers but Liam feels change coming. He feels the world has woken up to racism via the Black Lives Matter campaign with people more willing to talk about it now, including his own maternal grand-parents. He’s had conversations with them this year that he has never been able to have before. He feels if he suffered abuse now, he would have the courage to walk-off with the support of his team-mates. Both feel there’s still a lack of opportunity for black people, in life in general and the game but agree they don’t want tokenism, just that the job goes to the person that deserves it regardless of colour or gender.
Steve never ventured into coaching at the end of his playing career, it didn’t appeal to him at the time but felt the opportunities weren’t really there for him anyway. For Liam that stage of his career is someway off but sees his current television role as a chance to make a difference, to give young black people something to aspire to, given there were so few black role models on television in his youth. From a football perspective, through his PFA role, he has seen initiatives launched recently that will hopefully see a higher ratio of black players become coaches and managers, giving those that want it the chance they deserve and inspire future generations because as Liam puts it ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’.