Clive Wilson: Admitting pain of racism would have been considered weak

Clive Wilson is a positive man.

Polite, personable, and grateful to have lived his dream as a professional footballer and for the rewarding role he currently enjoys as a secondary school PE teacher.

He speaks with pride when talking about playing for Manchester City, the Club a stone’s throw away from his family home on Rusholme’s Acomb Street, and for Chelsea, Queens Park Rangers, Tottenham Hotspur and Cambridge United in a career spanning 21-years.

The highlights come easily to the 58-year-old’s mind; a Maine Road debut against Stoke City, a diving header in a Manchester derby at Old Trafford, promotions with City and Chelsea and a fifth place finish in the Premier League with QPR.

He would like to have saved Jimmy Frizzell’s side from relegation to Division Two before departing for Stamford Bridge in 1987, but for someone who had all but given up on playing professional when he signed for City at 18, there is no sign of regret with how his career panned out.

Nor is there a hint of anger, something he is perfectly entitled to feel, due to the regrettable actions of others.

It was anger Wilson suppressed when subjected to racist abuse, from opponents and opposition fans, so determined was he to not let them ruin his own performance.

But the painful memories remain vivid, coming to mind as clearly as his many achievements in the game.

“I can remember the first time I experienced racism as a professional,” he tells 33-years after he last played for the Club.

“I was playing at Derby and I went to take a corner and I remember being hit by a few bananas and I heard a few comments.

“I don’t think it affected me there and then. It was only on reflection that I thought, why are those things happening? Why me?

“Then I saw it was happening to other people and I recognised it wasn’t my problem. I can’t help who I am, so it’s somebody else’s problem and they have to deal with that, but I have to deal with what they think of me.

“Back then we used to get abuse from players on the opposing team. The first time someone was racist to me on the pitch, I went past this player and he said to me: ‘If you do that again, I will break your legs, you…and he used the N-word.’

“I didn’t visibly get angry. The anger was inside. I wanted show that no matter what they said, it is not affecting me.

“It was their way of trying to put you off your game and I am sure other Black players have reacted in different ways and may have shown their anger outwardly, but for me it was more internal.”

It was also dealt with in isolation.

Wilson was one of several Black players on City’s books in the early 1980s, alongside his great friend Alex Williams MBE, Roger Palmer, Gary and Dave Bennett, whilst Earl Barrett and the Beckford brothers, Darren and Jason, were a few years behind him.

But his career was still spent in predominantly white dressing rooms and whilst his team-mates were never directly racist, they weren’t particularly forthcoming with their support when he was abused by opponents.

“I am certain there were occasions when people were prepared to turn a deaf ear to it.

“Team-mates would make comments about Black people, but not directly at me. I wouldn’t challenge them but would ask why they were saying that rather than challenging the comment.

“They would say: ‘well I don’t mean you’. It was like fans back then who would boo opposition Black players even though they had Black players in their team. They were saying, ‘I accept the Black people I know, it’s the others I don’t like’.

“Back then I dealt with it in isolation. It felt like it was my problem to deal with.

“If I had shown that it hurt or that I was upset by it, then - and I don’t want to sound dramatic - it would have been seen as a sign of weakness that I couldn’t deal with it.

“People would be saying what happens if you get it again, will you go to pieces? It was something I had to deal with internally.”

Growing up in 1960s Britain, Wilson had become accustomed to racism prior to becoming a professional footballer.

The son of West Indian parents who moved to Manchester in the late 1950s, the versatile left-sided player was raised in multicultural Moss Side, where he played for local team Eagles before joining Moss Side Amateurs.

He admits life in England was easier for him than his mum and dad and though he doesn’t recall any serious racial tension, he still felt the ugly presence of prejudice.

“My parents had to come here and assimilate into English culture, which they found hard,” he explains.

“The education system and way of life here is totally different to Jamaica. Coming here, to a colder country and not knowing what to expect, it was tough for them to begin with.

“Once I went to school and started mixing with white people, it became a bit easier for my parents, particularly when I started playing football.

“The manager at Eagles, Ted Davies, would come to my house and tell my dad how the teams were doing, and my dad felt a bit more comfortable.

“I didn’t find any race problems growing up. But there was. There were plenty of times, I experienced racist comments, particularly when I played football.

“We went to places where there weren’t many Black people, and you would turn up and you could hear the comments. It was something I learnt to live with.”

Whisper it quietly, but despite his Moss Side upbringing and having two brothers who supported City, it was Liverpool who Wilson followed in his youth.

The Merseysiders’ wingers Peter Thompson and Steve Heighway were his early heroes, though West Ham, with Black players Clyde Best and Ade Coker in their ranks, were the team he was first aware of having players he identified with.

Wilson would go on to sign for City in 1979, the year after Viv Anderson became the first Black player to represent England.

“That was a big, big moment,” he reflects. “There were very few Black players in the league then.”

That meant that when the man the Maine Road faithful affectionately nicknamed ‘Clive the Jive’ broke into the first team, he was acutely aware of how the impact of his performances would be felt beyond the confines of City’s stadium.

“We weren’t just representing ourselves as footballers, we were representing the Black community.

“If I was successful then I could pave the way for others. It would be a yardstick.

“It would give someone else the chance to try and make it in the professional game because I had done it.”

Forty-one years on from his professional debut with City, Wilson feels the landscape in Britain is much improved, though he is certain more needs to be done.

“We are way, way down the line from the bad days of the 70s, 80s and 90s,” he says.

“The race problem has got better, but by no means is it right or correct.”

He is opposed to the ‘Rooney Rule’ – the policy adopted by the EFL in 2019 - which means clubs must interview at least one Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) candidate when searching for a new manager.

At the time of writing there are four BAME managers in England’s 92 league clubs, but the PE teacher does not believe quotas will improve representation in the dugout.

“I don’t want it to be that you’re getting the job because you’re Black or because there’s a quota. You want to get the job on your ability. If you’re good enough for the job, why should you not get it?

“Too often we talk about equal opportunities, but equal opportunity doesn’t equate to equal outcome.

“If we set a quota for applications, and every time the job goes to a nonblack person we are still going to be left with the same issue.

“As a Black person I can say I don’t think I got the job because I’m Black. And I don’t want to get the job because I am Black. I want to get the job on merit. We need to change the thoughts of club owners and make them pick the right man for the job, not the right colour.

“A Black manager has to have a degree of sustained success to change the thought on why Black players aren’t becoming good managers. At the minute there isn’t a yardstick to say, ‘well he was successful’.

“There have been a few Black managers in the top divisions, like Chris Hughton, Jimmy Floyd-Hasselbaink, Paul Ince, Ruud Gullit, Chris Powell and Terry Connor to name a select few but they don’t seem get another chance.

“Once they lose their job they seem to disappear from management usually resurfacing as a TV pundit.

“You look at the benches of teams and there are plenty of Black backroom staff but very few have made the step from coach to manager.

“The issue isn’t getting the sack, because if you are a football manager it is inevitable you will get the sack, it’s what happens after you get the sack.

“John Barnes is a perfect example. He lost the Celtic job and it was nine years before he got another club job and has never made his way back up the managerial ladder.

“Was that because he wasn’t good enough? We'll never know as he wasn’t given the chance to prove otherwise, unlike many of his white counterparts.”

Wilson does not profess to have all the answers.

It is two decades since he retired from playing and racism is an issue which has never gone away.

And for City’s former left-back, it won’t, until it is tackled at a societal level.

“We will never get to the stage where we won’t see colour,” he concludes. “That’s idealistic. We will always see colour. How do we get around that? I don’t know.

“The question is why do we feel that football is the place where if we eradicate racism it will help in society?

“It will be the other way round. We need to eradicate it from society, so it becomes the norm in football. Until we can do that, it is always going to be there.

“The education is of society, not of football. It’s not football’s problem alone.

“If society can solve it, we might have an opportunity to solve it.”