Who were the first Black football players for Cambridge United?
What does it mean to see yourself reflected in society? It’s not just about seeing people the same colour as you in professions you aspire to go into, it’s also about seeing yourself as accepted in every kind of space.
For Black Brits, seeing Black footballers play live on TV is nothing out of the ordinary in todays world, but it wasn’t always this way.
In, and before, the 19th century Black people simply weren’t allowed to play, or in some cases they were allowed to do so, but it was in segregated teams. Racism is still a sad reality in football culture today, however it far from compares to the abuse the pioneers of Black football experienced.
Those who broke through that barrier were subject to racist abuse from the stands, and within their own team. So who were the ones who paved the way for others to not just be accepted, but celebrated as some of the best sports people our country has to offer? For Black History Month CambridgeshireLive looked locally to ask who were the first Black football players for Cambridge United, and what was their legacy?
For the first Black footballer to play for any recognised team in England we have to go further back than we think, all the way to 1886 when Arthur Wharton played semi-professional football for Preston North End and Sheffield United. He started out as a goalkeeper after becoming bored of working as a missionary and ended up setting a world record for the 100-yard dash, running it in 10 seconds.
He was such a skilled athlete there was speculation he would play for England, but that wasn’t allowed due to the colour of his skin. Arthur Wharton was debatably the most important Black player in the history of Black football until Andrew Watson was discovered in the history books. He was the first Black international football player in Britain in 1880 playing for top Scottish team Queen’s Park.
He had moved from British Guiana, part of the West Indies, to study art at the University of Glasgow. The son of a plantation manager and former slave owner, many have speculated about his lack of presence in the history books. For Cambridge, many Cambridge United fans pin Dennis Walker as the first Black player for them, starting in 1968.
However, according to Cambridge United club historian Andrew Bennett, Attu Mensah was actually the man to claim the title after playing in Charlton, Norwich, St Neots, Newmarket and Cambridge City starting in 1964. He only played one match for Cambridge United back in 1964 winning four to one and scoring the teams second goal.
Mensah might not be as well-remembered as Dennis Walker, but the 20-year-old Ghanaian was adored according to the Cambridge Daily News who wrote: “The crowd loved the Ghanaian, who responded to the praise of the fans.” He went on to represent Ghana in the 1968 Olympics.
Mensah started a whole 84 years after Andrew Watson broke that barrier, and it was still a huge rarity to see players of colour on the pitch until the ’70s and ’80s.
Alva Anderson then came on the scene for Cambridge United in 1965, as the first Jamaican on the team. A student of economics and marketing at Cambridge University, he had many feathers in his bow as a boxing champion too. He played against Luton for Cambridge United and made three Midland Floodlit League appearances before moving back to Jamaica, according to 100 Years of Coconuts, the Cambridge United history blog.
The famous Dennis Walker was already a seasoned football champion by the time he arrived at the club on Newmarket Road. Originally from Hackney, he was reportedly mixed race, born to a white mother. The midfielder started in Cambridge in 1968 after making a name for himself as Manchester United’s first Black player, before moving over to play for York.
The 23-year-old was captain of Cambridge United before long, and drove the team to the Southern League championship and Southern League Cup in his first season, according to the United blog. He stayed with the team until 1972 when he transferred to Poole. He achieved 23 goals and 202 appearances during his time at Cambridge. He died in Stockport in 2003.
In 1973 Brendon Batson came on the scene. Grenada born, he stayed with the team for four years, becoming captain and going on to obtaining an OBE and launch the Kick it Out campaign against racism in football, according to the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), where he was a former Deputy Chief Executive.
He was sent to England by his mother at age nine, to live with his aunt and uncle, when he experienced his first taste of racism. He signed as the first Black player for Arsenal before moving to Cambridge United under manager Ron Atkinson. He wrote for PFA: “In the compact grounds of the Fourth Division you could hear every word, people shouting foul racist stuff, and the monkey noises too. But I never took a step backwards.
“It did not intimidate me, and my mum would say: ‘Brendon, meet it head on.’ It wasn’t always easy to do that, though. “During a game at Bradford City, a supporter began screaming racist abuse and when I went over to take a throw in, he charged down the terrace and shouted the N word in my face. I was distraught – I wanted to jump in the crowd and confront this guy, but the assistant manager John Docherty stopped me.”
He launched Kick It Out in 1993: “I always thought that with more black players coming into the game, it would improve matters, but the abuse got worse and we accepted it. “Football today is such a melting pot of nationalities, ethnicities, religions and that they are welcomed by our game is so encouraging.” Despite the increasing numbers players from all heritages, Cambridge United hasn’t had a clean slate when it comes to racism in recent years.
In 2016 a Cambridge supporter from the club indefinitely due allegations of racial abuse against a visiting Black player. The club was quick to follow with its zero-tolerance policy on discrimination. However Cambridge United team today is a diverse one. The legacy of Dennis Walker, and all the names mentioned, paved the way for those players today to represent the club freely and without the prejudice they had to experience in order to play the sport they loved.