‘West Ham has a proud history of playing black players’

West Brom were wrong, West Ham fielded three black players first

Speaking at the 50 Years, Three Pioneers event to mark the first time three black players appeared in the same team — Clyde Best, Clive Charles and Ade Coker — Bill Hern, co-author of Football’s Black Pioneers, picked his Hammers highlights.

West Ham’s first black player was Fred Corbett, who played for Thames Ironworks in the Southern League, away against Reading, on 16 September 1899. He played for West Ham until 1901 (West Ham was founded in 1900), scoring 15 goals. Fred then became the fourth black player to play in the football league when he debuted for Bristol in 1903.

Hammer John Charles — brother of Clive Charles — was the first black footballer to play for England, playing for England Youth against Israel on 20 May 1962. And he scored, making him the first black player to score in an England shirt. Strangely, he only scored twice in a West Ham shirt in more than 140 appearances, all in the First Division. John Charles was also the first black player to captain a side to a major trophy when he led West Ham to FA Youth Cup success against Liverpool in May 1963.

He was the first black player to play for West Ham in the Football League, on 4 May 1963 at home to Blackburn. And he was the first black player to be in the squad of an England World Cup-winning side — the Little World Cup (youth competition). 

West Brom, and the club’s loudmouth boss Ron Atkinson, always claimed that when Brendon Batson, Cyrille Regis and Laurie Cunningham played together on 4 March 1978 as the “Three Degrees”, it was the first time a club had fielded three black players. But three West Ham legends, Clyde Best, Clive Charles and Ade Coker, picked by our less boastful manager Ron Greenwood, had achieved that honour a full six years earlier.

Clyde Best, Clive Charles and Ade Coker played together for the first time in the claret and blue on 1 April 1972 at home to Spurs. Ade Coker scored, along with Trever Brooking. Although it made the news at the time, there was much less fuss than six years later with West Brom. 

Writing in the Daily Mirror, Bobby Moore said: ‘The East End of London has been one of the most exciting places in the world for centuries. It’s cosmopolitan and has a welcome hand for most people. All you have to do is catch a bus beyond Aldgate and look at the names above some of the shops. You’ll find Russian, Polish, Irish, Chinese and continental names but they are all East Enders now. Today there’s a flourishing coloured (sic) population as well and on Saturdays some of the faces are on the terraces. That’s the way West Ham is.’

At the time West Ham fielded three black players — 50 years ago — West Brom had never played a single black player. The Baggies were not alone as 40 clubs had never fielded a black player at the time, something unimaginable now. But it is those trailblazers that we need to thank because they laid the foundations for the likes of Julien Faubert, Carlton Cole, and Ben Johnson to thrive at West Ham.

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