CHELSEA midfield enforcer N’Golo Kante is having the sort of fairytale football career many especially players of African descent can only dream of.
The diminutive Frenchman lurched from one fairytale to another after moving during the off-season from Leicester (where he won an unlikely English Premier League title) to Chelsea where he has just won another title in his debut season.
The last time this feat was accomplished was by another Frenchman, Eric Cantona who won it with Manchester United in the 1992-93 season after having won it the previous season with Leeds United.
And it doesn’t end there, Kante has also just won personal accolades after being voted Player of the Year by his fellow professionals and 2017 Footballer of the Year by the Football Writers’ Association.
Last season the honour went to his then teammate Riyad Mahrez while Tottenham Hotspur’s Dele Alli also enjoyed a breakthrough season in which he took home the Young Player of the Year award.
The achievements of Kante, Mahrez, Alli and others before them are a testimony of how far players of African descent have come in English football.
The league has hosted some of the finest including former Arsenal goal machines Ian Wright, Thierry Henry and Nwankwo Kanu, Didier Drogba (Chelsea), Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke, Paul Ince (Manchester United), Jimmy Floyd Hasselbank, Tony Yeboah (Leeds United) just to name a few.
And the most expensive player in the world, a black man Paul Pogba is currently on the books of Manchester United.
And given all this talent that has and continues to enthrall audiences around the world, it is hard to imagine that there was a time in recent history when black players could hardly get a look-in at any of the clubs.
They were considered an anathema to the extent that there was a furore at Merseyside when former England great John Barnes made a £900 000 move from Watford to Liverpool in June 1987.
Back then Liverpool were a swashbuckling all-conquering side and Barnes was the second black player to don their famous red and white strip.
The first was Howard Gayle who debuted for the club in 1980, coming on as a second half substitute for David Fairclough against Manchester City.
Barnes endured a torrent of racial abuse from rival Everton fans who not only threw bananas and chanted “Niggerpool, Niggerpool” from the terraces.
And Everton were not just the ordinary mid-table club they have become in the Premier League era but in the 1980s they were the only side who seriously attempted to challenge Liverpool’s stranglehold on the then First Division, winning at least two titles in the period. They were also Liverpool’s local rivals so you can imagine how it must have felt for Barnes at the time.
During that time, Liverpool also had a Zimbabwean, Bruce Grobbelaar in their ranks as goalkeeper.
And though he was white, Grobbelaar’s nickname ‘Jungleman’ echoed western racial stereotypes about Africa as one vast wilderness, a dark continent that was woken from its long night of blood-thirsty savagery by the torch of European civilisation.
There were a few other black stars during the era of Barnes, like his former Watford teammate Luther Blisset, former West Bromwich Albion and Coventry City star Cyrille Regis as well as Laurie Cunningham who made the move from West Brom to Real Madrid in 1979 on a £995 000 deal.
Cunningham was the first English player to join Madrid, the second black player at the club and their most expensive signing at the time. He was also the second most expensive player in the world after Kevin Keegan at the time.
Barnes maintained his dignity and composure, simply back-heeling bananas that had been thrown his way by those Everton fans who considered him a monkey.
Interestingly, Barnes was not the first black to don the famous red jersey at Merseyside, Everton actually had a black player in their ranks much earlier than Liverpool– Mike Trebilcock way back in January 1966, they year England would go on and win the World Cup on home soil, their only triumph to date.
Liverpool were certainly late in fielding black players after Gayle’s debut in 1980.
They, Newcastle and Chelsea were so late that even the senior England national side beat them to it.
The same Gayle was the first black at Newcastle again in 1980 while Chelsea handed Paul Canoville his debut on 12 April 1982.
By then, Viv Anderson, at that time a Nottingham Forest player had already entered the record books as the first black player for England when he took to the field in an encounter with Czechoslovakia at Wembley Stadium.
Ron Greenwood thus became the first manager to field a black player in the English national team.
Thus by the time, Liverpool, Newcastle and Chelsea fielded their first black players, a black player Viv Anderson had already won the European Champions Cup (now UEFA Champions League) twice with Nottingham Forest in 1979 and 1980 and also represented England.
“Very big. I had letters from the Queen and Elton John and people like that. Laurie Cunningham had won the first Under-21 cap but I got the first full cap and was very proud,” Anderson said of his first England cap.
“But really, I was just this skinny kid from Nottingham who wanted to play for his country, just like anyone else. I was a bit cocooned from it really. It’s now, 30 years later, when you get cabbies and people in the street coming up to you that you’re aware of just how big it was,” he added in an interview with The Guardian in 2009.
However, just like Barnes and many other black players before and after him, it was not all plain sailing for Anderson.
“When I made my debut for (Nottingham) Forest some of the things that I heard were murderous. But (Manager) Brian Clough told me to ignore everything I heard. He told me not to let it break me otherwise it could ruin my career before it had even got started. He told me I had to win,” Anderson said in a newspaper interview, adding, “I like to look back now and think I did win.”
The experience was equally if not more traumatic for the first black player at Kante’s current side, Paul Canoville. Canoville debuted as a substitute in an away match at Crystal Palace in 1982.
When he rose from the bench to warm up, Chelsea supporters reportedly screamed: “Sit down you black c***’, ‘You f***ing w*g, f*** off”.
They followed this up with the chant: “We don’t want the n****r, we don’t want then****r, la la la la” before throwing a banana which landed near his feet.
“I felt physically sick,” Canoville recalled in a recent interview with the Daily Mail.
“I felt totally numb. To this day, I do not know how I got home. I was living in Slough. I don’t think I would have gone on the train. I would have got a lift but I don’t know who from.
“All I know was that when I came off I sat in the corner and I was frightened. Was this the end? Will Chelsea say it’s a risk and they can’t go on with it? There were a lot of things going through my mind.”
The abuse from his own fans continued for another two-and-a-half years and would not stop even when he scored.
“Even when I scored it was like: Nah, it’s still 0-0, the n****r scored, it doesn’t count.”
It is difficult to understand why the abuse was occurring in the 1980s as it still does today when there was a long history of black players to play professional football.
Of the current high profile clubs, Tottenham Hotspur were probably the first to hand a debut to a black when Walter Tull featured for them in 1909.
Here are the first black players to make a first-team appearance for each of the current 20 Premier League clubs. The date of their debut is included too:
For Arsenal, it was Brendan Batson in 1971 and Manchester City (Stan Horne on 25 September 1965). Manchester United featured Tony Whelan in the 1960s, Middleborough (Lindy Lindbergh in 1950), Stoke City (R.H. Brown in 1946), West Ham United (John Charles, 4 May 1963) and Sunderland, Roly Gregoire on 2 January 1978.
West Bromwich Albion forward Laurie Cunningham was the first black player to get a cap for England Under-21 in 1979.
Even Tottenham’s Tull was not even the first black player in the English league in 1909, the honour goes to Arthur Wharton who was born in Jamestown, Ghana in 1865.
Wharton was in fact an all-round sportsman, playing and at one time becoming the 100 yard dash world record holder.
He was recognised as England’s best goalkeeper, in the colours of various teams such as Darlington, Preston, Rotherham and Sheffield United.
Tragically, he descended into alcoholism and squalor before his death in 1930.
It is a pity that he is not well publicised and therefore not well-known. It is also a pity that England had to wait until 1978 for its first black player while some clubs waited even longer.
And while Kante and other players of African descent can revel in their achievements and drink in the adulation, there are always a few incidents that crop up time and again to remind us that the war against racism is far from over.
A telling reminder came just last month when the English publication, the Sun allowed its columnist Kelvin MacKenzie to publish an article in which he apparently denigrated Everton’s England international Ross Barkley.
In his column, MacKenzie described the 23-year-old Ross, who has Nigerian roots, as “one of our dimmest footballers”.
“There is something about the lack of reflection in his eyes which makes me certain not only are the lights not on, there is definitely nobody at home.
“I get a similar feeling when seeing a gorilla at the zoo. The physique is magnificent but it’s the eyes that tell the story,” MacKenzie wrote.
Before MacKenzie there have been claims of racial abuse by former premier league players Anton Ferdinand and Patrice Evra against outgoing Chelsea captain John Terry and former Liverpool forward Luis Suarez respectively.
Apart from this, the league hardly boasts of any black managers at the top level despite churning out so many footballing greats over the years.
And so while the Kantes, the Allis and the Mahrez of this world will continue to shine, the dim reality remains that there is still more to be done to end the scourge of racism in the world’s most popular league.