Howard Gayle - A pioneer and an activist

Image by Arnie

Liverpool Football Club had been 85 years in existence when Howard Gayle arrived in 1977. He wasn't just another footballer, he was Liverpool FC's first black footballer. That fact alone guarantees his place in the history books of the club, but there is so much more to Howie than that. He not only blazed a trail for black footballers at Liverpool but has worked on many levels to ensure kids in the city get a good grounding to succeed in the game and in life in general.

This interview was conducted before Howie made national headlines for declining his nomination for an MBE for his work with charity Show Racism the Red Card. Howie explained his decision on his Facebook page: "Unfortunately I had to decline the nomination for the reason that my ancestors would be turning in their graves after how Empire and Colonialism had enslaved them. This is a decision that I have had to make and there will be others who may feel different and would enjoy the attraction of being a Member of the British Empire and those 3 letters after their name, but I feel that It would be a betrayal to all of the Africans who have lost their lives or who have suffered as a result of Empire."

I met Howie at the Shankly Hotel and had a really uplifting and enlightening talk with this remarkable man whose social work would be worth a whole other interview and I am sure everyone can read about in his upcoming book. We focused on his unique football career at Liverpool.

What is your family lineage? Your dad was from Freetown in Sierra Leone...

My dad came over to this country after the war. He was a seaman and as there was shortage of labour here he decided he was going to settle here. He met my mom in Liverpool. Her parents were from Ghana so there was a West-African cultural feel about our family. Originally we lived in Toxteth which was the area where most of the black families were. In 1958, the year I was born, we moved up to Norris Green which is the north end of the city. It was difficult times for me there going to an all-white school. It was a devious approach by the city council saying that they moved us up there to refurbish our house in Toxteth. They pulled our house down without our permission. We were kind of like stuck up there. My mom was always going to the housing office to get a transfer back. I'm the youngest of four. I'm sure she was aware of what me and my sister had to endure. My two brothers moved back up to Toxteth within months of moving up to Norris Green.

There were difficult obstacles I had to overcome. I always say things happen for a reason. It taught me how to play football. It gave me that enthusiasm to want to play on a professional level although I thought that would never ever happen. Black players were a rarity in the 60s and 70s in the UK and it was only then that black players were starting to break through into the professional world of football.

I've been through the whole genre at Liverpool. I have been a home and a away fan. I fought on the terraces at most grounds up and down the country. I was what they call a football hooligan before I became a player. I was like one of their own who had moved from the terraces to the field. My father was an Evertonian, but my mom, my two brothers and my sister were all Reds. 

When I was 17 I started to get into trouble with the police, starting to do robberies in shops, the petty things were starting to get bigger. We ended up getting caught and sent to a detention centre. When we I came out I started playing football back in Toxteth for a Sunday League team called Bedford. The manager knew somebody at Liverpool. That's where it all started. He was pestering Johnny Bennison. Liverpool have employed people like that who were genuine and they were resourceful in the knowledge that they gave you. 

Youth coach John Bennison brought Gayle over to Liverpool in November 1977 straight into the reserves where the likes of David Fairclough, John Toshack, David Johnson and Alan Hansen, who joined the Reds two months after Gayle, were also to be found. Gayle scored six goals in 22 matches in the 1977/78 season for the second string as the first team went on to win the European for the second consecutive year. The following season Gayle along with Steve Ogrizovic was the only ever-present in the reserves and had been joined by midfield stalwarts Kevin Sheedy and Sammy Lee. Gayle netted 17 goals in 42 matches helping the reserves to the Central League title having finished second in his debut season. The club's first team was virtually steamrolling the rest of the First Division.

I've come from amateur football into a professional set-up. I haven't been through apprenticeship so I had to learn quick. The great man Shankly he always referred to how there were only two teams in Liverpool. People laughed and joked about 'Who are Liverpool reserves?' But, he was right, because we would have beaten most first teams in what was then the First Division. We were that good. What made me appealing to Liverpool was the fact I could use both feet. I could cross the ball with my weaker foot which is my left. I could play on the left, I could play on the right hand side, I played down the middle as a central striker. At times in the central midfield role. I was adaptable. It was better if you had 2-3 positions that you could play in. These were good times. There is nothing better for a footballer than to play in a successful side where you know other clubs were putting out their first team against us and we were still beating them.

I got the opportunity just before I signed pro for Liverpool to go to the Middle East. A guy called Jimmy Melia who used to be a player at Liverpool was recruiting for this club in Bahrain. I was on amateur forms at Liverpool. It would have been double the money I was on at Liverpool. It would have been tax free but for me it wasn't about the money. I went to London with a friend of mine and we had a trial on Fulham's pitch. He wanted to take me and not my friend. My heart was set on Liverpool.  

Gayle featured in roughly half of the Central League season in 1979/80 scoring in every other game on average. Frank McGarvey who had joined for big money from St. Mirren was the main goalscorer thriving on the services of two Irishmen, one the up and coming Ronnie Whelan and the other Steve Heighway whose glorious career was winding down. In the 1980/81 season Gayle finally found a perfect partner in attack that suited his game down to a tee.

Liverpool paid a lot of money for Rushie. He was only 18. We hit it off. We were both quick, we were breaking away from defences and we could go in behind. We complimented each other's game, one went short, one went long. I'd always been looking for him and he'd always been looking for me.

Ian Rush contributed 12 goals in 30 games for the reserves in the 1980/81 season and Gayle was even more prolific with 16 goals in 26 matches. Gayle finally made his first-team debut in a 3-0 win over Manchester City at Anfield on 4 October 1980 coming on for David Fairclough for the last 20 minutes. Gayle had a hand in Sammy Lee's goal in the 83rd minute. Gayle was, however, right back in the reserves. At Christmas 1980 Gayle was sent out on loan to second division Fulham.

I became the first black player at Fulham as well. Bobby Campbell [former Liverpool player] was the manager there. Fulham was struggling at the bottom of the Second Division. I was there for about four months. In March we played Charlton in an away game. I ended up getting a dead leg. Bobby Campbell said to me: 'Come off and see me tomorrow morning.' I went to see him and he said: 'Liverpool want you back.' He told me later he was fuming at the timing of it because they were just started to find their feet. I owe a lot to Bobby Campbell. He died now but I seen him a couple of years ago when he came up for Hillsborough. He said to me that 'the hate mail I got for bringing you to Fulham from fans asking why I was bringing in a "nigger" to their club. Fulham gave me that match experience in playing in front of big crowds. Once you get to that level it is very hard to get back to playing for the reserves for 1,500-2000 people. I loved the atmosphere of playing football in front a of an audience. Some players don't. Some players found it daunting. The bigger the game the better I was a player.

Liverpool FC's successful reserves

Gayle hoped to take the step up to the first team following in the footsteps of Sammy Lee and Colin Irwin. He had certainly received the best education possible.

We won the Central League four years out of the five I was there. It was a testament to Roy Evans and how good a coach he was. It must have been hard to bring in young players whose ambition was to get into the first team and normally we would have players who had come down from the first team, senior players and they are thinking: 'I'm just gonna' laze around today' and that was not happening in our team. There was one incident when we were playing Preston away from home and Phil Thompson played. Tommo was feeling a bit sorry for himself because he had been dropped out of the first team. He made a couple of mistakes and one of the juniors just tore into him at half-time. Tommo was excellent in the second half and realised himself he dropped below the high standards that were expected of him as a Liverpool player and a former captain of the first team. He should have been setting an example to us.

Joe Fagan was good cop and Ronnie Moran was bad cop. When the first team was not playing they would be at our game whether it be home or away and even the boss, Bob Paisley, on occasion would come as well. They would be there watching. What we were like in the changing rooms before the game, whether there was nervousness, whether we were focused on what we were doing, switched on. There was always that underlying fact that you played for Liverpool and the standards are that we expect you to win. We expect you to play football in a certain way, but most importantly we expect you to learn because that step up to the first team may be the next weekend, next game or whatever. They always kept us on our toes.

We thought it was a punishment when you had to go play with the staff, it wasn't. You maybe were coming back from an injury so they were looking at you in the practice games to see if you were still carrying that injury, Most players of that era played with knocks or injuries whereas modern players don't. You didn't want to be out of that team and I'm talking about the reserves. We were just as keen to get into the reserves as the first team. You didn't get injured. If you did you didn't tell anybody. You might be hobbling around and the staff would make a decision if you can play. 

Evans hired as coach in 1974. He was Howie's main advocate at the club

It's only now when you look back at it how ruthless they were in their approach. Once we won something, when we won the European Cup against Bruges at Wembley the next day was business for them. They were planning the next season, planning pre-season. They were obviously talking about players that they were going to bring in to improve the squad. Never ever I heard them talk: 'Do you remember when we... wasn't it great?... didn't we have a great time?' It fuelled the hunger that they had and the desire that they had and they instilled that in the players. You're only as good as your last game. It bred an environment of success within the club and set Liverpool off on a juggernaut that nobody could stop. There were good players who'd come to that club and were gone within 12 months.

Gayle scored a hat-trick in a 5-0 win over Blackpool on 18 April 1981 and after the weekend he received the biggest news so far as a Liverpool player.

Evo met me at Melwood and he said: 'Go home and pack your bags. You're coming away with us.' That was me and Rushie. We were going away. I roomed with Sammy who was my mate. I didn't even think I was going to get a kit on. It wasn't until we trained in the morning. The gaffer came over to me and he said. 'We are going to put you on the bench tonight. We have got one or two injuries.' He must have already been thinking if Kenny didn't get through the game of what he was going to do. Kenny was touch and go whether he was going to play or not. The expectancy of playing a part in that had did not enter my mind until the gaffer said that. I couldn't believe it. What an unbelievable experience. How clever was Bob Paisley to think that the Germans had done a dossier on all our players but they wouldn't have done one on me. So when they see me on the bench, who's this? They'd known about Rushie because he played in the Milk Cup final. 

Liverpool were heading for Bayern's Olympic Stadium in the semi-finals of the European Cup after the first leg at Anfield had been goalless. Real Madrid had been the last team to avoid defeat at Bayern five years ago, since then twenty European teams had been beaten by the Bavarian side at its hallowed home.

Everyone had written us off. We had loads of injuries and there was four other players from the reserves in that team: Sammy Lee, Colin Irwin, Richard Money and me. We had all come through the ranks. People underestimated us. We were good players.

Phil Thompson was out with a knee injury with Irwin taking his place, Money filled the void left by Alan Kennedy, but Graeme Souness and David Johnson had recovered after missing the first leg.

Kenny Dalglish lasted only seven minutes before limping off after a heavy challenge. Howard Gayle's BIG moment had arrived.

Every time I got on the ball they would just foul me. I committed one foul and got booked for it. Whether it was tiredness... the full-back [Dremmler] flicked the ball over my head and I've tried to flick it back the other way because I knew if I got it back I was gone, I was in the clear. He leant into me and I had a kick and he shouted and I got booked. Paisley took me off three minutes after that. They shouldn't have worried about me, it's about having confidence in you and having faith in you as a player. I had been sent off twice in my career. Once when somebody called me a 'nigger' and spat on me. And I boxed him. The gaffer got me into his office on the Monday morning and said that the reason he had done that is 'because you're a good player. Once you have gone off that pitch you are no good to us. You have made it a lot easier for the opposition.' And I learnt from that. I could hold my own on a pitch but I wasn't going to get sent off in that game [against Bayern].

Every time I got the ball I heard monkey chants. They made me even more intent to be good at what I had to do. After I had come off they had used the second substitution to put Jimmy Case on. David Johnson started limping with a hamstring injury. Bob Paisley shouted to one of the policemen: "Give us that rifle because I am going to shoot him!' It was funny afterwards but the gaffer was fuming because he didn't want to extra time with ten men.

Johnson defied the odds and set up Ray Kennedy's goal in the 83rd minute. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge equalised four minutes later but Liverpool survived on the away-goals rule to reach their first European Final in three years. Gayle told the Echo after the game: "It was all a great experience for me and hearing the final whistle was the best moment of my life." Howie caused Wolfgang Dremmler plenty of trouble throughout the match and was hacked down by the German international in the penalty area for a certain penalty (as clearly can be seen two minutes into this clip).

Bob Paisley described the result as the club's best ever in European competition and was impressed by Howie's performance: "We should
have had a penalty when Howard Gayle was pulled down. Later on Howie ran out of steam and started retaliating but he did tremendously. We thought his pace would surprise them which it did."

I am proud of the fact that through this game in Munich Liverpool fans connect with me because they know I have contributed to their history.

Three days later Gayle made his full debut against Tottenham at White Hart Lane alongside Rush as Johnson and Dalglish were out. Paisley encouraged them to make their mark: "This is their opportunity. These are the chances that can make or break people. They have got everything to play for." Gayle used his chance to the fullest by scoring in the 22nd minute.

It was a great ball by Sammy Lee. He played it inside the centre-back and it was a race between me and the goalkeeper and I got there first. I just sort of slid in and got good contact on it and it went underneath him. We were 1-0 up and then Glenn Hoddle scored a volley from 25 yards.  

Gayle didn't come on in the European Cup final and is seen here lined up prior to the game

Gayle started two out of the next three games leading up to the European Cup final against Real Madrid in Paris. Unfortunately for Gayle, Dalglish had recovered in time to reclaim his legendary number seven shirt. Gayle had to take his seat on the bench where he remained for 90 minutes.

It would have been nice to play some part in the final. I was just about to come on. I was warming up right by Alan Kennedy when he scored. They put Jimmy Case on, a bit of experience. The game was won. 

Images from the Echo from Howie's first-team games in April and May 1981

Gayle finally seemed to be making progress at Liverpool, yet in the 1981/82 season his only involvement with the first team was sitting on the bench in the European Cup vs. AZ Alkmaar.

Did you get a fair crack at the whip at Liverpool?

No, I didn't. I did everything I could to be a Liverpool player. Graeme Souness told me in a pre-season game at Portsmouth: 'This season keep your head down, do your craft, do your talking on the football pitch and see what happens' and I did. That 82/83 season started off very well. We had a practice game at Anfield which we used to do every pre-season. It was the first team against the reserves. We, the reserves, won 6-0. I remember Ronnie Moran saying: 'That's enough. We can be here all day and you'll never score.' I had a really good pre-season. The first team was decimated with injuries and we were playing Ipswich away on the Saturday. People were saying: 'You've got to be on the trip.' David Johnson was out injured. David Fairclough had been on loan in Canada, He came off loan. It was a Friday morning and Roy Evans came out to me and he said: I'd start looking for another club because I have battled your corner in there and it's not happening.'

He told them [Paisley, Fagan and Moran] how well I had been playing in the reserves. Every Sunday they would go through the match reports. I had a contract dispute with them, I wouldn't sign a contract so that had something to do with it. They may have questioned my commitment to the team. I was on a certain amount of money. They brought Kevin Sheedy and Ronnie Whelan on the same money as me. I had just gone through uni and being out on loan. I thought, well maybe I should have been treated differently. I'm working hard for me and the club. Not so much getting all the headlines but I knew I was a good player. I knew I would be a good player in most teams but I wanted it to be at Liverpool.

It was a game of brinkmanship. Once Evo said that I gave it a couple of weeks and then went in to see the boss and said: 'Listen, it's not working out here. It wasn't doing me any good playing in the reserves. 'Is it possible you could circulate me amongst other clubs and put me on the transfer list?' Deep down you're hoping he would turn around and say: 'We'll bring you back into the fold and start using you again.' What did he say was: 'You'll go when it's right for us. We've got a lot of injuries right now.' What I should have said to him was: 'You've got a lot of injuries now but you're not using me,' but I didn't. That was the start of my exit strategy.

Image by Arnie

After I asked them for a transfer I was in limbo. I didn't see any way really in how they were going to use me as a player. I had maybe played my last game for Liverpool in regards to the first team but I was still involved in playing in the reserves. One November morning I went into work and the gaffer called me into his office and said Newcastle have asked can they take you on loan. I didn't really want to go on loan. If I was going to make the break with Liverpool I wanted to make the break clean. Kevin Keegan was up at Newcastle, Terry Mac was there as well. I knew Terry Mac and Kevin was my idol. Kevin had sustained an eye injury. I think somebody flicked him with his nail and he was going to be out for a while. Newcastle needed somebody as a stop gap. Terry Mac said to the club, you need to have a look at me. I thought to myself: 'Newcastle is a big club and it is well supported.' I was desperate for first-team football.

I remember a guy called Terry Littlewood drove us up there. There were so many times I nearly asked him to turn around. I can't do this. It was really hard to come to terms with even when I got up there and I sat down and was talking to Arthur Cox. He told me what the progress was going to be. He was open to find the money where they could find it to buy me. Things were going okay until just after Christmas when they got Kevin back. I scored two goals in consecutive games for Newcastle, one at home against Oxford and one away to Grimsby. Two weeks later Arthur Cox called me into his office and said Birmingham had put a bid in to Liverpool for 75 grand and Liverpool had accepted it. I looked at him as to say I thought you had plans to buy me here. He said: 'We can't afford it.' I thought to myself: 'I'll go talk to them but I'm not going to be signing for them.' Within ten minutes sitting down with Ron Sunders he had sold the club to me. I went back to Newcastle and collected all my stuff. I made a decision based on I needed to be playing first-team football now. This was a new opportunity for me.

Gayle was often on the receiving end of racial abuse from opposing supporters as he explained in Dave Hill's book, "Out of His Skin": "I was spat at, there were monkey noises, and all sorts of racist abuse. It wasn’t pleasant, but sadly it was something I had become used to. From banana skins being thrown at me, to spit in the face at English grounds, to 70,000 Germans at Bayern Munich chanting and making the Nazi salute, it was sometimes horrific."

Did you have to work harder because you were black?

Yeah, people used to tell me that. You have to be twice as good. 

Did you ever encounter racism from Liverpool supporters?

There was one occasion when we we played Coventry. There was a guy called Garry Thompson, a black player who played for Coventry. There was somebody in the crowd shouting explicit words at Garry but my brothers were up in the stand. When I looked up in the stand my brother got this boy around the throat. Everyone in the crowd was looking at this incident. My brothers are people who would not stand on ceremony, they would confront racism where it starts. You could even hear the boy saying: 'I don't mean you and Howie!' and that just made it worse. The fact that he was saying that he is a nigger but the player on our team is not. He was lucky that boy that day. 

Howie can boast a varied career on the whole. He scored eight goals in 33 league matches as Biirmingham was relegated from the First Division in the 1983/84 season but he stayed in the top flight with Sunderland. Over the summer of 1984 Howie was one of the over-age players included in the England squad that won the European Under-21 Championships. Howie and Mark Hateley scored in the second leg of the final in a 2-0 win over Spain, having won 1-0 in the first leg. On a high after his international success Howie unfortunately suffered another relegation at the end of his debut campaign at Sunderland and lost to Norwich in the final of the Football League Cup in which he came on as a substitute. Disillusioned with his Sunderland career Howie packed his bags and featured in the indoor league in the States with Dallas Sidekicks in 1986-87. After a brief spell at Stoke Howie spent five seasons with Blackburn Rovers in the Second Division where his best campaign was in 1988/89 when he scored 19 goals in 45 league matches and just missed out on promotion to the First Division after losing a two-legged play-off final to Crystal Palace. Gayle featured in only four matches as Blackburn secured promotion to the Premier League in 1992/93 riding high on Jack Walker's millions.

Victorious with the England Under-21 side

Howie, did your career live up to your expectations?

I knew that I played and trained with some of the best players in the world. I always fancied me against anybody. I had a belief in my own ability because I could beat people. I scored lot of goals from my side of the box. I knew I was a constant threat to anybody. Alan Hansen used to say he used to hate playing against me. Throughout that era that was the beginning of where black players were coming to the fore because of the pace and power that they had. Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham, he played in the final against us, Viv Anderson at Nottingham Forest, Remi Moses at Manchester United and Vince Hilaire at Crystal Palace. It was speeding up football within the English First Division. Modern football is based on counter attack. It's not how it was years ago. 

Image by Arnie

I have always asked me that question whether I really achieved my potential as a player. I would have at Liverpool. I spent five seasons learning how to play in that Liverpool way. When you go to another club who play a different style, maybe a more direct style where the ball is up in the air a little bit more, whereas at Liverpool where everything was pass and move, ball to feet, it took me a while to adapt to that. A friend of mine, called Tom Parry, he came to watch me at Birmingham. He said to me afterwards that there was this guy who made a comment sat behind me. He said I was like a 'Rolls Royce engine in an old banger.' They'd seen the upbringing I had at Liverpool. It made me think if I had made the right decision to leave Liverpool but I had made my bed so I had to lie in it.

Interview by Arnie Baldursson ([email protected]) Copyright -

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