Sunderland’s second black player recalls the shock among the red-and-whites

Colour piece

Gary Bennett, the nearest to a post-1973 legend that Sunderland Football Club may profess, last week addressed the old men’s breakfast in Durham.

Durham may be becoming familiar. The two previous Thursdays he’d spoken at Frankland high security prison on the city’s outskirts – “life and things,” said Gary which in the circumstances might have been pretty appropriate.

Now 56, he proved simultaneously stimulating and diverting, though not all were quite so happy. “I was expecting a few songs, I thought it was Tony Bennett,” said the incorrigible Hodge.

The man they call Benno was born and raised in the Moss Side area of Manchester, moved from Manchester City to Cardiff City and then followed Cardiff manager Len Ashurst to Wearside.

In 11 centre half seasons he made 444 appearances and scored 26 goals – “often attacked the opposition rearguard single-handedly,” says All the Lads, the Sunderland players’ history, though he’d become a favourite within two minutes of his debut.

It was the first game of 1984-85, just 18,000 at Roker Park to see the new man fire past Southampton goalkeeper Peter Shilton. “25 yards,” said Benno, though spectators swear it was no more than six.

The £65,000 transfer free from Cardiff had been agreed by a tribunal in Sheffield, the lad at once required to travel to Sunderland.

“I thought there’d be thousands outside Roker Park and there were three kids kicking a ball against a door,” he recalled. “They’d never seen anyone like me in their lives.”

Ashurst subsequently signed Howard Gayle from Birmingham City, ostensibly to keep the new man company. “The closest Sunderland had seen to me and Howard was Michael Jackson. We stopped the traffic in Fawcett Street,” he said.

They were, of course, black.

The most engaging of men, long an ambassador for Show Racism the Red Card, still coaching and helping cover Sunderland for BBC Newcastle, he speaks also of his first derby at Newcastle, a game recalled in his 2011 autobiography.

“The abuse that Howard Gayle and I had to endure from start to finish was like nothing I’d experienced previously,” he wrote.

Both Gayle and he were sent off, Bennett in the dying minutes: “Wes Saunders took it upon himself to tackle the bottom of my boot with his chest,” he tells the breakfast brigade.

The book also recalls the occasion when he and his girlfriend were asked to leave a south Wales social club because the chairman “didn’t like the look of them.” The chairman was made to resign next day.

“The general attitude towards black players in those days was appalling. Sunderland had very few black people. Some of the abuse was nothing short of disgusting.”

He talks, too, as he had to a captive audience the previous week, of stereotyping. “Black men couldn’t play, they had attitude, chips on their shoulders, didn’t like to work. They said we were all the same.

“If a team doesn’t have a black player now, people think there’s something wrong. The progress has been truly phenomenal.”

Bennett wasn’t Sunderland’s first black player. That was Roly Gregoire, a striker signed by manager Jimmy Adamson for £5,000 from Halifax Town in 1978, apparently on the strength of a hat-trick for Halifax Reserves against Sunderland’s second string. After one goal in nine games, he retired through injury.

Benno made four Wembley appearances with Sunderland, all on the losing side. When Peter Reid deemed him surplus, he joined Carlisle, scored 20 goals in two “fantastic” Football League seasons as player/coach at Scarborough before becoming player/coach, and then manager, at Darlington.

The chairman was George Reynolds. “Fantastic feller. At times he was right but he didn’t always go about things the right way,” he says after the bacon and eggs.

The 2011 book, simply called The Black Cat, recalled things rather differently. “George began to question virtually every decision that we (he and assistant manager Jimmy Montgomery) made. We couldn’t help the feeling that the chairman was trying to undermine us at every opportunity. Then I began to hear rumours….”

He answers a few questions – the amount of money going out of the game and into agents’ pockets is ridiculous, Sunderland have spent “silly, silly” money in recent times, every time he played against David Speedie there was trouble – then signs copies of his autobiography.

Though seven years old, remaindered at a tenner, they go pretty well. Hodge doesn’t buy one. “The last time I had a tenner in my pocket it was a conker,” he says and may have the last word, as always.

They’re good occasions these Age UK men’s breakfasts. The previous month the speaker had been railways expert Alex Nelson, formerly titular station master at Chester-le-Street and an expert at between-the-lines bargain hunting. Alex talked about the secrets of what’s now called split ticketing, breaking down a journey into smaller segments. The message clearly got home, and not just amid the ancient. The following week Kirsty King-Lough, the Age UK organiser, had to travel by train to a family event in Luton. Following Alex’s advice, she saved £43.

Happenstance, wholly, the column found itself in the capital last Friday evening watching Sporting Bengal, a team formed 22 years earlier to give the opportunity of senior football to East London’s Asian community.

The programme talked of under-representation and of barriers broken down. The twitter feed anticipated the clash with Clapton, wrote of kormas and samosas at the ready. It’s been a success story.

These days the Tigers, as inevitably they’re known, also have a number of non-Asian players in the squad.

They play at the Mile End athletics stadium in the borough of Tower Hamlets, about six miles east of Kings Cross along the Regents Canal, a lovely walk were it not for the kamikaze cyclists and for the Rusty Bike, which is a pub with bad beer.

It’s one of two Friday evening games in the capital, about 100 of the nine million populace scattered around the stand.

Half, in truth, give the impression that they’re only there because Coronation Street is currently so dire – a wholly understandable reaction – while the other half seem to spend much of the time looking at their phones.

It’s the Essex Senior League – that of St Margotsbury, Southend Manor and Saffron Waldon Town – a thoroughly entertaining match that ends 4-2 to the hosts.

The great thing, though, is that it’s not for a moment a black and white match, it’s a Blues v Reds match. It’s also greatly enjoyable and Gary Bennett would have loved it.