The man with the golden boot ... and soul
A Bermudian teenager walked down the players tunnel at the venerable Upton Park football stadium in East London on the afternoon of August 25, 1969, and emerged on to the stage of history. Demonstrating a composure entirely beyond his years, the diffident but iron-nerved 18-year-old made his English Football League debut that day as West Ham United battled North London rivals Arsenal to a hard-fought 1-1 draw.
The first division game drew some 39,590 spectators to the West Ham home ground, a crowd approximately fourth-fifths the size of the population of Clyde Best’s native island at the time.
Despite his unfamiliarity with his arena-scaled new environment and never having played a match at this level before, the tall, solidly built young Bermudian acquitted himself with great credit in his first outing as a professional footballer.
And just three weeks later, he had both confirmed and exceeded the talentspotters’ expectations for him when they signed the former Somerset Trojans striker for the English club after a series of outstanding performances in Concacaf tournament matches and at the 1967 Pan American Games, where Bermuda claimed a silver medal.
On September 3, 1969, Best scored his first goal for his new club, in a League Cup game against Halifax Town, which West Ham handily won 4-2.
It was the first of 58 goals that Best racked up for West Ham over the course of 221 games and seven seasons. By 1971-72, his standout season, Best was firmly established as a fan favourite at Upton Park and had become a household name in Britain.
His glorious partnership with fellow striker Geoff Hurst, the only man ever to score a hat-trick in a World Cup final, during England’s 1966 4–2 victory over West Germany after extra time, flowered fully that year and remains the stuff of footballing legend. As a result of that subtle and sublime collaboration, Best played in all 56 league and cup matches that season, putting 23 goals into the back of the net.
But it wasn’t just his prowess as a player that made Best a footballing legend. While he certainly wasn’t the first black foreigner in English football — pioneers such as Jamaican-born Lindy Delapenha and South African Albert Johanneson had preceded him — Best had by far the highest profile and most enviable reputation. So, perhaps unavoidably, he became a hugely inviting target for racist abuse from the terraces of opposing teams — and sometimes even from opposing players.
The Barclays Premier League, successor to the old first division that Best played in, is now the most racially and culturally diverse league in European football.
But that hasn’t long been the case.
Although Britain has boasted a not insignificant Afro-Caribbean population since the immediate postwar era, blacks were statistically underrepresented for decades in football, as in many other areas of sporting, business and cultural life.
Interviewed for a major report on residual racism in English football by The Guardian in 2012, Best was cited as the only black footballer playing regularly in the first division in the early 1970s.
And the newspaper pointed out his now near-legendary standing in English football owes as much to Best’s modest and characteristically uncomplaining acceptance of his de facto role as racial trailblazer, both on and off the pitch, as to his quicksilver footballing artistry.
“The overt examples of racism you encountered must have been a shock since everybody adored you,” a Guardian reporter said when he contacted Best at his Sandys parish home.
“Well, not quite everybody,” Best, now a social worker, replied. “Away from home, I took terrible abuse.
“At least the players today have four or five [other team-mates of colour] to huddle up with. I was by myself.
“But you can’t just think of yourself; you’ve got to think of the players coming after you, so you’ve got to carry yourself in a certain manner.”
He considered himself an ambassador, he told The Guardian.
“You knew you had a job to do,” Best said. “You were playing for people of colour, not just in England, but all over the world.”
Never once did he even temporarily mislay either his dignity or his temper in the face of even the most outrageous provocations and insults.
Never once did he forget that he was a role model for an emerging generation of black footballers who would put their own luminous stamp on the English game, beginning in the 1980s and 1990s.
Among these players, of course, would be Best’s fellow Bermudians, Shaun Goater and Kyle Lightbourne, who enjoyed hugely successful professional careers in Britain, most notably with Manchester City and Stoke City respectively.
Although he went on to play in Europe and the North American Soccer League before retiring and returning to Bermuda, it’s for his time with West Ham that Clyde Best will always be remembered and celebrated.
And Best himself looks back on his time at Upton Park with unchecked affection. “It was like being in a big family — we all got on,” he has said. “I bleed claret and blue today.”
West Ham played their final game last week at the 102-year-old Upton Park, fondly known also as the Boleyn Ground, before relocating to the Olympic Stadium for the 2016-17 season.
Clyde Best’s name was being mentioned in the same breath as other West Ham giants, including Hurst, Bobby Moore, Harry Redknapp and Trevor Brooking as the media and fans mourned the end of an era and bade farewell to this long-established English footballing venue.
Once again it was that Best could convey dignity, self-worth and an unassailable sense of purpose every bit as deftly as he could put a ball in the back of the net that was drawing admiring comments a full 40 years after his first division heyday.
It’s precisely this combination of impeccable personal qualities and sterling sportsmanship that has earned Best a place in the pantheon of West Ham greats and in the hearts of football fans around the world.
And it is precisely this noteworthy package of gifts that Bermuda should now recognise by conferring a knighthood on a man whose teenage dream of playing football in the English First Division was not only fulfilled but ended up changing the world for the better.