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Border-crossing brothers

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Brendon Batson in Bermuda for the Clyde Best documentary (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

Of the three degrees of comparison contained in English grammar — positive, comparative, superlative — the third best describes Brendon Batson and Clyde Best’s contributions towards the racial integration of football through their roles in the English Football League.

Best was among the first pioneers that crossed borders, literally and figuratively, leading a small group possessing great talent into a society of prejudiced rulers, powerful alliances, along with their attendant supporters.

Prominent among the penetrative wave that followed Best was Batson, whose presence was reinforced by the likes of Laurie Cunningham and Cyrille Regis, and advanced the movement of a segment of the game that possessed unique combinations of skill that had been absent from English football.

On the field, the pair had many similarities. Best was the silent assassin, a striker who made most noise with a booming shot and powerful flair. Batson, the first Black player for Arsenal, was a converted forward who manufactured himself as a rugged, multidimensional defender, mimicking today ‘s wing back position.

The Three Degrees: Brendon Batson, centre, with Laurie Cunningham, left, and Cyrille Regis picked up the baton from Bermuda's Clyde Best

Both were and are yet revered and recognised, as emphasised by the Bermudian having a documentary made of his life and career, while Batson’s high regard is demonstrated through his inclusion among a statue of the famed “Three Degrees” erected at The Hawthorns, home of West Bromwich Albion, which also includes Cunningham and Regis.

Batson first met Best at a football match in East London, where the pair had gone to watch Cunningham play.

“I met him once at Leyton Orient’s grounds because I went to watch a young Laurie Cunningham, who I had played with coming up,” he explained. “So both of us happened to be at the ground and that’s how I first met Clyde.

“I started out as a striker as a schoolboy, but when I joined Arsenal they thought I might be better suited as a defender.

“On reflection, Clyde reminds me of my late team-mate Cyrille Regis — big, strong, very skilful for a big man, strong shot and with the ability to connect with the club’s supporters.”

Batson differed greatly from Best in personality, as a quite vocal antiracism proponent who tackled abuse head-on, occasionally to his own detriment.

“I was telling Clyde that I got sent off three times for fighting because I wasn’t going to put up with the abuse,” Batson said. “Among professionals racist abuse is unusual, but you do get it. You got it then and you still get it a now, and I reacted badly in the first instance.

“Clyde had a different attitude about it but I do believe if he had hit somebody that they would have stayed hit and known about it.

“The players of our generation had to put up with a lot. I’m always respectful of and admire the resilience shown by Black players of my era because there was no support as such. Clyde was here alone from Bermuda, while I was with my family, which shows the resolve that he had.”

While Best ventured into various professional leagues around the world after leaving England, Watson’s retirement saw him become more involved as a social activist.

He was appointed deputy chief executive of the Professional Footballers Association, the players union, where he fought to diminish racial discrimination, break down barriers and make for a more level playing field for Blacks and other ethnic minorities, as well as establish equitable payment and treatment of all players.

In 2007, Batson joined the body known then as the football licensing agency. The group is now called the Sports Grounds Safety Authority, whose remit is to ensure proper infrastructure, health and safety in the workplace.

The impact of his and others’ efforts are visible today, as evidenced by the increased number of Black players in European leagues, and the massive transfer figures and player contracts that can be commanded.

“The game has always been the game, but in different guises,” said Batson, who was born in Grenada and did not play football until his family moved to England in 1962 when he was 9. “The modern game, the speed it is played at, one of our biggest things has been the pitches, the policy, the globalisation of the game and the wealth of the game, in which I think the players are rightfully getting their share of.”

Best recalls Batson as a brilliant player who meshed well with Cunningham and Regis to form a devastating trio that took the top flight by storm in the late 1970s.

Just as Batson watched his predecessor with hope of him doing well for he and other Blacks to follow, Best similarly observed Batson and the Three Degrees further widen the entranceway.

“All of us had a feeling for the other to do well,” said Best during a midweek photoshoot for his documentary at the Willowbank Resort and Conference Centre in Somerset. “When I first saw Brendon, Laurie and Cyrille on television, I was so elated for the three of them because that hadn’t happened since Clive Charles, Ade Coker and myself.

“It took a good five years for that to repeat itself, so it was nice to see him, Laurie and Cyrille on that stage because they were all very good players in their own right and they all deserve what they got from the game.”

Both men emphasised the importance of developing young players from grassroots level, with significance on sound coaching and the importance of structured competition within the schools system — just as at club level.

Each man’s effect on the game has been global. Best donned boots and laid foot on most continents for club and country, while Batson was capped three times for England A against the United States, Spain and Australia.

Batson’s reach stretched to the island’s shores, where he is lauded for his contribution to the golden age of the Baggies by a local group of West Bromwich supporters.

“I didn’t know that there was a West Bromwich Albion supporters club here,” said Batson, who is enjoying his second visit to Bermuda. “We really didn’t really appreciate the impact to the wider community.

“We certainly could understand and feel the support from club supporters, but I don’t think we clearly understood the social impact we were having.

“Around that time there were a lot of race riots and other things going on, but we realised that Black people were on our side and, more than ourselves, we were playing for the Black community.”

Now based in Spain, Batson, a former managing director at West Brom, continues to play meaningful roles at consultative, administrative, social and infrastructural level, and is the longest-serving member of the aforementioned Sports Grounds Safety Authority.

Both men are recipients of Queen’s honours, with Best being appointed a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 2006, while Batson was made an MBE in 2001, upgraded to Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 2015.

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Published September 15, 2023 at 7:59 am (Updated September 16, 2023 at 7:52 am)

Border-crossing brothers

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