When Brendon Batson stepped onto the pitch at St. James’ Park in Arsenal red in March 1972, he had no idea that he was making history. “I didn’t know I was the first Black player – I had no idea whatsoever,” Batson later said. He was just a teenager trying to break into the side playing behind the legendary Pat Rice.
Batson’s story is likely a familiar one for many Black people in England — he was born in Grenada, lived in Trinidad, and was sent to England with his brother by his mother in search of greater opportunity. It wasn’t until two years later that she joined her sons in England.
Race and identity was ever-present in Batson’s formative years in England. A teacher suggested that he try cricket instead of football because he was from the West Indies. He was 14 before he saw another Black player on the pitch with him, and he always “knew [he] could be picked out very quickly because I was the only Black kid as a youth team player.”
Batson remembers experiencing racism at 15 and the effect it had on him on the pitch:
At 15 or 16 when I was going to sign, you started to hear the rumours that there was a campaign about being no Black players and whisperings about them being lazy and ill-disciplined and they’ve got no bottle or no heart. That never deterred me, I just wanted to try and make my way in the game.
I was highly embarrassed if anybody was talking about me as ‘that Black kid’. I had a nightmare game and I heard it on the way back home on the bus when I was going from Highbury to Walthamstow.
Batson won the FA Youth Cup with Arsenal in 1971 and signed as a full professional with the club later that year. He made his first team debut in 1972 and in doing so became the Gunners’ first Black player. Batson made just 10 first team appearances at Arsenal before moving onto Cambridge, where he captained the side to the fourth division championship.
When Ron Atkinson, his manager at Cambridge, moved to West Bromwich Albion, he brought Batson with him to The Hawthorns where he became a club legend. Nicknamed “Three Degrees” after a popular band of the day, Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham, and Batson became the first trio of Black players to regularly start together in England. The three are immortalized in statue in the West Midlands.
When Batson’s playing career was cut short by a knee injury in 1982, he remained involved in football. He served as deputy chief of the PFA for 18 years, worked as the managing director at West Brom, and worked for what is now the Sports Grounds Safety Authority.
He was appointed an MBE in 2001 and an OBE in 2014, both for services to sport and for his efforts working towards racial equality.
Looking back on his recognition, Batson spoke about the role that Arsenal played in his development both on and off the pitch:
I’ve tried to do my bit by playing football. You do realize there’s a civil responsibility. Arsenal always had a saying: remember where you are, who you are and who you represent. I’ve always felt that whatever I do, I’m representing my community and my heritage.
I had a good education, not just in football but outside of it as well because of the principles Arsenal installed in me.
For more on Batson, check out his full interview with the EFL from October 2021. And for more Black History Month content, check out our friends at Stars & Stripes FC, who will be featuring Black athletes and Black stories from around football all month. The first post this year is on Viv Anderson, the first Black player for the England National Team.