A Football Story From Back In The Day-Carlos

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A Football Story From Back In The Day-Carlos
(Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images for adidas)

In the early 1980s, when black footballers were just coming through in the game, Carlos was one of two black players at Birmingham City. Both of them were forwards, but Carlos was a winger.

He was a young professional, a second-year player at the club, 18 or 19 years old and living in the ‘digs’ provided by the club for players living away from home.

Carlos earned about 90 quid a week. Out of that he paid his landlady 30 for board and lodging, used some for travel and food, and was left with about 30 to spend on himself.

With his spare money he bought mainly clothes and records. He liked Soul music and his particular favourite was Michael Jackson, who he admired for his performance skills and star quality.

Star quality was a term Carlos used a lot, and at night, in his dreams, he applied it to himself. He visualized himself as a top professional, a skillful ball-playing winger with star quality.

Carlos dedicated himself to making his dream a reality. Anything the coaches asked him to do, he did. He was never late for training, and after it had finished he stayed on into the afternoon and worked on his ball skills; his first touch; his crosses.

He was a polite, mild-mannered kind of guy. And in a culture where Saturday's standard post-match activity involved a tour of the city centre nightclubs, he never had more than a shandy.

Carlos was usually one of the first in at the training ground in the morning. He'd sit in one of the dressing rooms polishing his boots over and over again, making sure his training kit was immaculate.

The first team players would come in later. Established stars of the game like Frank Worthington, Colin Todd and Archie Gemmill. Carlos would shout out to them. “Morning Archie, morning Frank, morning Colin.”

“Good morning Carlos,” they’d say, as they made their way to the first team dressing room. Carlos smiled after them, waiting patiently for the day he joined them.

Before long the training ground would be full. From apprentices, through the young professionals, to the first team players. 

One of the last ones in was a rising young star, athletic, handsome and a quality player but with a bad-boy image. Moody in the mornings, he'd talk under his breath, swearing to himself.

Carlos greeted him, the same as he did everyone. And most mornings got the same reply. “Morning, nigger.”

Carlos laughed it off as a joke. “Hey, there’s no need for that,” he'd say, smiling.

The player walked on.

At first we talked about it, a group of us, Carlos’s inner circle. We all agreed the player didn’t mean anything by it, it was just his style. That’s how they talked in some parts of the country, we'd agree. It didn’t seem to bother Carlos anyway. He shrugged it off.

We left it at that though when Carlos wasn’t there, the other black player at the club, a local Birmingham boy, gave his real thoughts on the matter.

“Do you think he would say that to big Noel up at the Villa?”

We asked him what he meant.

“Look,” he said. “Carlos is a nice guy, he wouldn’t say boo to a goose, it’s easy to pick on someone like that. If he said that to big Noel, he’d get a different response.”

“Like what?” we asked.

“He’d knock him spark out, in a fucking second.”

We laughed but we knew it was true. Noel Blake was the young black centre-back at Aston Villa, built like a heavyweight boxer and truly fearsome. He’d shout “Noel’s ball!” and everyone would run for cover, as he headed it back 50 yards up the field.

Anyway, there’s nothing we could have done about it. The City player was respected, admired. It was just one of those things that happened in football.

We got on with the season but there was a group of younger players who (realising that their own personalities didn’t seem to be working for them) adopted the mannerisms of older, more successful players.

It wasn’t too long before they started to address Carlos as 'nigger,' as if it was a rite for success in the game.

This time the result was different. It was one thing taking that kind of talk from a rising star, but from someone younger than you? A minor fight broke out in the shower, blows were exchanged. The incident was stopped and again the season went on.

Time passed. Players came and went, got injured, had good games, bad ones, and had their performances judged. The usual trials and tribulations of a football club and of young players trying to make it in the professional game. I left the club soon after.

A couple of years later I went back to Birmingham and popped by to see my old landlady, have a catch-up on old times. I asked about my old group of friends, about Carlos.

“It was terrible,” she told me. “The club let him go and it overturned his mind, he couldn’t cope with it.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“Well you remember how he liked Michael Jackson? He used his severance pay to buy a leather suit like the one Michael Jackson wore in the "Thriller" video. He’d turn up at the training ground, in his suit, still thinking he was playing there.

"They ended up having to get security in to remove him. They dragged him away, him shouting out all the while "I’m Carlos, I’m a superstar, I’ve got star quality."

It’s coming up to thirty years since all this happened and I still think about it now. I ask myself - wasn’t it hard enough trying to make it in the game?

And I wonder how maybe the prevailing culture and the daily humiliation, whilst brushed-off to save face, wounded Carlos somewhere deep inside. Were they the final straws that sent him over the edge?

Football. It’s called the beautiful game, but it can also be a cruel one.

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