Gilbert Heron

Football’s Pioneers: Gilbert Heron

Football fans and music fans have something in common: a love of trivia. For lovers of both football and music, one piece of trivia tops them all: that the father of jazz pioneer Gil Scott-Heron played for Celtic.
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Behind the trivia lies a fascinating story of a black pioneer in the USA and the UK in the 1940s and 1950s. Gilbert Heron, born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1922, moved to the USA in the 1930s. A talented all-rounder, he played football and baseball, and competed in boxing and athletics, sports he enjoyed during his service in the Canadian RAF.

After the war, Heron moved back to the USA and turned professional with Detroit Wolverines, becoming the first black player in the new North American Soccer Football League. Commentators compared him to Jackie Robinson, the first black player to overcome baseball’s colour bar. Heron’s 15 goals in eight games in the 1946 season made him the league’s top scorer, although this did not alter the fact that the club paid him less than his white team-mates. He moved across the Motor City to play for the Corinthians, and then linked up with a number of clubs in Chicago and in Windsor, Ontario.

It was during this spell that a Celtic scout noticed him. He travelled to Glasgow for a trial, where he impressed with his speed and his touch in front of goal. He scored twice, and the fans dubbed him 'the Black Arrow' and 'the Jamaican Flash'. However, despite the press praising his skill, speed, and agility, and the fans taking him to their heart, he did not make it. A regular in the reserves, Heron made only five first team appearances, scoring twice.

His career petered out, first in a spell at Third Lanark in the Scottish First Division, and then in England with Kidderminster Harriers of the Southern League. He returned to the USA, where he combined refereeing with work in a car factory and as a photographer. He died in 2008. 

Heron’s influence outstripped his modest career. As the first prominent black player in the Scottish professional game, he opened doors for future generations, just as he had with his record-breaking year in Detroit. It was a fitting tribute, then, that when his son played concerts in Scotland, jazz fans came along dressed in replica Celtic shirts as a tribute to the Black Arrow.

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