Howard Gayle

Football’s Pioneers: Howard Gayle

In the latest instalment, Katie Taylor focuses on Howard Gayle, Liverpool’s first black player and a pioneer in the fight against racism in football.
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Nine minutes into Liverpool’s European Cup Semi-Final against Bayern Munich in 1981, Kenny Dalglish fell to the ground injured. His replacement was 23-year-old Howard Gayle; a player surprised to be travelling with the team. For 61 minutes, Gayle troubled the Bayern Munich defence, before being substituted himself.

Gayle rose from park football to a European Cup Semi-Final in just four years. Signing for Liverpool at the age of 19, Gayle soon began training with the reserves and was a consistent goalscorer. He made his first team debut against Manchester City on 4 October, 1980, becoming the first black player to represent the club.

Born in 1958, in Toxteth, Liverpool, his family moved to Norris Green, a predominantly white housing estate, in the early 1960s - an experience that had a profound influence on him. He felt like an outsider, experiencing racism even from his friends’ families.  

Gayle played only a handful of first team games for Liverpool, and they loaned him to Newcastle United in 1982. At the end of the loan, Liverpool sold him to Birmingham City, where his debut came against his former side at Anfield.

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Howard Gayle
Howard Gayle

Howard Gayle (front row, far left) featured in Liverpool’s European Cup Semi-Final against Bayern Munich in 1981.

Aged 26, Gayle represented England in the 1984 European Under-21s Championships Finals, beating Spain in the final.

Following his time at Birmingham, Gayle moved back to the North East to play for Sunderland in 1984. By the 1986/87 season, he moved to the United States to play for the Dallas Sidekicks in the Major Indoor Soccer League. Homesickness brought him back for spells at Stoke City, Blackburn Rovers, and Halifax Town before retiring at the age of 33.

Gayle struggled to find coaching positions, despite five years as a youth coach at Tranmere Rovers. He took matters into his own hands and developed a coaching programme at Toxteth Sports Centre, the aim of which was to give confidence to local young people. The team’s logo of a black hand and a white hand demonstrated the multicultural nature of the team, and Gayle’s desire to end racism in football.

In his retirement, Gayle continues to challenge racism, and his 20-plus years of work as a Show Racism The Red Card ambassador led him to be nominated for an MBE in 2016. He rejected the honour because of the accolade’s colonial associations.

Gayle continues to work to educate young people and remove racism from sport to this day.

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