Garth Crooks made English soccer history as the first black player to score a goal in a championship final in England's FA (Football Association) Cup, the oldest organized soccer competition in the world. Crooks' kick that day in 1981 came at a time when black players among the teams of England's most popular sport were still a rarity, and often subject to hostile chants from the stands.
Crooks was born on March 10, 1958, in Stoke-on-Trent, a city in England's Midlands district. His parents were part of large wave of West Indian immigrants to Britain in the 1950s. In his teens, Crooks was a lackluster student but he emerged as a talented soccer player. He won a spot on the junior division of the Stoke City team, and his skills as a forward and striker—key offensive positions—attracted the attention of the Tottenham Hotspur F.C. (football club). This North London organization was one of England's most popular soccer teams, and in July of 1980 its executives signed Crooks to their roster.
At the time, England was becoming a more multicultural nation, but prejudices against Britons of West Indian, African, and Asian descent were still somewhat commonplace. The professional teams of English soccer—or football, as it is known outside of North America—had had the occasional black player dating back as far as the 1880s, but the first genuine black star in the sport in was Lloyd "Lindy" Delapenha, a Jamaican-born athlete who played for the Middles-brough team in the 1950s. In 1977 the West Bromwich Albion organization signed the trio of Brendon Batson, Laurie Cunningham, and Cyrille Regis, who were known as the "Three Degrees." Their first season in 1977-78 marked the first time in which an upper-tier English soccer team had three black players on its roster.
During Crooks' first season, he was paired with Steve Archibald, and between them the formidable forward duo scored 46 goals in the regular season. Tottenham went on to the finals of the FA Cup championship series and played Manchester City in May of 1981. In that game, Crooks became the first black player to score a goal in an FA Cup final. The Hotspurs won the cup that year and took it again the following. Crooks also helped the team win a prestigious 1984 pan-European team competition known as the UEFA Cup, the acronym for the Union of European Football Associations.
Soccer was still largely a working-class sport in Britain in the 1980s, and local team rivalries were strong. During the decade, violence and "hooliganism" blighted the game in England, and some European teams even barred British fans from attending the away games of their favorite teams. During Crooks' career, racist chants and banners were commonplace in the stands, and sometimes fans even threw bananas onto the field or made monkey noises. "Black players didn't complain about racism because it was made clear to us that we had to cope with it, it was seen as a test of character," Crooks was quoted as saying by Guardian writer Vivek Chaudhary.
In 1985, Crooks was traded to West Bromwich Albion, but that same year he also began taking advantage of a tuition-reimbursement benefit offered by the Professional Footballers' Association (PFA), the players' union for soccer athletes in the United Kingdom. He started with classes at the College of North East London, and eventually earned a degree in political science from North London Poly. In 1988, now playing for the Charlton Athletic club, he was elected chair of the 4,000-member PFA, which is also the world's oldest professional athletes' association. Crooks was the first black player ever to lead the PFA, and supported a clean-up campaign in British soccer that helped end some of the racism and hooliganism with which it had become associated. A 1991 British law that prohibited chanting of racial slurs at soccer games, and gave law-enforcement officials the power to arrest fans who did so, was a major milestone for all players of color in the sport.
Despite his high profile in British sports, Crooks was unable to avoid an ugly incident of police harassment in 1990, when a plainclothes officer stopped him on a London street and accused him of shoplifting. Crooks had gone out to get some snacks during a board meeting of the Institute for Sickle Cell Anaemia Relief, one of the many charitable causes to which he lent him name and time. He had also helped promote the youth soccer league of the London Metropolitan police force, and when he asserted his innocence and then mentioned the name of a high-ranking officer he knew through his youth-league work, one of officers responded, "'Yes, and I'm a personal friend of the Queen,'" Crooks recounted in a Sunday Times interview with Tim Rayment. It was only when a third officer arrived and recognized Crooks that was he released. He filed a formal complaint of "incivility" because, as he told the Sunday Times, he hoped to make a point to others, "and I was one of them who think criticism of the police is exaggerated, just a knee-jerk reaction within our community." In the same interview, he reflected, "Everyone I have told has had the same reaction: if I don't have a chance, what chance has anyone else?"
Crooks had retired by then, after an 18-year professional career, but had gone on to become a radio and television announcer for British soccer. By the late 1990s he was even hosting his own show on the BBC2, one of the radio stations of the British Broadcasting Corporation network. Called Despatch Box, it dealt with news issues of the day, and Crooks' high profile and interest in politics led to the occasional rumor that he might run for a seat in the House of Commons.
At a Glance …
Born on March 10, 1958, in Stoke-on-Trent, England. Education: Attended College of North East London, 1984-85; earned B.Sc. from North London Polytechnic College.
Career: Stoke City, professional soccer player, 1974-80; Tottenham Hotspur F.C. (football club), professional soccer player, 1980-84; Manchester United, professional soccer player, 1984-85; West Bromwich Albion, professional soccer player, 1985-87; Charlton Athletic, professional soccer player, 1987-90; BBC TV and radio, broadcaster, 1990-; Professional Footballers Association (union), chairman, 1988-90.
Memberships: English Sports Council; Sickle Cell Anaemia Relief (SCAR) Organization, founder and chair; Institute of Professional Sport, chair.
Awards: Order of the British Empire (OBE).
Addresses: Office—c/o Institute of Professional Sport, Francis House, Francis Street, London SW1P 1DE, England.
Crooks remained active in his various charitable projects, and also worked with Britain's Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) as well as athletic bodies such as the Institute of Professional Sport. In 2003, he became chair of the racism and equality issues committee of the Independent Football Commission. A year later he delivered a somewhat controversial speech at the "London Schools and the Black Child 2004 Conference," in which he warned against "gangsta" culture in Britain and its negative effects on the younger generation. "We must convey to the next generation that street culture was meant to be a fashion not a lifestyle," the father of two told the audience that day, "a bit of fun not a code of conduct. Our job as parents is not to dismiss it but to put it in its proper perspective. If we don't then 'street culture' will become a deadly virus ripping indiscriminately through yet another generation and robbing millions of their potential." The remarks were widely quoted in the British media, and earned Crooks comparisons to American entertainer Bill Cosby, who had also recently made statements about family values in the African-American community.
Guardian (London, England), April 22, 2000, p. 7; March 3, 2003, p. 12.
Independent (London, England), September 13, 2004, p. 33.
Independent Sunday (London, England), April 11, 1999, p. 4; April 27, 2003, p. 11.
Sunday Times (London, England), May 20, 1990.
Times (London, England), November 30, 1988.
"Garth Crooks—London Schools and the Black Child 2004 Conference," Commission for Racial Equality, www.cre.gov.uk/Default.aspx.LocID-0hgnew03v.RefLocID-0hg00900c002.Lang-EN.htm (June 23, 2005).
"The Garth Crooks Years: 1988-1990," givemefootball, http://www.givemefootball.com/display.cfm?article=3077&type=1 (July 12, 2005).
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