Standing Firm: Football’s Windrush Story - BT Sport Film celebrates the impact of Caribbean migration on our national game

The powerful documentary, which is available to watch on btsport.com and the BT Sport app, kicks off Black History Month on BT Sport.

By Tim Williams Published: 29 September 2021 - 8.19am

Such was the hardship caused by the Second World War some refer to 1945 as Year Zero, the point that everything started anew.  

Post-war Britain changed markedly in peacetime, too. The Labour Party assumed power and created a comprehensive welfare stare with the introduction of the National Health Service and presided over a mass nationalisation programme.

In an age of austerity and financial restraint it needed workers to rebuild an economy teetering on the brink.

When the Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury from the Caribbean on 22 June 1948, Britain faced severe labour shortages and required personnel to support sectors including manufacturing, transport and the health service.

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The 500 Jamaicans who arrived paved the way for nearly half a million people to embark on the voyage between 1948 and 1970. The immigrants, referred to as the Windrush generation, contributed an enormous amount to British society, but in few places has this been more visible than on the football pitch.

Presented and narrated by BAFTA award-winning Benjamin Zephaniah, Standing Firm: Football’s Windrush Story explores the impact they, their descendants and continued Caribbean migration to the UK, has had on English football and the national team.

One of the migrants who wanted to better themselves in the ‘mother country’ was Zephaniah’s mother Faleta Honeyghan and the acclaimed writer from Birmingham has dedicated his career to documenting black life in Britain.

The latest BT Sport Film, which is available on btsport.com and the BT Sport app, celebrates multicultural Britain and offers a timely reminder of the benefits of cultural diversity.

Zephaniah begins his journey by visiting Aston Villa and England defender Tyrone Mings whose grandparents travelled from Barbados to Britain in 1966, the year the Three Lions won the World Cup.

One of many politically-engaged players in the England set-up, Mings speaks powerfully about his criticism of Home Secretary Priti Patel after she called taking the knee “gesture politics”.

What are his feelings towards fans who continue to boo the taking of the knee? “That affects me more than anything else”, Mings concedes.

The 28-year-old acknowledges that progress has been made on cultural assimilation but argues that there is still work to be done. “Just because things aren’t as bad as they were, it doesn’t mean that we should stop trying to build a better future,” he adds.

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Post-war Britain was far less tolerant. Migrants who felt duty-bound to offer their service faced structural, legal and everyday racism.

This pejorative rhetoric was demonstrated in Enoch Powell’s infamous Rivers of Blood speech to a meeting of the Conservative Political Centre in Birmingham in 1968, when he strongly criticised mass immigration - particularly from the Commonwealth.

“In this country in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man,” he said.

Racism went mainstream and it was against this backdrop that black footballers had to operate in Britain.

West Bromwich Albion favourite Brendon Batson, who played with Laurie Cunningham and Cyrille Regis, recalls moving from Grenada with his family as a teenager and the horrific abuse he endured at a time when vitriol was customary.

“The football side was easy,” he says. “It was all the other stuff you had to deal with.

“You were getting off the coach, people were spitting at you and you had to put up with all that. No protection from the authorities.

“We had to look after ourselves, but the abuse wasn’t unusual because we’d grown up with it as schoolboys. I’d grown up with it from the time I landed in England.

“Cars were driving by and they were shouting at me ‘go back to your own country’.”

“This film aims to shine an overdue light on how the Windrush generation changed our national game”
- Sally Brown, Executive Producer of BT Sport Films

National identity was at the heart of the Windrush story. At a time where the flag of St George was associated with the rising forces of the political far right, Viv Anderson made history by becoming the first black player to represent England.

Years later, after the uproarious summer of 1981 - when tensions boiled over in a number of major English cities, John Barnes and Luther Blissett established themselves at Watford.

Barnes, who arguably scored England’s greatest ever goal against Brazil in the Maracanã, tells the story of how some purported supporters of the national team didn’t recognise his strike because it was scored by a black player.

In the eyes of the England and Liverpool legend, a generation of managers have been lost because they were deemed incapable of governing.

From Hope Powell to Paul Ince, Windrush descendants continued to break down barriers and change the very fabric of the English game.

Former Newcastle and Manchester United forward Andy Cole, who won the Champions League in in 1999, also features in the documentary in a poignant scene when he returns to the Gedling colliery, where his dad worked as a coalminer in Nottinghamshire.

Known as “The Pit of Nations”, with hundreds of miners drawn from 15 countries, the work was typical of a generation who were willing to give everything.

The children of the Windrush generation played a pivotal role at the end of the 1990s, which only got stronger in 21st century. Predictably though, racism was still bubbling away in Britain and, on occasion, came to the surface.

Zephaniah also visits brothers Rio and Anton Ferdinand who attended the same school as Stephen Lawrence, the 18-year-old who was murdered by a gang of white youths in 1993.

“Even at school, if we played football in Eltham I wouldn’t hang about late, I’d get on the bus quick and go home,” says Rio whose father is from St Lucia, when he remembers the day news of Lawrence’s death spread around his school.

The Ferdinand brothers are synonymous with the Premier League era and in the social media age sport has become a focal point against racism, with a new wave of socially-aware players leading the charge.

“I can’t fathom the idea that you get yourself to a position where you get a platform and you don’t leverage it for good,” adds former Manchester United captain Rio.

Issues around systemic racism still linger. In 2018 deportation threats were made to children of the Windrush generation who were told they were illegal immigrants in their own home.

Modern Britain is fundamentally built on immigration from every corner of the world and Caribbean migrants had a transformative impact on our arts, culture and football.

In the words of the inimitable Zephaniah: when post-war Britain was kind of grey, we quickly learned how they could play.

Sally Brown, Executive Producer of BT Sport Films, explains: “This film aims to shine an overdue light on how the Windrush generation changed our national game.

“So much has been said about the Windrush generation’s impact on areas of British life such as the NHS, and with this film viewers will gain an insight from Windrush pioneers about their families’ journeys on and off the field, and, of their place in football today. 

“I’m delighted that this film will kick off Black History Month on BT Sport.”

Watch Standing Firm: Football’s Windrush Story  on btsport.com/films or the BT Sport app.