Saturday, 1 April 2017

The Black Arrow

The Black Arrow

Some years ago I watched the excellent American Documentary series ‘Eyes on the prize’ which told the story of the struggle of African Americans to exercise their civil rights. One episode told the story of 14 year old Emmet Till, an African American boy from Chicago who was visiting relatives in Mississippi. He was said to have whistled at a white woman in a store, an action which was to cost him his life. It seems incredible to us today that people were prepared to kill a teenage boy for nothing more than whistling at a woman but in the America of the 1950s such things went on. Despite admitting taking Emmet away on the night of his death, his killers were acquitted by an all-white Jury in under two hours. Emmet’s death was the third lynching in five months in Mississippi.

It could be argued that the sort of racism which existed in America then is still around but what isn’t is the State framework of Laws which allowed it to thrive and offered it a veneer of legality. The ‘Jim Crow’ laws fostered segregation and  the sort of second class citizenship which stunted the lives of many African Americans, particularly in the southern states of the union. Segregated washrooms, bus seats, cinemas and schools made a mockery of the Constitution which stated that ‘all men are created equal.’

It was into this society that Gil Heron came to ply his trade as a footballer although as an all-round athlete he was adept at cricket and boxing too. The young Jamaican had shown considerable prowess in front of goal as he became the top scorer in the North American Professional Soccer League while playing for the Detroit Wolverines. He was no stranger to racism, obvious or subtle and was earning far less than he was worth in a league where it was taken for granted that the white stars would earn more. His success in Detroit saw him win a move to Sparta, a club playing in Chicago who, as their name suggests, had roots in the Czech community.

It was while in Chicago he met and married a young woman called Bobbie Scott and they had a son who was to gain fame in his own field later in life. Gil Scott Heron heard the stories of his father’s footballing prowess and said in his biography...

“His skills would offend the opposition, often leaving them feeling foolish and flailing, victims of Gil’s fancy footwork. There were scoundrels in places like Skokie, a suburb of Chicago then inhabited primarily by Europeans, who treated soccer like an ethnic heirloom. My mother talked about incidents when opposing players had felt forced to foul him, going for his legs instead of the ball, not trying to tackle him but to injure; these were red flags to his temper.”

That temper saw Gil Heron sent off more than once as he retaliated for the rough treatment he was often receiving. It was while Gil was playing in Chicago that Celtic arrived in America for a tour. Bob Kelly the Celtic Chairman of the time was always on the lookout for new talent and word reached him of a powerful forward with an eye for goal was by then playing with Detroit Corinthians. Gil’s colour was never an issue for Celtic who offered him the chance to come to Scotland for a trial. Kelly said at the time…

'We never saw him play but the word about him was so good that I invited him over for a test. He satisfied and thus was signed.'

Gil’s decision to head for Scotland had powerful ramifications in his personal life. Bobbie and Gil Junior stayed in America and his move virtually ended their relationship. He would be moving to a league where there were no other black players playing and one American newspaper thought his move to Celtic was akin to the Brooklyn Dodgers signing of Jackie Robinson a few years earlier. Robinson was the first black player in the major baseball leagues of the USA and caused quite a stir. When some of his team mates grumbled about playing alongside an African American, Dodgers’ Manager, Leo Durocher, to his eternal credit said …

"I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a fuckin' zebra. I'm the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What's more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you are all traded."

As Gil was to find at Celtic Park there were no colour barriers, no racial slurs, and no contemptuous team mates. He excelled in the trial game scoring twice and earning a year-long contract. Of course Celtic signed Heron for footballing reasons, they wanted to see if the player could score as prolifically in Scotland as he has in the USA, but it was more than that. Gil was a pioneer who in the monochrome world of 1950s Britain was blazing a trail that others would follow. There had been a few other coloured players who had played in senior British football but in an age when Britain was still a very stuffy, conservative place, Heron’s arrival caused quite a stir. Even Scottish Newspapers used language which some would find offensive in the modern age but in less enlightened times passed without comment. One spoke of Celtic reaping a ‘black bonanza’ with Heron in the side.

Gil Heron scored on his debut for Celtic against Morton in the League Cup in front of 40,000 delighted fans who soon dubbed him the ‘Black Arrow.’ He followed that up with a tremendous goal against Airdrie which was described in the press in the following manner…

‘’Heron took a pass from Baillie about midfield and side-stepping Dingwall on his run through released a tremendous shot from 25 yards which beat Fraser all ends up. The crowd applauded an effort which was as fine as has been seen on the ground for many a day.”

However that early promise faded as the physical and climatic demands of Scottish football took their toll on him. He scored a lot of goals in the reserve side while he waited for a recall to the first team but while doing so reacted to a rash tackle and got involved in a fist fight with an opponent and that autocratic disciplinarian Bob Kelly would have none of that. Gil would see out his year’s contract but it wouldn’t be renewed. That being said Gil loved his time at Celtic Park and found friendship among the players who enjoyed his company. He wrote of those days…

‘’There’s no doubt in my mind that this is the greatest football country in the world. For as small a country as it is it produces more good footballers than any place on earth. My days at Parkhead have been wonderful and there are no greater a bunch of boys than those at the Paradise. I as a complete stranger was made at home the moment I arrived and the Manager, Mr McGrory, has been very understanding. The greatest ambition of my life was realised when I donned the green and white jersey.’

Gil socialised with players like Charlie Tully who recalled the Jamaican’s colourful attire, most notably his ‘Zoot suit, trilby hat and a pair of yellow shoes.’ 

The Jamaican’s legacy at Celtic far outweighs his contribution on the field. He played just 5 first team games for Celtic but in doing so demonstrated that barriers were there to be kicked down. Celtic have always had an open door policy and players of all ethnicities and faiths have been welcome at Paradise however other clubs were not as enlightened in those times as was society in general.

The times Gil Heron lived in could be harsh and unforgiving to men of colour but he made a life for himself. He would admit that he made choices which were hard on his ex-wife Bobbie and his son Gil Scott-Heron which led to him seeing little of him until him was in his twenties. He eventually moved back to the USA and married his Scottish sweetheart once his divorce from Bobbie was settled. Inter-racial marriages were still illegal in half of the states of American then but not in Michigan where he settled.  He worked in the Ford Motor plant in Detroit and refereed football matches, was a keen photographer and even found time to write poetry. One his poems remembered his year at Celtic and reflected on the fine players in the game then…

The Great Ones
I'll remember all the great ones
Those that I have seen,
Those who I have played with
Who wore the white and green.

There was Tully and Bobby Evans
No greater ones you'd see,
And Celtic Park was our haven
To win was our destiny.

There was Sammy Cox and Thornton
Woodburn was there too,
Waddell and the great George Young
Who wore the white and blue. 

There was Reilly and Turnbull for the Hibs
Billy Steele the great Dundee,
I'll remember all the great ones
Wherever I may be.

So let there be a Hall of Fame
The fans will all be there,
The stars will all be remembered
By loved ones everywhere.

His son became a noted musician who’s album ‘The revolution will not be televised’ was critically acclaimed. Gil Scott Heron once said of his father’s time at Celtic that the Scots loved two things, music and football and it pleased him that the Heron family gave then a musician and a footballer to enjoy. He father followed Celtic’s fortunes all of his life and remembered fondly his time in the place he called ‘The Paradise.’

That fine Dundee singer-songwriter Michael Marra was inspired by Gil Heron’s story and wrote a song for him called ‘Flight of the Heron.’ As luck would have it Scottish writer, Gerry Hassan, visited an ageing Gil in the USA and took the single along for him to hear. The old man was moved to tears that far across the sea in Scotland they still remembered him and still celebrated him. He promised he would record the song himself but time and age meant that this was not to be. Gil Heron, footballer, poet, photographer and in some ways pioneer died in November 2008.

Men like him opened doors for others to follow and he was living proof that Celtic continued to live up to their founding philosophy, summed up in Maley’s famous adage; ‘It is not his creed or nationality which counts but the man himself.’  I’ll leave the last words of this article to the remarkable Gil Heron himself who said in one of his poems…

‘Beat the banners of the green
The finest team I’ve ever seen
Keep the cup and never yield
Race them, chase them off the field’

Gil Heron (1922-2008)

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