This month Fulham will be celebrating equality and diversity in football by supporting Kick It Out’s One Game, One Community weeks of action campaign which take place from 14-26 October.
Tyrone James, one of the first black players to represent Fulham, was a recent visitor to the Club’s Motspur Park training ground. James broke into the Fulham side at a time when the team featured such illustrious names as Bobby Moore, Alan Mullery, Rodney Marsh and George Best.
“I was already at Fulham as a young player and the first players to join while I was there was Bobby Moore, I had already met him when I was about 16 and went for trials with West Ham,” James recalled. “There was Bobby Moore, Billy Bonds, Harry Redknapp and Trevor Brooking at West Ham. I went to Fulham when West Ham couldn’t keep me on as an apprentice.
“When I came back from my holiday, my mum told me that Bobby Moore’s going to play at Fulham. When I walked in Bobby Moore was sitting opposite me, he looked at me and said, ‘Hey, Tyrone. How’s it going? What’s it like here at Fulham, is it a good club?’ I never spoke to him as a junior at West Ham but he remembered me from training and obviously asked who I was. When he spoke to me, everyone else was in shock.
“Alan Mullery, Rodney Marsh and George Best were also there. The attendances grew, the training got more serious because the Club needed to go forward and show that they meant business.”
Soon enough James had impressed enough people behind the scenes to be handed his Fulham debut and in the process became one of the first black players to feature for the Club.
“The youth team would train and the reserves and seniors would be way off training,” James recalled. “At one time during the season, three players got injured; Alan Slough, John Fraser and John Cutbush. One Friday afternoon Alan Mullery came over to me and said, ‘The Gaffer wants to talk to you.’ So I walked into his office, Alec Stock was the coach, he looked at me a said, ‘you’re going to get a lot of phone calls today. You’re playing tomorrow.’
“You always train to play because you don’t know who will be watching you. I never trained with the first team, I never made the bench for the first team but because of the way I was training and the reports from my coach, they gave me my debut – just for my performances in training.
“On the day of my debut, I was nervous. I drove to the ground with the team coach. There were lots of people waiting. I got into the changing room and sat in the corner with all of the senior players.
“All the players had been there and done it like Alan Mullery, Les Strong, Bobby Moore and Peter Mellor. I just sat there minding my own business.
“The game went really fast. Bobby Moore was at the back with me and he told me how to go through it. I couldn’t wait to get home to see the game on TV.”
Looking back on his time at Craven Cottage, James had particularly fond memories of the Fulham faithful.
“The fans were very supportive,” he said. “They gave you encouragement, especially as a young player. But the only time you heard the crowd was when the game stopped because when the games going on you’re in such a zone. When it stopped, there was a lot of encouragement. Win, lose or draw they made you feel welcome and good to be part of the club.”
However, there was also an ugly facet to the game in those days, which black players like James had to deal with. Yet in the face of racism, James showed admirable strength of character to get on with the game.
“I remember in my playing days sometimes you would go out and some fans would be calling you names,” he said. “You’d think that you couldn’t stay out there and would have to go back into the changing rooms. Or when it was quiet and you’d go to pick up a ball, a supporter would bend over and say his bit.
“I’ve had a few things but I let it go. When they play with your mind – that can put you off your game. But I learnt from an early age that if you give as good as you take and then more – then it’s your will against their will – and they won’t come back again.
“In my time, black players were considered to be lightweight, you can get to their mind and they didn’t want the physical side of the game. When I played I didn’t mind that, I was there as a defender and I had to stop the attacker. I had to be strong and fit and get possession for the team.
“You learn to step forward all the time. It’s easier to make excuses about people saying things or things happening. You can lose your direction. I always say, whenever you’re in the ground, whatever colour you are and whatever the supporters say to you – that’s their opinion. You focus on what you have to do and what you’ve been coached to do. Your coaches expect that of you and so do the players you play with.
“When you get off the pitch, that’s the environment you live in and you have to deal with that. But when you get on the pitch, if you can’t switch off you’ll never become what you want to become.”
James resides in Australia but recently met up with a group of kids from Fulham FC Foundation’s Merton Kickz project. He first met the group this time last year and spoke of his experience of playing for Fulham in the 1970s and some of the racism he was subjected to.