“I went to an England game at the start of the Euros,” Benjamin Zephaniah says while explaining how he has come to love the national team for the first time in his 63 years. Zephaniah is a warm and amusing man who refers to himself, wryly, as “a dub revolutionary poet”. He is also a writer, an actor (most recently when playing the role of a preacher in Peaky Blinders) and an activist who has fought against racism most of his life.
Zephaniah has loved football since he was a boy supporting Aston Villa in the late 1960s. But his relationship with England has always been a tangled affair – at least until Gareth Southgate built a team full of players Zephaniah identified with, admired and even loved. He reels off some of the names in the squad that prepared for England’s first game of the European Championship – Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford, Harry Kane, Jack Grealish, Tyrone Mings, Bukaya Saka and the others who have so impressed him on and off the field.
“It was England’s first game in the Euros,” he says as he recalls Sterling, who grew up so close to Wembley, scoring the only goal against Croatia. England went on to reach the final but Zephaniah lingers over the troubling buildup to that opening game. “It was really odd because I felt David James, the old goalkeeper, and this person from BT Sport kicking me. I said: ‘What are you doing?’ They said: ‘Listen.’
“People were booing the black players as they came on the pitch. When they took the knee the booing got worse. I saw the same people who had come up to me earlier and said: ‘Hello, Benjamin, nice to see you.’ Now they were booing England players who were black like me.”
Zephaniah smiles when asked if any of them maintained eye contact. “They look away, don’t they? But a much larger contingent started cheering and drowned them out. The booing still surprised me – because I saw it being done by the same people who had come over to speak to me. They had seen me on television and were saying: ‘Thank you, you’re doing great work.’ You know when racists say: ‘It’s the others I don’t like. But you’re all right.’”
It is fitting Zephaniah should present and narrate a new BT Sport documentary that celebrates the influence descendants of the Windrush generation have had on English football. Zephaniah’s mother left Jamaica for the UK 65 years ago, one of the Caribbean immigrants invited to move as British Commonwealth citizens.
“I said to my mum recently: ‘I’ve never heard you criticise white people.’ She went: ‘I’d never criticise a white person. We are guests in their country.’ I said: ‘Mum, you’re a British passport holder, as you were in Jamaica all those years ago. Secondly, you’ve been here all this time and your children were born here. We are not ‘“guests”.’ But she’s still got that guest mentality.”
The filmmakers approached Zephaniah “because they knew I loved Aston Villa and I was interested in football generally. We lived so close to Villa Park that, when I was little, I remember hearing the roar from the ground in our house.”
Football also made Zephaniah feel safe. His father could be violent and it became a haven. “When my mum was on the run from my dad, we’d get to a new city and she sometimes changed my name and she’d tell me the rules: ‘Don’t go further than this park.’ My next words were: ‘Can I play football, Mum? Can I find some friends?’
“Football made it possible. I’d find kids kicking a ball and we would just play. I can genuinely say I never experienced any racism playing football. If you were good, you were good. If you were crap, you were crap.”
Zephaniah loved watching Villa with his brother Trevor and their Uncle Simpson. They were almost always the only three black faces in the Holte End. When Villa were winning people would praise their “black magic” but when they were losing they sometimes got abused for casting “a voodoo spell”.
Almost all the players were white but one day in the early 1970s West Ham came to Villa Park. Their side featured a black striker from Bermuda. “I remember being mesmerised by Clyde Best,” Zephaniah says. “I felt a little guilty because he was on the other team but me and Trevor would whisper: ‘He’s black.’”
How did Zephaniah deal with racism on the terraces? “Uncle Simpson said: ‘Are you a Villa supporter?’ Yeah. ‘All right. You’re here for Villa. Never mind them.’
“The racism was hurtful but I also felt a kind of intellectual superiority when people were like that. I thought: ‘If I’m going to criticise you it might be because of your stupidity but, if all you can do is look at the colour of my arms …’”
Zephaniah shrugs. “When they tried to attack us and we were outnumbered we’d run from racists. But as soon as we got a bit of boxing behind us we’d stand up and fight. I always thought self-defence is no offence. We had the right to defend ourselves.”
He also loved the tribal loyalty, and riotous fun, of being a Villa supporter and for a while he belonged to a small Holte End firm. “Football was getting a lot more violent. There would always be whispers: ‘We’re meeting the West Brom fans for a scrap in the park after the game.’ Or: ‘We’re organising something with the Man United fans round the back of New Street Station.’ I loved the songs more than the fighting – even if they were all very violent songs.”
Zephaniah sings me a few and they are also funny but, as he recalls: “We’re singing all those songs on the way to fight Man United and we walked past my house. I remember looking up and my mum was doing that mum thing of changing the curtains or cleaning the windows. I thought: ‘Here I am, going to the train station to beat up some people just because they come from Manchester.’ If I lived in Manchester, maybe I’d be a United fan. This is just stupid. I went home and never watched a game for more than 20 years.
“It was only in the 2000s when a friend who coached girls’ football approached me. They were trying to get sponsorship for their team. I went down to East Ham to meet the girls and the coach. They were all West Ham supporters and they asked me who I supported and I said, straight away, ‘Villa.’ They got me to watch games and share tactics and I was back into it.”
During his long period of disaffection Zephaniah had also despaired that he and fellow activists such as Darcus Howe and Linton Kwesi Johnson could not persuade footballers to speak out against racism or injustice. “We used to be really frustrated because we weren’t telling them to read any big manifesto. We had an organisation in America called Artists and Athletes Against Apartheid and we tried to start the same thing here. We had artists against apartheid but no athletes. They were too scared or very shy. But I remember, to his credit, David James did some work with me, talking to kids in east London when he was with West Ham
“Now footballers have a voice and a platform. They aren’t taking injustice any more and they’re willing to stand up. The interesting thing is that it’s not just about race. Marcus Rashford spoke about a basic issue like making sure kids were being fed. He’s embarrassing the government and the prime minister on the way they care for children. He’s not mentioning colour at all. He’s just talking about children in our country. That’s brilliant. I love it when they get called ‘the woke generation’. Some people don’t like that word – ‘woke’. But it’s so good they’ve woken up.”
Is this why he can now support England’s national team – and because they are a more representative reflection of British society? “Yeah. We have a way to go when it comes to Asian players but that will happen too, hopefully.”
When was the moment he felt truly proud to be an England supporter? “This summer – more than ever.”
What did he feel on the night England played the final of the Euros against Italy? Zephaniah laughs. “I remember thinking: ‘I hope they win. It would be a great end to the film.’
“But we got to penalties and I thought: ‘Oh no. This will be mayhem.’ A lot of black people said the same thing. When they saw those penalties being missed [by Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Saka] they knew what was coming. I went on the computer and you saw it immediately. [Rashford] missed and the comment was already on Twitter. They were just waiting.”
Despite the racial abuse these three young players suffered, Zephaniah sounds hopeful. “It’s terrible but that’s why we fight because there are some good people here. We do multiculturalism quite well in this country. If there was no hope, I wouldn’t be here. I can go and find another English-speaking country where I can do poetry. But I’m politically attached to here and I love the music we make and the way we do sport – on the whole.
“But the other side is that I was talking to somebody not long ago and they were saying there are only a few racists left. I pointed out it took only four to kill Stephen Lawrence. You have that whole area of really nice people and a small group of bad people kill a person. I’m always aware of that. This is why we struggle on. But I am hopeful.
“I look at my audience. It used to be completely black and it’s changed over the years. I look at all the white teachers promoting black literature in schools. I think of interviewing Tyrone Mings [who called out Priti Patel over her comments] for the film.
“In the past footballers couldn’t talk about anything apart from the games they played. But before the interview Tyrone spoke about the books he was reading. I find that really hopeful – just as I do when Sterling and Rashford embarrass Boris Johnson. We understand that the politicians don’t move unless it’s in their interest.
“I don’t have children but I work for the good and equal interests of children. I don’t think I’ve lost out because it’s not in my personal interest. Would a politician feel that? Footballers, and so many ordinary people, are now making them move. I’m not going all religious but this is something you find in the Bible, in the Qur’an, in the Torah, in the Bhagavad Gita, in the Hindu scriptures. You even find it in Bob Marley songs. It says that good will overcome evil.
“We have a way to go – in football, in society, in life. But we always have that same hope.”
BT Sport’s celebration of Black History Month starts today with Standing Firm: Football’s Windrush Story at 10.30pm.