Searching For The Caribbean Soul Of English Football

Over the past half a century in particular, the cultural exchange between England and the Caribbean has been enormous. Nowhere is that statement more true than on the football pitch, and in England’s professional leagues.

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May 26 2017, 12:16pm

Going back to England's first major tournament of the nineties, the national team was considerably less diverse than it is today. Of the 23 players who travelled to the 1990 World Cup, all were white bar three. The exceptions to the rule were Des Walker, John Barnes and Paul Parker, with Walker and Parker born in Hackney and Essex respectively and Barnes raised in Jamaica, though eligible as a British passport holder. The fact that all three men are from West Indian backgrounds says a lot about the close links between England and the Caribbean, with almost all of the breakout black footballers in this country being of Caribbean heritage. While the cultural exchange between England and the West Indies has been enormous over the past half a century in particular, the Caribbean influence on English football is especially pronounced.

Compare the current England squad to that which went to Italia 90, and it's apparent that the Caribbean roots now run much deeper. Of the players who were selected for England's last round of World Cup qualifiers, just over half a dozen have familial ties to the West Indies. Kyle Walker, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Nathan Redmond and Raheem Sterling share Jamaican heritage, with the latter brought up in Kingston for a time; Jermain Defoe was born to a Dominican father and a St Lucian mother; Nathaniel Clyne has Grenadian parentage, and so on. Take into account all those who have had an England call up in the last few years, and there are several other high-profile players who deserve a mention, not least Daniel Sturridge, Chris Smalling, Theo Walcott and Danny Rose. Just as Britain and the West Indies are twinned historically, socially and economically, so too is football in England informed by its share of Caribbean identity, and along with its British and Irish heart one could say that English football has a Caribbean soul.

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Britain's first sustained interaction with the Caribbean came in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. By then an incipient imperial power, Britain soon realised the economic and strategic potential of the lush tropical islands dotted about the sparkling, azure waters of the Caribbean Sea. Before long British colonists were arriving in numbers, and British privateers were fighting against the other colonial powers in the region, most notably Holland and Spain, both of which still have significant enclaves there. This was not a time of cultural exchange so much as one of conquest, exploitation and expansion. The Caribbean was soon the site of an enormous plantation economy driven by the forced labour of the transatlantic slave trade.

In that sense, Britain's early colonial legacy in the Caribbean is an exceptionally grim and brutal one, with countless acts of violence committed against a population brought there to work, often in the booming sugar trade, against their will. Even after the abolition of slavery in the early nineteenth century, indentured labour and racist policies continued to blight the British governance of the West Indies. Nonetheless, despite the long and tumultuous history of the British Empire's involvement in the region, the former Caribbean colonies – the majority of which gained their independence in the seventies and eighties – generally maintain strong relations with Britain, both through the cultural, familial and administrative bonds that were established during the time of Empire, and in some cases out of economic necessity.

Since the forties, fifties and sixties, the relationship between Britain and the Caribbean has been of a somewhat more reciprocal nature. Though limited immigration from the West Indies to the United Kingdom has been going on since the Age of Enlightenment, there was an initial spike in the postwar period which saw the arrival of the so-called 'Windrush generation'. Not only had many West Indians served in Britain's armed forces during the two World Wars, but losses from those conflicts left considerable shortages in the British labour reserve. So, encouraged by the British government, hundreds of Caribbean migrants embarked on a ship named the Empire Windrush and arrived in England in 1948, with many accommodated in South London. This is a widely regarded as a symbolic moment in British history, and one which paved the way for much of the Commonwealth immigration which has come since.

Trinidadian and Bajan Royal Air Force pilots during World War II // Image via Wikimedia Commons

Though there has certainly been further exploitation of working-class West Indians as an immigrant labour force in Britain – this not to mention much racial discrimination after their arrival in this country, and a variety of social issues which have affected their communities – there have also been hard-won opportunities to affect material change in Britain, and eventually to participate at the highest levels of British society. While Afro-Caribbean communities still face unequal treatment in the UK and are often the object of systematic prejudice, they are also visible in politics, media, academia and the like in a manner which may not have been conceivable two or three decades ago. Similarly, there are many elements of first and second-generation Afro-Caribbean culture which have become integral in Britain, from the dancehall, garage, jungle and grime scenes to literature, television, fashion and film. There is also a huge Afro-Caribbean presence in British sport, and in athletics, boxing and football most of all.

Since the 1990 World Cup, dozens of footballers have represented England who have also been the children of West Indian parents, many of whom might trace their family history back to the first few surges of Commonwealth immigration. More than that, there are hundreds who have represented English clubs at a professional level, with some deciding to represent Caribbean nations on the international stage and others eschewing international football altogether. Starting with the likes of Clyde Best, Brendon Batson, Luther Blissett, Laurie Cunningham, Cyrille Regis and Viv Anderson, footballers with Caribbean origins became more and more prevalent in the English top tier from the seventies onwards. Though those men were often met with vicious slurs, abusive chants and bananas hurled from the stands, their accumulative appearances on weekends and matchdays helped pave the way for those who came afterwards, not least because so many fans came to love them. With their refusal to be cowed by the abuse and their determination to deliver fantastic football regardless, they also demonstrated to racist elements on the terraces that Caribbean footballers were tough, resilient, exuberantly talented and – whatever was thrown at them – in the game for the long haul.

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Since then, footballers with West Indian heritage have been a constant in the top flight, with increasing prevalence in the Premier League era. As the image of the game was rehabilitated and the authorities went to war with conspicuous racism on the terraces, a new generation of footballers including Paul Ince, Dwight Yorke, Les Ferdinand, Frank Sinclair and Ian Wright – with Ince, Yorke and Ferdinand of Trinidadian, Tobagonian and St Lucian descent respectively, and the others of Jamaican parentage – arrived on the scene to lead the way. While racist incidents still occur in club football from season to season, they are generally isolated and swiftly resolved in comparison to the situation in the seventies and eighties. Footballers with Caribbean backgrounds have made a significant contribution in that regard, not only through their visibility on the pitch but also through the concerted efforts of many to work with initiatives like Show Racism The Red Card and the Kick It Out campaign.

Now, all these years later, there are players of Caribbean parentage at every step of the English league system. Judging by the end-of-season first-team rosters for 2016-17, there are seven full Caribbean internationals in the Championship, a further seven in League One and an impressive 11 in League Two, as well as numerous others with Caribbean heritage who are either eligible or have chosen to represent England at some level instead. Their roots lie as far afield as Bermuda, Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda, Trinidad and Tobago, Montserrat, Genada and Curaçao, amongst others. This is how much English football has changed in the decades since the postwar generation of West Indian immigrants first arrived on these shores, and indicative of how much the Caribbean influences the game in England today.

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Though he was raised in the Midlands, Romaine Sawyers plays his international football for Saint Kitts and Nevis, a team nicknamed the Sugar Boyz in recognition of what has traditionally been the lifeblood of their island economy. He is testament to the cultural exchange between the West Indies and Britain, in that he is one of many footballers to have been born in the UK but to return to the Caribbean to represent the islands where his family have their roots. Having first travelled to Saint Kitts on a family holiday in his early teens, he grew up knowing Birmingham far better than Basseterre, just as so many Brits of West Indian heritage only come to know the Caribbean later in life. He speaks softly in hushed Brummie tones, this just before the end of a debut season with Brentford in which, despite some early struggles after his transfer from Walsall, he has by all accounts grown steadily into his midfield role.

As Romaine notes almost immediately, football is not necessarily even the primary sport on St Kitts and its smaller sister island to the south. "Football is the main sport in my family, but cricket is the biggest sport over there. We're closing the gap now, but at the time [when I first visited] it was more cricket, even though we played football with family and friends," he says. Much of the football played on the islands is at grassroots level, with less by way of sporting infrastructure there relative to the urban heartlands of the Midlands, and certainly less everyday wealth. This is reflected in the national team set-up to some degree, with St Kitts and Nevis well behind some of the biggest countries in CONCACAF in terms of funding and facilities. That said, they are on the way up as a national team, having recently broken into the top 100 of the FIFA rankings, one of their long-term goals as a side.

Speaking about his national team debut, Romaine gives an insight into how the fan culture is different in the Caribbean. "It's probably one of the only times I've been a bit nervous before a match, and I thought about how to go about my game a bit different," he says. "Even when I made my club debut in England, I didn't really think too much about how people were going to take to me. There, I was the English boy coming to play for St Kitts, I'm stepping into a completely different environment and it was like: 'Okay, let's see how this goes'. The games are a lot different there, the crowd is pretty vocal, plus there are steel drums and a party atmosphere as opposed to chanting like it is in England. It's almost like a carnival with a game in between, though when you're playing you've obviously got to block that stuff out."

Romaine playing for Brentford in February // PA Images

In terms of the style of football that prevails on St Kitts and Nevis, Romaine makes it sound non-stop. "There's a lot of 'You have it, we have it', if that makes sense," he laughs. "Most teams in the Caribbean islands like to play out from the back and try to build and build, and often they will overplay it in defence while trying to get up the pitch first and foremost." That sounds similar to the strategy which has seen English clubs go out in Europe time and time again in recent seasons, though that is most likely a coincidence as opposed to a sign of tactical derivation. Then again, Romaine stresses that, just as English football is influenced by the Caribbean, so too does Caribbean football often look to England for clues and insights into the game.

"Everybody out there watches the Premier League, so lots of kids have ambitions to play football and everyone idolises the same people we do in England," Romaine says. "As much as there are a lot of Caribbean players in England, there is a big influence going the other way. Even in terms of myself, playing in the Championship seems to raise a lot of eyebrows. I'm talking about my country in particular, but I'm guessing it would be like that around the whole Caribbean. I remember playing Caribbean games against other teams, and there were people there who would have seen that I played for Brentford. It has an influence, and I think it's a positive one in that, though I wasn't born there, it's a real-life example that the world can be your oyster. We've obviously got the captain of the team [Atiba Harris] who was born in St Kitts and plays in the MLS – I think it's his 11th season in the USA this year – so that's obviously something attainable for the kids growing up there. But because I'm there every year, I'm approachable and so on, I'd like to think that I'm in a position where I can act as a role model there.

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"The Caribbean influence in England, I think it's growing," Romaine goes on. "There are more players that are coming out of the works from the Caribbean, and there are obviously big teams like Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica, so we're making progress as a region." With lads from, amongst other British towns, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Leicester in the St Kitts and Nevis national team, it's clear that there is considerable back and forth between the islands and the UK in terms of players. Certainly, the teammates who play their club football in England bring something back from their time on international duty, more than just the team WhatsApp group which Romaine checks daily. "I was fortunate enough to be at West Brom since [age] seven, so I've always been in an academy environment," he says. "Some of my teammates who I play with at national team level, they haven't had those opportunities, and I can only imagine how hard it was for them to get where they are. I think that's actually made me more determined for my own career, because I'm mindful that the more successful I am, the more successful they will be."

For Romaine, representing St Kitts and Nevis seems like a source of motivation, and the way he speaks about his national team is a far cry from the usual platitudes said about the game. "All the togetherness that I get out there, it makes me want to do it here at the same time," he says. "I've seen what football can do out there, where you've got minimal facilities, minimal playing time because a lot of them [my teammates] have to balance training with their jobs. Despite all that, they are as hungry as anyone I've seen, and the hungriest player in England will not be hungrier than the most motivated guy from St Kitts. The opportunities are a lot different, though. I think that has really opened my eyes."

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Though the character of English football seems ingrained in the Caribbean game, and vice versa, there are more influences at play than might immediately meet the eye. Despite Britain's longstanding presence in the region, the Caribbean is geographically closest to the Latin world, which adds another ingredient to the swirling football melting pot in terms of inspiration, tactical outlook and style. Speaking to Andre Boucaud, a man who plays his club football for Dagenham and Redbridge and his internationals with Trinidad and Tobago, the conversation moves on to South America and how elements of the continental game have come to the Caribbean islands. He is talking from a training camp in the USA, where he is on international duty with the side he has represented since 2004, nicknamed the Soca Warriors after the Trinidadian calypso genre of the same name.

"Trinidad is not too far away from South America, and you know how South American football is," Andre says. "People look to Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, Argentina and the rest of those countries. There's a lot of skill-based football, football on the floor, passing and moving and taking on players, stuff like that. The fans love to see skill and players getting the ball down, while in England it's sometimes more about tackling, getting in people's faces and a bit more long ball."

Andre in Dagenham colours // Photo provided by Dagenham and Redbridge

It's interesting to note that when fans – or at least those of them old enough to remember – reminisce about the first time they saw Laurie Cunningham, Cyrille Regis, Viv Anderson and the like, they often point to their skill on the ball, their flair and their poise as the traits they most admired. Perhaps there is some hint as to the true spirit of West Indian football here, in that expressive football with echoes of the Caribbean, and with further echoes of South America in turn, stood out in the hit-and-run morass that was much of English football in the seventies, and still stands out now. For some this will seem overly hypothetical, but it's worth considering how the Caribbean could be the link between Britain and the football of the southern hemisphere. "You can actually see Venezuela from Trinidad, and Colombia isn't far, so you have that South American influence on our football," Andre adds. "A lot of the guys in our national team have played for clubs in Mexico and places like that, which aren't far either, so that also influences the side a lot."

Though Andre was brought up in Edmonton in North London – his career has since taken him as far afield as Reading, Peterborough, Nottingham and York – life in Trinidad and Tobago was anything but alien to him by the time he made his debut. "I was coming to Trinidad from young really, because obviously both my parents were born there," he says. "I obviously kept that bond through them, and my dad used to bring me on summer holidays and stuff. I always had that connection with the island, with the country. Then when it got to 2004, they selected me to play a friendly against Iraq at West Brom's ground, and that was that."

Andre playing for Trinidad and Tobago in 2013 // EPA Images / Robert Ghement

In many ways, Andre's relationship with the Caribbean is one which people from similar backgrounds will share and recognise, whether they are footballers or otherwise. "Though I was living in England, my parents were born and raised in Trinidad, so I grew up in the same kind of environment anyway," he says. "Obviously with them coming from the Caribbean and having to make a life for themselves in England, that definitely drove me even more to try to do well for them and also for myself. They came over with next to nothing and made something of their lives, so seeing that and seeing what they've done has always been a plus for me."

In that sense, the experience of a second-generation immigrant in England is often enough to drive someone to succeed in football, whether that person is brought up in a West Indian household or their family has links to somewhere else entirely. Footballers in England of Caribbean heritage know where their families have come from, and one way or another that informs their approach to the game. So too are there a mix of cultures in the Caribbean, with South American elements and flavours making a major contribution to the footballing landscape. Perhaps there is more of a three-way exchange between Britain, the Caribbean and South America at work here, which finds its way back to the English league pyramid and trickles down at least as far as Dagenham and Redbridge.

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Having spoken to Shaun Cummings for a few minutes, it seems he is a man of few words, at least when it comes to dealing with the media. It can't be too often a journalist shows up in Bromley early in the morning wanting to talk about his experiences of representing Jamaica, so his reticence is perhaps understandable, especially at such an important time in the season. We are speaking in the lacquered dressing rooms of the Millwall training ground, where Shaun and his teammates spend the majority of their working week running drills under the guidance of manager Neil Harris. It is not long before Millwall face Bradford in the League One play-off final – the London club will go on to win promotion – which must make questions about Caribbean football seem oddly timed, though at least a bit more varied than the stuff being asked by the rest of the press.

Shaun grew up in West London, and was one of many players to come through the Chelsea academy at a time when first-team opportunities were limited by their extravagant transfer strategy. Eligible for the national team through his father, he made his debut for Jamaica in 2013, visiting the country for the first time when he got his call up. He is most effusive when talking about the conflicting feelings some players have over the country they choose to represent, with footballers born in the UK with Caribbean heritage often presented with a difficult choice at a young age in that regard. "There are a lot of guys from Caribbean backgrounds who go on to play for England at this point, so the Caribbean obviously has a big influence. Whether they have family from Jamaica, Barbados, St Lucia, Antigua or wherever, I'm sure that any one of those countries could find a very good 11 in the English game," he says.

Shaun celebrates at The Den // Photo provided by Millwall FC

"Obviously, when it comes to England or Jamaica, it can be a good thing to have that choice, to have that option, but there can also be some pressure because you want to get that choice right," Shaun goes on. "I wouldn't say that anyone would be at fault for picking one over the other, it's just an individual thing." Just as with any footballer who has an affinity with multiple countries, it can be difficult to prioritise one nationality over another, which again suggests there is a blurred line of sorts between Caribbean and British identity. Considering that the media in England can be borderline jingoistic when it comes to assessing these conflictions, it's little wonder this is a topic which some players would prefer to avoid.

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Shaun is not the only Millwall player to represent a Caribbean country at international level, with teammate and fellow defender Mahlon Romeo having earned eight caps for Antigua and Barbuda at the age of 21. He is the son of Trevor Romeo, a musician and producer of Antiguan descent who most of us know as Soul II Soul's Jazzie B. This is something about which he is doubtlessly asked a gratuitous amount, so we skirt over the topic and get straight to speaking about Antigua, where he has been going on holiday for as long as he can remember. Mahlon grew up in Camden, and one of the first things he tells us is that he is a longstanding fan of our colleagues over on Noisey. He has not heard of VICE Sports, or at least not yet.

Mahlon in action for Millwall // Photo provided by Millwall FC

"I feel like my heart was in Antigua," Mahlon says, when asked whether he ever felt any conflict in regards to which international team to represent. "Obviously I've been brought up here, but going there from so young and having family in Antigua, it's kind of got that family vibe out there, so that made it easy for me." He speaks about playing football on the island as a kid with his cousins, kicking a ball about in a scorching heat he was unaccustomed to. Again, much of the football on Antigua is at grassroots level. "Football is massively different there, it's not a rich country, and what we've got over here in England, you can't really compare. There's some good young boys coming through there, though, and a lot of them are moving to America, trying to get into the MLS, and I know there's one guy playing for the Seattle youth team, so that's the way they are getting themselves out there."

While English football has benefitted from the presence of players with family ties to the West Indies over the past few decades, it's possible that the destination of choice for Caribbean-born players will shift increasingly towards the Americas in the future. Geographically, it makes a lot of sense, while the economic attraction which brought so many to Britain in the forties, fifties and sixties is arguably not as strong as it once was. That said, the Caribbean's cultural and familial ties to the UK remain robust, and it is unlikely that will ever change. For England's scouts and headhunters, however, it might be worth keeping a closer eye on the region lest the best of its talent end up somewhere else.

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"From a young age, I used to say that I was born in the wrong country. I always sort of preferred Jamaica growing up, so any opportunity I got to go back, I always tried to go." These are the words of Joel Grant, who much like fellow Jamaica international Shaun Cummings was brought up in West London, and who came through the academy ranks at Watford. Joel has since played for Aldershot Town, Crewe Alexandra, Wycombe Wanderers and Yeovil, but has now nailed down a regular place for himself at Exeter City under the management of Paul Tisdale. "I committed to Jamaica from a really young age, I think I was 17 when I first did some training with the national team," Joel says. "I made a breakthrough in the Under-20s team, and from there I've always been chasing more senior caps."

Joel remembers his first experiences of football in Jamaica with clarity, speaking quietly but fondly about kickabouts in his early teens. "For me the familiar moments are from 14 onwards, and there are some games I can remember almost like it was yesterday. Going back, just playing with family, I remember there were these dirt pitches, almost like gravel, and there were these sort of scrimmages we used to play. Five on five, six on six, that was probably where I learned a few of my skills if you like, playing on those sort of pitches." Once again, for a kid growing up in England and seeing the facilities available to his Jamaican counterparts, the difference must have been striking. Sometimes, though, it's a tight game on a makeshift pitch which teaches an emergent footballer how to play.

Joel (centre) with Jamaica in 2015 // EPA Images / Javier Valdes Larrondo

"When you get to academy level in England, you're bought a lot of things," Joel says. "In Jamaica, for a lot of the players, it's just natural ability, and it's probably not until they reach their twenties or maybe even move on from Jamaica that they get any real coaching, as such. A lot of the skills there are learnt from just messing around really, kids playing and becoming close friends with the ball if you like, working on their techniques in action." This seems to come back to the idea of expressive football, and not coaching verve, flair and most of all enjoyment out of kids for the sake of a results-driven approach from too young an age.

"Obviously when you have natural ability and you mix that with coaching, that gives you an advantage," Joel says. "When you understand the game but you're also happy and comfortable with the ball, that's a good combination. In England, sometimes with more coaching, you miss that natural ability and flair, and even if it's not coached out of you exactly you're sometimes thinking about other things. I would say in the Caribbean you've got natural athletes, and if you get the right mix with the coaching and the tactical side, you can become unstoppable." There are Caribbean footballers at all levels of English football who already are, of course.

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It says a lot that, at Championship, League One, League Two and National League level, there are so many players willing and able to speak about their Caribbean heritage. From the sleepy southwestern climes of Exeter to the urban sprawl of London, this via the Midlands, the north and elsewhere, there are footballers from West Indian backgrounds taking to the pitch and affecting the game week on week. Though the high-profile players of Caribbean origin who represent the England national team serve as an example of how this country has changed over the last half century, there is even more compelling evidence of that change at regional clubs and on lower-league pitches.

What English football owes to the the West Indies is immeasurable, impossible to quantify. In that sense, to say that it has a Caribbean soul seems appropriate, in that Caribbean influences have merged invariably with the very essence of the English game.

@W_F_Magee