“I was watching a documentary about my friend Laurie Cunningham and it said that in 1977 he was the first black player to pull on an England shirt at any level,” says Ben Odeje, a footballing prodigy who scored goals for fun. “I was the first in 1971!” And so begins the interview.
An explanatory phone call to the TV company followed but since then it seems to have gone down in history that Cunningham led the way for black players, while Odeje has continually had to fight to get the truth out there. Even now that the FA has acknowledged Odeje was the first, you still find the odd article saying otherwise.
Ben Odeje learnt his skills at Lucas Vale Primary School and he credits the sports master Mr Wind as the first man to encourage his talent and give him self belief. “He made me use my left foot so that I became a two-footed player,” he remembers.
In 1968 at South East London Secondary School, his goals powered the First Year XI to the Blackheath Cup and league double. He was pressganged to the Second Year XI for their cup final against the school’s arch rivals, West Greenwich Secondary — much to the chagrin of the regular centre forward who was unceremoniously sidelined for the match. They won 3-1. The Third Year XI also won the cup for their year, a glorious achievement that got the school into the local paper.
All these years on, the former star doesn’t always remember the moments that were legendary for his contemporaries — and adversaries — from that era, like the eight goals he scored in his very first game for South East London School that set them off on their double-winning season, or the hat-trick he put past one boy who quickly decided he wanted to be a centre half and not a goalie.
As well as his school, Ben played for Blackheath District, London Schoolboys and local youth clubs, then Chelsea showed early interest. Alas, his parents were not keen on him travelling all the way across London to train there, and Ben didn’t fancy signing to Millwall whose ground he lived in the shadow of, so after a while at Stamford Bridge he signed with Charlton.
While with Charlton he moonlighted with different teams because of his love of the game. After one Charlton match he then went and got himself injured playing for a Sunday team. “I got in big trouble for that,” he remembers vividly.
Ex-England manager Roy Hodgson coached the London Schoolboys when Ben played. He was reminded of Hodgson’s coaching tactics: “That’s what I teach my boys to do now!” he shouts, perhaps not realising how much he had taken on board back then.
Ben Odeje’s goal-scoring feats soon had the England scouts nosing around and he remembers when the letter came telling him he had been picked for the England Schoolboys XI. His dad was excited but mum, with her strict Nigerian upbringing, was far from happy. “She refused to come to my Wembley debut,” he says incredulously. “She reckoned football was a waste of time and I should be getting a proper education!” His mother never once saw him play.
Ben was declared man of the match and went on to play for England four more times. Asked if he knew then that he was the first black player for England, and a pioneer blazing a trail through once closed doors, “No,” replied this quiet man simply. “Not until the Cunningham documentary.”
The home games were okay but the away games were horrible.
Multiculturalism in football is a way of life now, but being a black player was not easy back in those 1970s dark ages. Racism was not only rife but also pretty much accepted as the norm. There was Love Thy Neighbour on TV, mistakenly thinking it was breaking down barriers when it was actually exacerbating racism, and there were no discrimination laws filtering down to the terraces on Saturday afternoons. "The home games were okay,” recalls the man who has shown a lot more respect to others than he has received himself, “but the away games were horrible”.
He told of bananas thrown on a regular basis, and how the racism did not just come from opposing fans but from opposing players too, and, more disturbingly, from his own side. “If I did something wrong in the game the racist comments would come from my own team.”
Notwithstanding the barriers to black players back then, Ben Odeje enjoyed his football career and even though his groundbreaking accomplishment was airbrushed from history for far too long, he says playing for his country was the proudest achievement of his life. He boasts, with a modest but infectious smile, “It is up there with getting a degree and finally making my mum happy.”
His degree in Recreation and Community Studies has ensured a life doing what he loves: being a school PE teacher, coaching children at QPR and running his own soccer school, Atlantic Sports Development. He gives motivational talks in schools and is involved with the Kick It Out campaign.
Ben Odeje did not realise that he made history when he broke down the colour wall, but young black players coming through now will know who was first.
By Michael Holland