“I’ve got a photo of me playing for my junior school in trainers and the rest of the lads are wearing boots but every other time I was properly kitted out. I used to wonder how she did it and years later I asked her. ‘Lost Property, son,’ she said. Every so often a pair would be left on a bus and if no one claimed them within two months she got to keep them. Remember when wages came in little envelopes? She ended up with a few of those, too.”
But it wasn’t just the opposition’s attempts to snare him that the twinkle-toed Walters had to dodge. There were the darts, the golf balls, the coins, even pig’s feet and lots of bananas. “What kind of place have I come to?” the kid from the big Afro-Caribbean community in Aston, Birmingham, wondered. “What type of people populate this country?”
Walters’ mum Ivy died in February, aged 87, and so misses her son’s TV documentary next week telling the story of black players in the Scottish game. In other respects, though, the programme is timeous.
All bigotry is bad
Walters signed for Rangers on Hogmanay, 1987, when, just like before this season, the club hadn’t won the league for nine years. The latest triumph has been marred by fan celebrations descending into violence and anti-Catholic abuse and the former favourite, now 56, joins the condemnation saying: “It’s bigotry and all bigotry is bad.”
Some things don’t change. Ah, but others do. Scottish football today is made up of many nationalities and colours, not least at Rangers. “When I came up I was the only black person in the village,” he says.
Reworking a Little Britain catchphrase is Walters’ only attempt at humour when I call him at his home in Solihull in the English Midlands. This is hardly surprising given his shock introduction to our game and the effect it had on him. Not just the only black player, he must have felt like the very first to venture onto a Scottish park, but he wasn’t: Andrew Watson was that pioneer all of a century before. This is a revelation to Walters who says at the end of his film: “If I had known his story it might have made me feel less alone.”
The Watson tale is fascinating and with some justification the documentary hails him as “the most influential black footballer of all time”. He was the first in the world to win a national trophy, the 1881 Scottish Cup with Queen’s Park; the first black captain of a national team and a key member of the Scotland side who triumphed 6-1 at Kennington Oval, still England’s heaviest home defeat; and when he moved south to spread the gospel about the Scottish passing-and-running style, the first black player to appear in the FA Cup. But Walters’ tale is no less fascinating, involving as it does courage, guts and an absolute refusal to be beaten.
Being chased around a Swedish nightclub
In the heart of England, playing for Aston Villa, I’m wondering what our man knew of Scottish football before Rangers gazumped Everton for the signature of the exciting winger, then 23. “Davie Cooper,” he answers without hesitation. “He was a fantastic player. Even though he stayed in Scotland his whole career, a goal like that one against Celtic, beating the entire defence with the ball staying in the air, must have travelled everywhere.”
There were Scots at Villa - once standard at all English clubs - when he joined from school in 1981 and a tartan triumvirate in the side which lifted the European Cup the following year: Des Bremner, Allan Evans and Ken McNaught. He remembers them as good pros dispensing good advice, not least when he was the rookie on a pre-season tour of Sweden. “I got into some trouble with a guy who accused me of chatting up his girlfriend and he was chasing me round this nightclub. Thankfully Allan, who was our captain, intervened. He told the bloke I was only 17 and not interested in girls but he packed me off to bed just to be sure!”
A more crucial intervention was made by another Scot - Ibrox manager Graeme Souness equipped with a Daimler to collect Walters from the airport and a silver tongue. “Graeme was very persuasive. I got given the grand stadium tour. And he could offer European football. English clubs, because of the Heysel ban, couldn’t.”
The whiteness of Scotland startled Walters, who would settle in Bothwell, Lanarkshire. “Coming from a multicultural area like I did that was so strange. But I like to think I’m an approachable person, keen to meet new people, so I tried to embrace it.” Then came his debut, the small matter of an Old Firm derby.
Bananas, a golf ball, even a dart
Souness attempted to ready his £500,000 recruit for a lively 90 minutes. “Graeme joked that I could probably expect more bother if I was Catholic. I didn’t really know what he meant.” The reaction of the Parkhead crowd to clapping eyes on Scottish football’s first black footballer of the modern era took everyone by surprise, not least TV commentator Archie Macpherson who says in the documentary: “I missed the implication of all the banana-throwing. It made no impact on me. And I regret that to this day.”
In the programme Walters watches highlights of the match for the first time. He tells me: “I remember looking to my right and seeing all this debris: bananas, a golf ball, even a dart. I’m not going to lie, that shocked me. But it wasn’t a time in football when you complained to the ref about stuff like that. I think I probably tried to move away from the touchline, just in case … ”
In the film Walters says that at half-time the abuse - including monkey noises every time he touched the ball - was not mentioned in the Rangers dressing-room and that no one tried to console him. Was he surprised by that, or disappointed? “Not really. We were losing the game so everyone was concentrating on how we could turn it around. My team-mates were strangers to me. I’d only been in Glasgow for a couple of days. The interval was longer than normal because, I found out later, of the time it took to clear everything from the pitch. I’m glad I didn’t know that at the time.”
Brutal Tynecastle experience
Though his introduction to Scottish football had been grim, Walters was equipped with positivity, resolve and, not least, Christian compassion, all of this down to Ivy. “Mum was part of the Windrush generation. When she arrived in England from Jamaica and she was struggling to find somewhere to live there were signs on walls: ‘No blacks, no Irish, no dogs’. Later, one of the most fulfilling things I did in my life was buy her a house so that no one would be able to throw her out.”
With Walters’ Nigerian father Lawrence having walked out on the family, Ivy had to face the challenges alone. He says: “Mum sacrificed her own life for her children and I’ll be forever grateful for that. She had it tough and thought I would too. Don’t let that get you down, she used to say to me. Play even better. Try twice as hard.”
His next away game, at Tynecastle, was twice as brutal. More abuse, more bananas, only this time Macpherson was on the alert, expressing his disgust during the match when Walters was bombarded as the player tried to take a corner kick and again at the end, standing in the Gorgie gloom, holding up one of the missiles for the Sportscene cameras.
In the documentary slowed-down footage from that game shows a young boy joining in the abuse. Walters says now: “Children aren’t born like that. That lad was told to throw the banana or he was copying an adult. But that was upsetting.”
Three years ago on these pages Hugh Burns, once of Rangers but that day playing for Hearts when he was given the runaround by Walters, confessed to uttering a racist remark to him. Burns was glad of the opportunity, bumping into his tormentor later in a Hamilton nightclub, to offer profuse apologies and buy him a drink. And to be told by Walters with a smile: “This is the nearest you’ve got to me.”
Reflecting on the incident today, he says: “I didn’t make a big deal of it. Ally McCoist, Ian Durrant and Derek Ferguson all told me Hugh was a good mate and a nice guy and that proved to be the case. We met up again at Ibrox a couple of years ago and are now Facebook friends. He obviously regretted what he said but I believe that in life everyone deserves a second chance. Mum was a devout Christian and, being brought up in the church, I learned that forgiveness is a big thing, a good thing.”
Mo Johnston and a bullet in the post
Walters, in those early months in Scotland, had to forgive a lot. What about the “fan” who, in a newspaper, was photographed with £30 worth of fruit which he’d purchased to hurl at the player? And what about the paper for printing this? “I know. The article hardly condemned the guy, it was written matter-of-factly.”
He was also sent a letter purporting to be from the Ku Klux Klan. He didn’t think it was real - but the bullet which arrived in the post for Maurice Johnston was. In testing times a football dressing-room can be a place of macabre humour and this can be beneficial for its occupants. For being a Catholic who dared to wear the Rangers blue, Walters quipped to his team-mate: “Mo, you’ve taken the pressure right off me!”
He continues: “Listen, I had two choices: quit Scotland or stick it out. The darts and coins - objects which could hurt - worried me but Alistair Hood who was in charge of security at Rangers promised to protect my safety and I was glad about that.
“I chose to stick it out because, really, that’s what guys like me had to do back then. Taking the knee for Black Lives Matter would never have happened in my day. If you wanted to be a professional footballer then abuse was something you just had to put up with.
“Cyrille Regis was someone I admired for not giving in to it. If a black player said he wasn’t going to play anymore there would always be someone to take his place. Some complained maybe too much. They would get confrontational with the opposition if something was said during a game or team-mates if the dressing-room banter got too much. Bob Hazell at Wolves, a good friend of mine, was a great player but he couldn’t handle things and was always getting himself sent off. But I don’t know how somelike like [Chelsea’s] Paul Canoville coped. He not only suffered abuse from away fans but his own supporters as well.” For Walters in Scotland at least there was an outcry over the racist taunting. “It calmed down after that.”
Remembering Andrew Watson
It would have been hugely helpful to Walters to have had his father by his side, especially after learning Lawrence had been a footballer himself and represented Nigeria. “When I was in the reserves at Villa I found out he’d been watching some of my games. He did introduce himself after I’d broken into the first team but at that time I was too bitter and told him it was too late for us. Do I regret that? Possibly … ”
The documentary ends with Walters joining a ceremony at a London cemetery saluting Watson following the discovery and restoration of the latter’s grave. “I wish when I was at Rangers I’d have known about him,” he affirms. “To have been aware that someone else had blazed a trail and I wasn’t the first would have been a great help.”
Watson at least had another black player alongside him as well as a Chinese goalkeeper at the long-defunct Parkgrove club in Glasgow, a consequence of the city’s status as one of the world’s most important trading ports. So Walters with no such back-up, even though he’s too modest to accept the title, was a pioneer, too.
He reflects on how football has changed, how black players are everywhere in the game now and for the most part are accepted as such - and how, if racism rears its ugly head, a team can retreat and the match will be abandoned.
“That’s obviously a good thing but could I have walked off the pitch? Because of my upbringing and I’m not saying this is right, I don’t think I could have done. It would be admitting defeat and that’s not my personality. I would have just played on.”
Mark Walters in the Footsteps of Andrew Watson is on the BBC Scotland channel on Tuesday, 25 May at 10pm