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Black History Month: Spider Viv

We begin this year’s Black History Month series with the first Black player in English national team history.

England v Spain Photo by Mark Leech/Offside via Getty Images

Welcome to February! February 1st marks the start of Black History Month in America, where we pause to recall the achievements that black people have made and the many things that black people have provided this great nation and the world. It’s also a chance to reflect on the many hardships black people have endured throughout American history and continue the conversations that will lead to the changes necessary to improve life for black people moving forward.

As I have done in previous years, I will bring that conversation to the soccer world. Soccer is a sport that’s rich with history, and a lot of the iconic moments, players, or events that define the beautiful game’s history is a result of black people. So, over the next 28 days, I will bring you quick stories about a black player, an iconic moment in black soccer history, or other soccer achievements made by a black person or team. Some will be domestic stories, while others may span the globe. In the end, it’s an opportunity to recall some important players or moments that you may have already known while some days learning something new. By doing this, I hope to gain a lot of new knowledge, and I invite you to join me on that journey.

Before 1978, England’s national team was one of the best in the world. It had won a World Cup in 1966, it was the national team that represented football’s origins. However, it was doing this without a roster that truly represented the country’s fanbase. While England fielded its first non-white player in 1968 when Paul Reaney debuted for the Three Lions, they had not yet fielded a black player.

Enter Viv Anderson. Born in Nottingham, Anderson grew up working odd jobs before he got into soccer with Nottingham Forest. He eventually broke into the first team in 1974 and quickly became a regular for the team as a defender, helping them to win promotion to the First Division in 1977. A year later, Nottingham Forest won the title as well as the League Cup. Anderson’s ability to take the ball from an opposing player along with his long legs earned the nickname “Spider” by adoring fans.

His rise to success came with his haters, as Anderson regularly suffered racial abuse from opposing fans. Still, he overcame it all to help Nottingham Forest, and his play caught the eye of then-England coach Ron Greenwood. In November 1978, Greenwood called in Viv Anderson for a friendly against Czechoslovakia.

Insisting that Viv Anderson was there on merit, Greenwood gave him a place in the starting lineup for that friendly, and Viv Anderson stepped onto the field to become the first Black player and second non-white player to play for England. Viv’s style of play suited England well. He was a great tackler who made sprints forward and had a tendency to score some key goals. He used his first cap for the national team to motivate him for more. With Forest, he was a part of the team that retained the League Cup and then won the European Cup in 1979.

He earned 10 caps for the national team while with Forest, including representing for England at the 1982 World Cup, but when his club career stalled, so did his role on the national team. He didn’t earn another cap until 1984, when he was also was able to secure a move to Arsenal. He was able to revive his national team career, working his way into being a regular in the starting XI and helping the team to qualify for the 1986 World Cup.

Viv Anderson scored 38 goals in 594 appearances for Nottingham Forest, Arsenal, Manchester United, Sheffield Wednesday, Barnsley, and Middlesbrough in his 21-year career. He also finished with 2 goals in 30 international caps for England. He won a First Division title, 2 European Cups, 3 League Cups, a European Super Cup, and a FA Cup, and he represented England at the 1982 and 1986 World Cups along with the 1980 and 1988 Euros.

In 1997, he was voted to Nottingham Forest’s all-time greatest XI at right back, earning 96% of the fan vote. In 2000, he was awarded an MBE, and was elected into the English Football Hall of Fame in 2004. Spider Viv got where he did in his career through hard work and never letting the haters get the best of him. He let his play do the talking, and he spoke vividly whenever he stepped on the field. You don’t have some of the great players on England today without the ability of Viv Anderson to break through onto the international stage for the Three Lions.

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For more Black History Month stories, check out our Black History Month hub.