'I'm proud to be Ireland's first black player' – Chris Hughton, 40 years to the day since his debut in green

There was a touch of shyness about the 20-year-old as he prepared to wear the green jersey for the first time.

It’s 40 years to the day since Chris Hughton made his international debut against the USA, but he’s sad that the racism problem is still there

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Chris Hughton was a relative newcomer to football, having made his league debut just a month before his international debut, on this day back in 1979.

He didn’t know anyone in the Ireland set-up, bar fellow Londoner Jerry Murphy, a Crystal Palace player. For his welcome to the Irish squad, he was picked up at arrivals in Dublin airport and taken to the team hotel by an FAI volunteer who was on his lunch break from work.

As a Londoner, his accent was different. As was his skin colour.

“I was the first black player to play for Ireland, which is something I am hugely proud of, even today,” Hughton told Independent.ie ahead of today’s 40th anniversary of his debut, in a grim 3-2 friendly win over the USA at Dalymount Park.

“It became normal after that for black players to play for Ireland, Paul McGrath came a few years later. There was no black community in Ireland when I played but that’s not the case now, Ireland has changed dramatically.

“I was always conscious that I was a black player, the only one in the team with Ireland and, believe it or not, Tottenham at the time, but I was pleased to see others follow me.

“I had only been to Ireland twice before I played for the Republic. My mother is from Limerick but my nan used to come over to us in England every summer. We didn’t go to Limerick for our summer holidays the way a lot of the Irish community did.

“I jumped at the chance to play for Ireland but also I didn’t have this really strong association with the country.

“The fact that I had been asked to represent Ireland made me, and my family, very proud but I hadn’t grown up thinking of playing for Ireland – that wasn’t the thought process of an east London lad.”

Ireland in 1979 was not used to dealing with race. In the lead-up to his debut against the USA, Irish newspaper reports unapologetically used the word “coloured” to describe him.

“Words and expressions were used at the time that are not spoken of now. Ireland was a different place in 1979 but so was England,” says Hughton.

“I went through some very uncomfortable situations where you are in company as the only black person there, and things are said, what some would see as banter.

“For a lot of black people in that environment it would have been very uncomfortable, you do turn a blind eye to some things and get on with it.

“As you got older and wiser, maybe more confident, you right some of the wrongs and over the years I have had to stand up to people, to tell them I am not ‘coloured’ but I am black.

“In those days some would refer to people like me as half-caste, which is an awful term. So, as you get on in life, you stand up and say, ‘I am black’.

“You were aware of the racist comments that went on in our game in the late 1970s but part of you wanted to just concentrate on your own game.

“It was a difficult time but in all my years playing for Ireland I never experienced what I had in England.

“From the fans and the people around the team with Ireland I never had a problem. It was a very welcoming place, that dressing-room.

“Maybe an Irish dressing-room was different as we had a mix anyway, lads born in Ireland with players, like me, who qualified through parentage, different accents, so it was easy to bed in.”

In contrast with the ease of being a black Londoner in Ireland, life in England was harsher.

“I was the only black player at Tottenham then, Garth Crooks came after me,” Hughton says.

“In all my years playing for Ireland I never experienced what I had from the terraces in England.

“I got a letter, not a death threat but a threat all the same, regarding playing for Ireland but that didn’t come from Ireland as far as I know. I never remember getting racial prejudice in Ireland.”

His debut, he recalls, was grim enough. The friendly against the USA was played in Dalymount Park on a Bank Holiday Monday, a 3pm kick-off, pay at the door.

It was £3 to get into the stand, £1 for the terraces; admission for “boys” was 20p (girls were not mentioned in the pre-match advertising by the FAI).

The match programme had just six ads (two from the publishers) with fans encouraged to come to Hanlon’s pub on the North Circular Road after the game, a world away from 2019 hospitality in the Aviva.

And the game, in front of 22,000 spectators, was also grim, the USA (then seen as minnows) leading 2-0 before a three-goal Irish response and a narrow win in what was John Giles’ last home match as manager.

“It wasn’t a great game, if I am honest,” Hughton recalls.

“You’d like to have a big stage for your international debut but that certainly wasn’t a glamorous occasion. It wasn’t the most inspiring of occasions, it was against a far-lesser opposition as the USA were not rated as a side at the time, and it wasn’t a brilliant game. That day meant more to me than it did to others.”

Hughton would go on to win 53 caps, the last in 1991, but while Euro 88 was a high point (he played in every minute of every game at the finals), the 1990 World Cup was a struggle as he travelled but never saw any action.

“Italia 90 was brilliant for the country but frustrating for me as I didn’t play,” he says.

“When you are a player, it’s about playing not just involvement, so 1988 was superb for me, but I was frustrated in 1990. I was there and part of the squad but didn’t get on, even if I’d played in one game it would have made a difference.”

Now 60 and out of work since he left Brighton in May, he is keen to manage again but is saddened by some of what he sees and hears.

“It’s so sad that in 2019 England players get abused racially in Bulgaria, that we are still talking about race as an issue,” he says.

“I would always support the actions of a player who walks off the pitch but the only way to stop it is to have strong penalties, the severest penalties you can get.”

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