The following is a revised version of an article that appeared in the Cambridge United matchday programme for the game against Leeds United on 9 January 2017.
Before a recent match the Coconuts team were selling copies of Andrew Bennett’s Newmarket Road Roughs and, while they were at it, handing out Let’s Kick Racism Out Of Football stickers and badges. The chat turned to a BBC documentary, broadcast in November 2016, about West Bromwich legend Len Cantello’s 1979 testimonial match, Whites vs Blacks: How Football Changed a Nation.
You couldn’t imagine a game pitting a team of black players against an all-white XI taking place today. But back in 1979 black footballers were still a rarity in England, and the few there were often had to listen to horrifying, lengthy racist broadsides from the terraces. Thank God more enlightened attitudes have prevailed … at least in most places.
What a glorious contribution black players have made to the Cambridge United cause – and it started way back in the 1960s.
Ask any U’s fan of a certain age about the identity of the first black player to pull on an amber shirt and they’ll probably say it was Dennis Walker in 1968. We posed the same question to the late Andrew Bennett, and he put us right: the first black U was Attu Mensah.
The 20-year-old Ghana international came to England in 1964 and did the rounds of trials at Charlton, Norwich, St Neots, Newmarket and Cambridge City before landing at the Abbey.
His only U’s appearance was in the almost legendary Mithras Cup, in which United had drawn Hornchurch. In the second leg at the Abbey on October 5, Mensah scored his team’s second goal in a 4-1 win, dictating the midfield play and supplying pinpoint passes. ‘The crowd loved the Ghanaian, who responded to the praise of the fans,’ said the Cambridge Daily News.
Sadly, that was the last those fans were to see of Mensah. He moved on to Ely City, St Neots and Port Vale, and represented his country in the 1968 Olympic Games before moving to the USA to study, play and coach football.
The next black player to happen along Newmarket Road was Alva Anderson, who became the first Jamaican to represent United. He was studying for an economics and marketing degree at Fitzwilliam College, had earned a boxing Blue and had already played for Jamaica in a World Cup match.
His first appearance was at wing half in a 3-1 home friendly defeat of Luton in October 1965, and he made three Midland Floodlit League appearances before moving back to Jamaica. There he represented his country at both football and hockey and has since followed a distinguished career in sports administration and business.
It was three years before former Busby Babe Dennis Walker arrived. The 23-year-old had already become the first black player to play for Manchester United, and had appeared more than 150 times in four years for York City before joining the U’s.
Appointed team captain, he drove United on to the Southern League championship and the Southern League Cup in his first season. It was Walker’s free kick that Tony Butcher converted to open the scoring in the 3-0 title clincher against Kettering on 3 May 1969.
He maintained his place at the heart of the side in 1969/70 and, once in the Football League from 1970 on, showed his versatility by filling in at centre half and up front when needed. He was granted a free transfer and moved on to Poole Town in 1972. Sadly, the trailblazing Walker died in 2003.His United record was 23 goals in 202 appearances, and he left many magical memories.
The Melbourne FC side that won the Jamaica Senior League title in 1960 with Alva Anderson second from right, back row.