Football, Ethnicity and Community

The Life of an African-Caribbean Football Club

by Paul Ian Campbell (Author)
©2016 Monographs XX, 272 Pages
Series: Sport, History and Culture, Volume 6


Winner of the British Sociological Association Philip Abrams Memorial Prize 2017
This book is a case study of an African-Caribbean-founded football club, Meadebrook Cavaliers, from the English East Midlands. Covering the years 1970 to 2010, it seeks to address the paucity of research on the British African-Caribbean male experience in leisure and sport as well as on the relationship between «race» and local-level football. The development of the club was intimately connected to wider changes in the social and sporting terrain. Based on a mix of archival and ethnographic research, the book examines the club’s growth over four decades, exploring the attitudes, social realities and identity politics of its African-Caribbean membership and the varying demands and expectations of the wider black community. In doing so, it shows how studies of minority ethnic and local football clubs can shed light on the changing social identities and cultural dynamics of the communities that constitute them.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • List of Tables
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Foreword by Daniel Burdsey
  • Acknowledgements
  • Chapter 1: Introduction
  • Chapter 2: Combining history and sociology to write ‘black’ sport
  • Chapter 3: Immigration in Britain: Leicester and the first-generation of African-Caribbeans c.1900–1968
  • Chapter 4: Finding their feet: Grassroots football, Meadebrook Cavaliers and the second-generation black experience in Leicester
  • Chapter 5: From parks team to football club: Social policy, generational change and grassroots football in Leicester
  • Chapter 6: Re-inventing Cavaliers: Recession, modernisation and processes of ‘respectability’
  • Chapter 7: Questions of ‘resistance’ in local football in Leicester
  • Chapter 8: ‘Real’ solutions for ‘real’ problems? Community development, cultural cohesion and local football
  • Chapter 9: Some conclusions
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series Index

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← x | xi →

List of Abbreviations

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‘We had no right to get into politics!’ Several testimonies from the players of Meadebrook Cavaliers stand out within this book, but this one jumped off the page. It was not that the reflection of this club member came as a surprise. Having undertaken my own extensive research on the history of British Asian men’s football clubs – some of which were, like the Cavaliers, formed by migrants over fifty years ago – I am well aware that politics were rarely the most exigent factors during these teams’ initial forays into local sport.1 Simply getting the opportunity to play the game with friends, to enjoy it and to integrate with players from other teams – and to do so in an environment that was free from racial intimidation and violence – were all more pressing concerns. Rather, what captivated me about this statement was what it signified in terms of the Cavaliers’ subsequent trajectories, achievements and meanings over the last half-century.

At the end of the 1990s, I lived for a year close to the Meadebrooks area, on the other side of Evington Road which leads eastwards out from the centre of Leicester. Through my involvement as a volunteer in anti-racist activity co-ordinated by Leicester City Football Club, I learned about the many achievements of the Cavaliers in amateur football. I also heard about their experiences of institutional discrimination and on-pitch prejudice. By the end of my time living in the city, I had even been privileged to get to know a couple of club members. I realised that the Cavaliers were a very important symbol for the local black community and a highly valued cultural resource. In the context of prevailing municipal, regional and national racial dynamics, their role was, consciously or not, political.

This player’s testimony might be interpreted another way, however. Irrespective of the implications they may have wished their participation ← xiii | xiv → to take on within their own communities, black footballers were rarely afforded the right to make their sporting participation political by those on the outside. In the latter third of the twentieth century, white teams, communities, politicians and the law and order establishment were happy, for the most part, for black men and boys to play sport. This was based on stereotypical notions of ‘natural’ black athletic ability, together with a belief in the role of sport as a method of social control that emerged after the Wolfenden Report and then again following the urban unrest in British cities during the early 1980s. But playing football was always contingent, permissible on particular terms that did not threaten white sporting and cultural hegemony. Any sense that these emergent black football teams might have represented a form of political mobilisation would have caused concern and generated opposition. For many white Britons, acceptable forms of black community organisation were limited to perceived benign events, such as carnivals and festivals (although, as highlighted at Notting Hill in 1976, these were occasionally met with the full force of police physicality too).

In his book, Race, Sport and Politics: The Sporting Black Diaspora, Ben Carrington offers an eloquent theorisation of the relationship between sport and politics.2 He argues that it is precisely because sport has been regarded in the popular imagination as an apolitical entity that it has become embedded with political connotations. Football, Ethnicity and Community: The Life of an African-Caribbean Football Club provides a powerful empirical substantiation of this thinking. Among the many accomplishments of this impressive volume is the way that Paul Campbell demonstrates how Meadebrook Cavaliers is, to borrow the motto of FC Barcelona, ‘more than a football club’. Anyone reading this book will be left in no doubt that sport, especially football, is not external to the wider lives, identities and aspirations of black men (and many women) in contemporary Britain. For the Cavaliers’ members and many other black footballers across the country, it is a central facet. It is not simply a leisure form and a means of sociability, although to dismiss these prosaic features would do an injustice ← xiv | xv → to the multiple roles of sport. Football is a form of vernacular, transformative cultural politics that speaks to the wider issues and concerns that these communities have endured since large-scale migrations from the Caribbean to Leicester (and elsewhere) in the 1950s and 1960s. Their participation in sport enables and reflects a politics of solidarity, empowerment and resistance, as well as one of inclusion, multiculturalism and conviviality.

Although issues of race and racism, and the participation of minority ethnic players, in English professional football are rarely out of the headlines, we still know very little about minority ethnic sporting cultures at the local level. Thanks to Paul Campbell we now know a considerable amount more. Campbell’s selection of empirical data and informed analysis shed new light on the relationship between post-war immigration, black identities and sport in Britain. He provides a cogent overview of the emergence and development of black communities on national and local scales, highlighting how community formation intersects with locality in a city that has both been praised for its model of municipal multiculturalism and seen record levels of support for the National Front in the 1970s. As Les Back and Michael Keith have argued, ‘we need to guard against the provincialism of the particular, while paying local circumstances careful attention’.3 Paul Campbell achieves this skilfully, encouraging us to consider the local and the amateur settings, as much as the national and global professional realms, in order to understand the relationship between race, sport and identity in late modernity. Moreover, the diversity of the black Caribbean migrant experience is made clear, especially the multifarious interpretations and manifestations of (sporting) blackness, and its intersections with class, generation, masculinity and locality. Guarding us against essentialist, static ideas of sport, community politics and blackness, Campbell highlights the fluctuating role of Meadebrook Cavaliers, including struggles over its functions and meanings, its relative significance for newer generations of players, and its policy to welcome players from all ethnic backgrounds. Minority ethnic football teams have often faced accusations of separatism, ← xv | xvi → but these are claims are largely inaccurate. The British Asian clubs with which I am familiar have far more inclusive selection policies than most white teams. The same goes for the Cavaliers, and Campbell is careful to include the testimonies of some of its white and British Asian players, too.

All of these trends occur within a context of pervasive and pernicious prejudice and discrimination. Racism, Campbell reminds us, exists at the bottom of the football pyramid as much as at the top. But, encouragingly, resistance can also begin at lower levels too, with parks, pitches and playgrounds facilitating resilience and challenge to exclusionary sporting cultures.

Always mindful of spatial, temporal and political contexts, Campbell takes readers on a journey from the early days of Meadebrook Cavaliers’ existence, via subsequent generations of players, to the present day. Their rise from park football to high-level amateur competition is explored in detail, including the club’s attempts to modernise and to make itself ‘respectable’ in the local popular imagination. In doing so, Campbell demonstrates a rare ability to synthesise sociological and historical approaches. The opportunity to observe a phenomenon over such an historical period is refreshing, especially at a time when the bureaucratic evaluation of research outputs in British academe encourages ‘quick hits’ over measured, diachronic analysis. Campbell’s mixed methodology is highly original too. In addition to a more traditional use of interviews and documentary analysis, data were generated through his participatory roles as player, coach and club administrator. As a result, we are party to certain inside workings of Meadebrook Cavaliers that would have perhaps been unachievable through other forms of research. Admittedly this form of participatory research made me more than a little envious: as a far less accomplished player than Paul, my experiences of researching amateur football were usually limited to helping to carry the goalposts and keeping players updated with live Premier League scores!

I have known Paul since we met at a seminar in 2009, where participants presented draft chapters for my forthcoming edited collection on race, ethnicity and football.4 I was especially excited by the insight and ← xvi | xvii → originality Paul bought to the volume, and his chapter remains one of my favourites in that book. His voice remains as important and timely as ever, bringing an innovative, informed and critical approach to the sociological and historical study of race and football in modern Britain. I, for one, continue to learn greatly from, and to be inspired, by Paul’s work. In a broader context, his position and insight are even more significant given British Higher Education’s incorrigible marginalisation of black scholars. Football, Ethnicity and Community deserves our close and sustained attention. This book is a worthy testimony to a group of remarkable footballers. It shows that Meadebrook Cavaliers has meant many things to many people over the last fifty years; and, for those members so inclined, they have indeed had every right to be political.

Daniel Burdsey
Assistant Head of Research,
School of Sport and Service Management,
University of Brighton

August 2015
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1 Daniel Burdsey, British Asians and Football: Culture, Identity, Exclusion (Abingdon: Routledge, 2007).

2 Ben Carrington, Race, Sport and Politics: The Sporting Black Diaspora (London: Sage, 2010).

3 Les Back and Michael Keith ‘Reflections: Writing Cities’, in Hannah Jones and Emma Jackson, eds, Stories of Cosmopolitan Belonging: Emotion and Location (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014), 20.

4 Daniel Burdsey, Race, Ethnicity and Football: Persisting Debates and Emergent Issues (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011).

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XX, 272
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (April)
ethnicity community black Asian and minority ethnic sport grassroots football Race local football
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2016. XX, 272 pp., 5 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Paul Ian Campbell (Author)

Paul Ian Campbell is Senior Lecturer in Sport Culture, Media and Development, Special Needs and Inclusion Studies and Education at the University of Wolverhampton. His work focuses on race, ethnicity and identity from a historical, sociological and cultural studies viewpoint.


Title: Football, Ethnicity and Community