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Football’s Black Pioneers: Roly Gregoire, the first black player to play for Sunderland AFC

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Author Bill Hearn tells the story of Sunderland’s first black player, Roly Gregoire, and makes the case for a reappraisal of the striker’s SAFC career.

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By Bill Hearn

I am the co-author of Football’s Black Pioneers – the stories of the first black players to represent the 92 League clubs. More importantly, I am a Sunderland fan and have been for over 55 years.

It seemed only natural that when, in 2016, co-author David Gleave (a Palace fan) and I divided the clubs between us that I should take Sunderland.

I knew Roly Gregoire was our first black player. I’d seen him play and was aware he wasn’t recalled with great fondness. People who hadn’t even seen him in action would ‘remember’ him as yet another of Sunderland’s long line of failed strikers.

I have spent the last four years feeling increasingly guilty about how cruelly we, the fans and media of Sunderland, treated young Roly.

To assuage my guilt this is an open apology to Roly Gregoire.

If people ‘know’ he was rubbish but can’t quite recall why they know this to be the case, he is best remembered for one particular game – a vital match against Blackburn Rovers on Easter Monday 1979 where a 1-0 defeat ultimately cost us promotion. Roly bore the brunt of the crowd’s and media’s quite vicious criticism.

In 2011 Roker Report ranked him as the seventh-worst striker to have played for Sunderland in its then 132-year history. Indeed the other nine strikers on this list of shame all played for Sunderland long after Roly had left, meaning he was considered the worst striker in Sunderland’s entire history until Paul Stewart’s arrival in 1995.

The other nine ‘failures’ were either internationals, cost a huge fee, played hundreds of games, or all three. Roly cost £5,000, played nine League games and had retired from the game by the time he was 21.

There really is no evidence to support this castigation of Roly as I will illustrate through weight of evidence and the testimony of a reliable witness.


But first of all, who was Roly?

Roly’s full name is Roland Barry Gregoire thus beating Catts to the title of first Sunderland player with the middle name of Barry by several decades. His parents Evered and Bernadette came from the Caribbean island of Dominica in the 1950s.

He was born in Toxteth, Liverpool on 23rd November 1958. However, while still a child his family moved to Bradford. Roly attended St Bede’s School in the city and excelled at sport. He played football for Bradford boys and represented Great Britain’s Catholic Schools. In athletics, he shone at 100 metres, 200 metres, long jump and triple jump. He was also gifted academically and remained in education rather than seek a football apprenticeship.

He trained as an amateur with Bradford City, had a trial with Everton but ultimately signed for Fourth Division Halifax Town as a professional when he was 17-years-old.

He made his debut for Halifax on 3rd September 1977 in a 2-1 defeat at Reading in front of a crowd of only 3,415. He kept his place for the next two games; was then dropped and returned for two games in October. His fifth and final game for Halifax, a local derby with Yorkshire rivals Huddersfield Town, ended in a 0-0 draw. This match attracted the biggest crowd Roly had performed in front of – 4,956. Within three months he would be playing in front of a crowd of almost 30,000.

On 30th August 1977 Roly had scored a hat trick for Halifax Reserves against Sunderland Reserves. The Sunderland Echo referred to “Gregoire, the Halifax striker, who looks a fine prospect.”

Sunderland had seen enough and signed Roly for £5,000 on 4th November 1977. The money helped keep Halifax solvent and represented a good deal for them given that Roly wasn’t even a first-team regular.

Young Roly, with only five games in the Fourth Division under his belt, no goals and no wins, was signing for Sunderland, the very epitome of sleeping giants, where the supporters were very demanding and impatient that past glories should be reclaimed and quickly.


First case for the defence – unfair expectations

When Roly signed for Sunderland, manager Jimmy Adamson declared: “He is a player for the future and one with potential. He will go straight into the reserve squad.”


Second case for the defence – price

£5,000 was not a lot of money to pay for a player even back in 1977.


Third case for the defence – youth

Roly was only just 19 years of age. He had been a professional footballer for only two years.


Fourth case for the defence – lack of support, isolation, loneliness?

Having lived in Liverpool and Bradford, Roly would have been used to living in ethnically diverse cities. In 1977 Sunderland was far from diverse, and the sight of a black person was a rarity, to say the least.

In an article in the Journal on 14th March 1979 Roly himself admitted to an uncertain few months when he first came to the region. The article ended with the prediction that, “Sunderland’s first coloured [sic] player, for so long quiet and reserved, is now anxious to prove he can be a black panther on the pitch.”

Sadly nothing could be further from the truth.

He would play only one more first-team game for Sunderland, just over four weeks later – the ill-fated one against Blackburn Rovers.

Roly hasn’t kept in touch with his ex-colleagues at Sunderland, but Gary Rowell recalls him with real warmth, describing him as “polite and quiet, a really nice lad.” One can only imagine how isolated he may have felt arriving at Sunderland as a 19-year-old not only trying to establish himself at a major football club but also having to cope with being one of the few black faces in Sunderland.

In 1984 Gary Bennett – Sunderland’s second black player – was soon joined by Howard Gayle as the then manager Len Ashurst recognised the problems a black player might have in settling in the North-East.

In Ashurst’s excellent autobiography Left Back in Time, he described signing Bennett and Gayle as “a seminal moment.” Recognising that “racism and bigotry were prevalent in the game” he was “determined it would not raise its ugly head during my time on Wearside.”

Howard Gayle Sunderland footballer
As well as Bennett, Gayle was signed by Ashurst in what the Sunderland manager described as a ‘seminal moment’
Photo by Staff/NCJ Archive/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Who knows how differently Roly’s career might have turned out had he played under Ashurst or had a Gary Bennett or Howard Gayle figure to support him?

Fortunately, Roly wasn’t the only young prospect Jimmy Adamson signed on 4th November 1977. Also joining the club was Bury’s 19-year-old England Youth international Wayne Entwistle for £30,000. Wayne and Roly shared digs and helped one another settle into the club.


Fifth case for the defence – Roly’s playing record

Roly made his first appearance in a Sunderland shirt in a 3-3 draw in the North Midlands League on 15th November 1977 and gradually settled into life with the reserve team.

On 2nd January 1978 an injury to Roy Greenwood and Wilf Rostron’s sudden upset stomach meant Roly was sent into the fray of Division Two with only 15 minutes warning. Roly made his debut in front of a crowd of 29,456. It is probable he was the only black person in Roker Park that day. Sunderland beat Hull City 2-0 with both goals coming from Gary Rowell. The Sunderland Echo was impressed stating that “with newcomer Gregoire giving an impressive account of himself in his 2nd division debut. His task was to replace the skilful touches and pace which Greenwood had been supplying and his first crack at the job was encouraging indeed.”

The following day’s Journal waxed lyrical – “And what a debut he [Roly] had. This talented young coloured [sic] player quickly settled in to give an impressive performance.”

Manager Jimmy Adamson predicted a great future for Roly.

A few days after his debut Roly appeared as substitute in a home defeat to Bristol Rovers in the FA Cup. A week later he was unused substitute at Orient then, apart from a substitute appearance at Brighton in February, he went back to the reserves and also suffered a long-term groin injury until the last five games of the season, which saw his longest and most successful spell in football.

On 8th April 1978, Roly scored his first and only League goal after coming on as substitute in a 3-1 win at Kenilworth Road, Luton. He then started against Notts County in a 3-1 home victory, followed by a 3-1 defeat at Millwall.

On 22nd April 1978, Roly retained the number 8 shirt for Sunderland’s penultimate game of the season at White Hart Lane watched by a crowd of 38,220. Spurs were desperate for the points to win promotion back to Division One, Sunderland had nothing to play for. In a major shock, Sunderland won the game 3-2.

Bob Lee scored twice that day – one of his goals being a header that Roly watched loop into the net. A Kevin Phillips or Gary Rowell would undoubtedly have stretched out to give that final push into the net thus depriving a colleague of a goal but adding to his own tally.

Perhaps this was one of Roly’s weaknesses? He was simply too nice?

This late upsurge in form ended with a 3-0 home win against Charlton (Roly played the full game) saw Sunderland finish in a season-high sixth place. Those with long memories will recall this as the game in which Gary Rowell (one miss in 26 penalties taken for Sunderland) handed over spot kick responsibility to full-back Joe Bolton who, having already scored twice was in line to become the first Sunderland defender to score a hat-trick.

Hard man Joe skied the penalty over the bar and the record book remained unchanged.

Having started the season as a Halifax reserve Roly had played in front of crowds of almost 40,000, scored in the old Second Division and held his own in a team that looked forward to a concerted promotion push in 1978/79.

Injury and the form of others meant Roly couldn’t force his way into the first team again until he scored two hat-tricks for the reserves in five days at the beginning of March 1979.

On 7th March 1979 in the midst of a bitter promotion struggle, Roly came on as substitute in place of Wilf Rostron in a crucial home game against Wrexham.

Sunderland won 1-0. The Sunderland Echo recorded that “Gregoire’s introduction, popular with the crowd, had the astonishing result of having 3 free kicks given against him before he played the ball”.

Interviewed in the Journal shortly afterwards Roly revealed that his ambition was to play for England and added, ”I’m aware of the sudden emergence of coloured [sic] players in England and I’d like to continue that trend at Sunderland.”

Sunderland’s record with Roly in the side was played 9 won 6 lost 3 – not a bad return.


Sixth case for the defence – injuries

Roly struggled for fitness throughout his spell at Roker Park starting with his groin injury in the latter part of the 1977/78 season.

Comments have been raised about Roly never appearing in a team photograph. Conspiracy theorists will be disappointed to know that he missed the 1978/79 photo session because he had knee ligament injuries which would keep him out of action for three months.

He was eventually forced to retire from the game because of injury while he was still only 21 years old.


The evidence against - that Blackburn game

Roly made his first start for almost a year when he was handed the number 11 shirt for the Easter Monday 1979 clash with bottom of the table Blackburn Rovers. A crowd of 35,005 expected a comfortable victory to send Sunderland to the top of the League.

Things didn’t go quite to plan though.

A first-half Derek Fazakerley penalty saw Blackburn take the lead. Attack after Sunderland attack was repelled with a series of chances being squandered including some that fell to Roly, but he was far from the only guilty party. It was just ‘one of those days’ and the ball wouldn’t go into the net.

To show the fickleness of football (and football reporters) the Sunderland fans and Sunderland Echo were scathing, the latter stating that Roly “must have been shattered by the abuse and ridicule showered upon him by the crowd every time he came into play. That was how it looked, for I have rarely seen a player so often at fault in a game and while it was tough, a good professional should be able to cope with that sort of pressure.”

Aged only 20, Roly never played League football again.

Manager Billy Elliott defended his decision to play Roly and fellow young striker 19-year-old Alan Brown by saying, “We wanted more pace up front and we were going for goals.”

In fairness, Sunderland did create the chances but they couldn’t put the ball in the net.

A point would have been enough to have seen Sunderland promoted.

Roly started the next season as substitute for the reserves in a 4-0 victory against Annfield Plain but was unable to break back into the first team.


The witness for the defence – Wayne Entwistle

No one at Sunderland knew Roly better than Wayne Entwistle. They signed on the same day, were the same age and shared digs. Wayne’s credentials are impeccable, 53 starts for Sunderland and 15 goals including a hat trick in the snow against Bristol Rovers plus the fourth goal against the Magpies in the famous 4-1 win in February 1979 when Gary Rowell hit a hat trick.

Wayne remembers Roly as a “confident, calm, cool player” with “good balance, strong, sturdy, low centre of gravity, all attributes you look for in making a good footballer.”

Wayne’s response on hearing that his old friend was ranked among our worst ever strikers was to argue that this was totally disproportionate and unfair. I agree and hope you will too.

Like everyone else, Wayne said Roly was a lovely lad and he’d love to contact him once more.

Sadly, my correspondence to Roly has all gone unanswered. Perhaps Sunderland just brings back too many unhappy memories?

I, for one, want to say “sorry Roly.”

Football’s Black Pioneers by Bill Hern and David Gleave is published by Conker Editions.

It is available from Amazon, Waterstones and all good book shops.