The Story of Gil Heron: The First Black Professional Footballer in Scotland
Lee McKeown, BSSH Scotland Webmaster
Gilbert Heron (1922-2008) is best known for becoming the first black professional soccer player in America and as the first black professional footballer to play in Scotland for Celtic Football Club in 1951. He is also known as being the father of the jazz musician Gil Scott-Heron. Born in Jamaica, Heron would move to Canada as a child and would eventually play football in America for the Detroit Corinthians and later the Detroit Wolverines. Heron would prove to be a successful striker and became top scorer of the 1946 North American Soccer Football League. In 1947, Ebony magazine even described Heron as the ”Babe Ruth of soccer”.
Heron was no ordinary sportsman. He took part in a variety of different sports with Dimeo & Finn (2001) stating that Heron ”was an all-round sports man who ran and boxed and, while in Glasgow, played for leading Scottish cricket clubs too”. In 1940 Heron was even the 1940 boxing Golden Gloves champion of Michigan. BBC Caribbean describes Heron as a ”sporting renaissance man” due to his success in a wide variety of sports. While Heron enjoyed success in a variety of sports, it is his time in Scotland that he is arguably most famous for.
According to Wilson (2013), during the summer of 1951, Celtic would embark on a tour of America following a successful 1950/51 season which saw Celtic win the Scottish Cup for the first time since 1936/37 by beating Motherwell 1-0 in the final with a goal from John McPhail. It was during this tour of America that Heron was spotted by Celtic. There are, however, conflicting reports of how Heron was noticed by Celtic. Some reports suggest that Heron played against Celtic in a match in Detroit while others suggest that he may have been tipped off. Nevertheless, Wilson states that Heron who was discovered in Detroit quickly earned the nicknamed of the ”Black Flash” due to his speed and skill with the ball. While Heron was paraded as the first professional black footballer in Scottish football history, he was not the first non-white to play in Scotland. Andrew Watson played for Queens Park during the 1880’s, winning the Scottish Cup. Additionally, the Indian player Mohammed Salim was given a trial by Celtic in 1936 although he did not accept it and thus never played a first team game. Interestingly, Salim played in the reserve trials bare footed and refused to wear football boots as he had previously played bare footed in India.
(Gil Heron in 1947 with the Detroit Wolverines)
Nevertheless, Heron saw the chance to sign for Celtic as a golden opportunity, claiming in a 1951 interview that ”Glasgow Celtic was the greatest name in football to me”. Heron was given a public trial against a selection of Celtic players divided into green and white teams and scored 2 goals. He impressed Celtic chairman Robert Kelly and was offered a 1 year contract which he accepted. However, this public trail was not a one off event to display the skill of Gil Heron. Celtic had a free public trail at the start of each season during the 1950’s and 1960’s to parade potential new signings to the general public. Gil’s son Gil Scott-Heron (2012) described in his autobiography that the contract offer from Celtic was a ”Jackie Robinson-like invitation for him. It was something that had been beyond the reach and outside the dreams of blacks”. Indeed, Jackie Robinson had been the first black to play professional baseball in Major League Baseball when he was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Previously, black professionals had only played in the segregated Negro Leagues and Heron would follow in the footsteps of Robinson by breaking down racial barriers by becoming the first black professional footballer in Scotland. Heron would make his Celtic debut on August 18th 1951, with The Ottawa Journal of Ottawa, Canada, reporting that day that ”for the first time in Scotland’s soccer history an American star will play for one of Scotland’s most famous clubs, Glasgow Celtic”.
(The Ottawa Journal, 18th August 1951)
Heron’s debut would be in a League Cup match at Celtic Park against Morton and he would score the second goal in a 2-0 victory in a match with over 40,000 in attendance. The goal he scored was impressive as Heron swiftly struck the ball on the turn inside the penalty area against Scottish internationalist goalkeeper Jimmy Cowan. Heron would again score in a 2-0 win over Airdireonians on 29th August. In a counter-attack Heron ran with the ball from the centre-circle and unleashed a stunning 20 yard strike against Fraser who was also a Scottish internationalist goalkeeper. However, despite showing earlier promise, Heron would have difficulties at Celtic. It has been claimed that a major factor why Heron did not succeed was because was not a physical player and struggled to adapt to the Scottish game.
(Gil playing pool)
However, Celtic historian Tom Campbell believes that existing players in the Celtic squad did not like Heron. It has been suggested that established stars such as Charlie Tully and John McPhail possessed significant influence in the dressing room, which Celtic manager Jimmy McGrory did not properly control. Campbell (2008) states that ”there were definite cliques within the club. McPhail was a charismatic character, he was the centre forward and he’d won the Cup for Celtic in 1951, but I think the other players kind of played to him, and almost visibly resented any player trying to take his place. There wasn’t quite the professionalism there should have been”. Heron was seen as a threat to the popular John McPhail and often found himself isolated on the pitch. Bobby Collins, though, was not impressed with the treatment of Heron and showed his disapproval by refusing to pass into space for McPhail in a match against Third Lanark. While McPhail and Tully saw Heron as a threat, he did have friends at Celtic, with Sean Fallon in particular befriending the Jamaican. However, it must be pointed out that the treatment towards Heron was not personal or racially motivated. Campbell claims that Leslie Johnson, another striker, was also treated in a similar fashion as he was also considered a threat to McPhail’s place in the team.
Eventually, Heron was relegated to the reserves where he would score 15 goals in 15 appearances. Despite his successful reserve scoring record, Heron would not play again until December in a 2-1 victory over Partick Thistle, however, he failed to impress on his return. While Heron was not recalled to the first team, he would be called to the Jamaican national side to play a series of matches against a Caribbean all start side in February 1952. Heron would score 4 goals in 3 games in front of a combined audience of over 70,000.
(Jamaica v Caribbean All Stars poster 1952)
Another reason why Heron was unsuccessful at Celtic may also have been his poor disciplinary record. Heron was red carded in a reserve match against Stirling Albion on January 2nd 1952 for fighting an opponent. Celtic chairman Robert Kelly did not look favourably towards players with poor discipline and Heron’s days at Celtic appeared to be numbered after this incident. The season would prove to be a failure for Celtic, finishing in lowly 9th place and winning no trophies. As a result, Heron would not be offered a new contract. Following his release from Celtic, Heron would be signed by Third Lanark who were at the time also a respected member of the Scottish top division. Heron would go onto play 7 games in total for the Thirds at the start of the 1952/53 season. All 7 games Heron played where in the League Cup and he scored a total of 5 goals during his time at the club, with 2 goals being scored on his club debut.
(Gil playing for Celtic)
It wasn’t just football that Heron played while he was in Scotland. During the summer of 1952, Heron would play for Poloc Cricket Club in the south of Glasgow before signing for Third Lanark. He would also play for Ferguslie in Paisley during the summer of 1953. After leaving Third Lanark, Heron moved to England to play for the Kidderminster Harriers for season 1953/54. It was a bright start for Heron before he was eventually relegated to the reserve team, similarly to his time at Celtic. Heron was forced to leave the club at the end of the season due to the club suffering financial difficulties which forced them to sell a number of their star players. After leaving the Kidderminster Harriers Heron would return to Detroit with his second wife who he had met at Celtic, and they would go onto have 3 children together.
(Gil with Celtic teammates and partners:Roy Milne, Alec Boden, Jimmy Mallan, Sean Fallon, Gil Heron and John Bonnar )
While Heron did break racial barriers by becoming the first black professional footballer in Scotland, his appearance would not lead to a significant change in racial attitudes. According to Onuora, (2015) a black player would not play in the top flight of Scottish football again until Mark Walters played for Rangers against Celtic on 2nd January 1988. While Walters was indeed the first black player to play in the Scottish top flight since Gil Heron, Paul Wilson who played for Celtic in the 1970’s was mixed race. Born in India, Wilson had a Scottish father and a Dutch-Portuguese mother who had ethnic links to Africa. In 1975 in a 1-1 draw against Spain, Wilson became the only non-white player to be capped by the Scottish national team during the 20th century. Wilson was subject to racial abuse, and in a 2011 interview he stated ”I got it right bad but was strong and able to never react, retaliate or gesture because I had grown up with all this racism. I got so much stick at school and beyond.” While the signing of Heron did not lead to a significant change in the public attitude, it was nevertheless a step in the right direction. Heron may not have been a footballing success in Scotland. However, his is warmly remembered as a cult hero and as a pioneer for being the first to cross the professional colour line of Scottish football during a time when blacks were not yet considered equal to whites.
Note – Special thanks to the author of The Shamrock article The Noble Stride – Celtic and the Pioneering Herons for providing a great amount of information as well as the images used in this article. Thanks must also go to the Celtic historian Tom Campbell and Third Lanark historian Bob Laird for helping to provide information about Gil’s playing days in Scotland.
Link to: The Noble Stride – Celtic and the Pioneering Herons
Campbell T (2008) Charlie Tully: Celtic’s Cheeky Chappie, Derbyshire: Breedon Books Publishing Co Ltd
Dimeo P & Finn G, ”Racism, National Identity and Scottish Football” in Carrington B & McDonald I eds (2001) Race, Sport and British Society, London: Routledge
Onuora E (2015) Pitch Black: The Story of Black British Footballers, London: Biteback Publishing
Scott-Heron G (2012) The Last Holiday: A Memoir, Edinburgh: Canongate Books
Wilson B (2013) The Official History of Celtic Football Club, Liverpool: Celtic FC Limited
Wilson B, Gil Heron
Interview: Paul Wilson on Stein, Celtic and Racial Abuse in the 1970s, 10th October 2011, The Scotsman
Remembering Gil Heron, The Sunday Herald
The Gillie Heron Story, 9th January 2009, BBC Caribbean
The Noble Stride – Celtic and the Pioneering Herons
U.S Negro to Play for Glasgow Celtics, Ottawa Journal, 18th August 1951, The Celtic Wiki