Gil Heron – Celtic’s first black star

This article came about after a colleague asked what music I was listening to. When I told him it was Gil Scott-Heron he informed me that the musician’s father played for Celtic. I found this an interesting piece of trivia but when I thought more about it made me want to delve deeper. If Gil Scott-Heron was performing in the 1970s his father must have played for Celtic long before then? In the early post war era, there can’t have been many black footballers in Britain? How did a man from North America end up playing football in Glasgow?

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Gilbert (Gil) Heron was born in Kingston, Jamaica on 9th April 1922. As a schoolboy in the Caribbean, Heron excelled at track and field defeating Herb McKenley, who would go on later to become a 400m sprint world record holder and compete at the 1948 and 1952 Olympics in six events in total, winning one gold and three silver medals. As well as athletics, he played cricket, the national sport of the West Indies. Heron, aged 15, led his Jamaican school, St George’s, to victory in the Manning Cup, contested among schools in the Corporate Area (comprising the parishes of Kingston, St. Andrew and most of St. Catherine)

In Heron’s later teenage years he moved to Canada. The young Jamaican played football and continued to compete in athletics, including long jump, high jump and sprinting, as well as taking up ice hockey. In 1940, at the age of 18, Heron became Golden Gloves welterweight champion of Michigan, and later enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Older brother, Roy Trevor Gilbert Heron, served with the Norwegian Merchant Navy during World War II and then joined the Canadian army, later becoming active in black Canadian politics.

In Detroit Heron took a job in an auto plant to make ends meet. Heron continued to play football after moving to America and became the first black person to play professionally in the United States was the only black player in US professional football at the time. In 1946, he signed for Detroit Wolverines, who played in the short-lived North American Professional Soccer League, which they duly won in its inaugural season, with Heron scoring 15 goals in eight games. Though Heron was the league’s top goal scorer that year he was paid only 25 dollars a game compared with the 100 dollars a game paid to white player Pete Matevich, who scored far fewer goals than Heron.gil-heron-4

Considering the United States did not have a truly national league until the late 1960s, crowds of 2,000-4,000 were respectable by the US standards of the time. Despite getting paid less than his teammates Heron was drawing personal acclaim with his performances. In a 1947 profile, Ebony magazine described Heron as the ‘Babe Ruth of soccer.’ With reference to the sports roots in England the article said “The ancient Old-World game of soccer boasts a New-World star.”

As Heron’s performances continued to raise acclaim he was selected on the US’ All Star team the year after the Ebony magazine profile. This led to the striker transferring to Detroit Corinthians, who played in the larger American Soccer League.

In the 1950s Glasgow Celtic had a history of making lengthy American tours and doing some scouting at the same time. The goalkeeper Joe Kennaway was an earlier product of this strategy. One of Celtic’s scout must have been at a Detroit Corinthians game as the Scottish giants did not play Heron’s club on their 1951 tour. Regardless of the exact circumstances Heron was invited to Scotland for a public trial. The game was a success as the Jamaican scored twice at Celtic Park.

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Heron’s performance convinced Celtic sign him and therefore become the first black player to play the Scottish club Celtic, and the first to play professionally in Scotland. Heron told a Scottish newspaper upon signing in 1951 “Gee, I was tickled, Glasgow Celtic was the greatest name in football to me.”

His impact was instant as he scored on his debut on 18 August 1951 in a League Cup tie against Morton that Celtic won 2–0. As he had done in Detroit, Heron was making a positive impression on the media in Britain. “Right now, he is Scottish football’s Golden boy” said one newspaper. Another claimed “fifty thousand supporters hail him as the greatest thing seen at Celtic Park since goalposts.”

Heron was competing for the centre-forward role with John McPhail, a Celtic hero of the era. As former athlete in his youth, his extraordinarily pace led supporters to give Heron the nickname ‘Black Flash’.

As well as gaining recognition at club level Heron won a place on the Jamaica Football Association XI, which in 1952, played a series against the Caribbean Combined XI, which featured Trinidad star Delbert Charleau. Heron was a truly multi-talented sportsman and also excelled at cricket, having played growing up in the West Indies, and while in Scotland competed professionally for leading Glasgow clubs while resident in the city.

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Despite a successful club debut and rave reviews in the press Heron struggled to fit into manager Jimmy McGrory’s lineup, which included legendary performers such as Sean (Iron Man) Fallon, Bobby Evans, John McPhail, Bertie Peacock, Charlie Tully and Jock Weir. Heron scored 15 times in 15 appearances for the Celtic reserve team but ended his Celtic career after five first team appearances, scoring two goals in the process. It’s claimed the reasons for the brevity of his career in the famous green and white hoops were because he wasn’t robust enough for the Scottish game in the 1950s with its tough tackles and rough play. Other reports say the forward was far too stylish a player. The likelihood was, aged 29 when he arrived at Celtic, Heron was probably past his best, especially as pace was a key attribute to his game. Despite this Heron was described as “a great and supremely interesting human being” by the Celtic FC guide “An Alphabet of the Celts.”

Upon leaving Celtic Park joined Third Lanark where he played in seven League Cup matches, scoring five goals but did not appear in the League. His football career in the UK concluded with a season at Kidderminster Harriers, playing in the Birmingham League. As he had been at Celtic Heron was the first black player to sign for the midlands club. In 1954, Heron would leave England returning home to Detroit to re-join Detroit Corinthians. With a family to support, he took a job on the assembly line at the Ford Motor Car Company. A man of many talents Heron later became a referee, as well as resuming his career as a professional photographer. Gil Heron was also a poet and jazz musician.

Despite being a pioneer in the game his achievements have been overlooked by his legendary son. In 1949 poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron was born in Detroit to singer Bobbie Scott, Gil Heron’s wife. The couple separated when Heron left for Scotland and did meet his son again until Scott-Heron was 26. While in Scotland Heron met his future wife, Margaret Frize. Heron had three more children, Gayle, Denis and Kenny, who was killed in a drive-by shooting in Detroit, and eight grandchildren. Gayle said her father was not bitter he received so little recognition, “He knows he was a pioneer,” she says.

His son, Gil Scott-Heron became a rap music pioneer of the 1970s and 80s. His Midnight Band are best known for the polemic song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” On a visit to Glasgow Gil reflected that his father continued to take a lifelong interest in the fortunes of Celtic football club, until his death from a heart attack in November 2008, aged 86, “My father still keeps up with what Celtic are doing. You Scottish folk always mention that my Dad played for Celtic, it’s a blessing from the spirits! Like that’s two things that Scottish folks love the most; music and football and they got one representative from each of those from my family!”

When his father’s links to Celtic became known it became a feature of his son’s UK concerts that some of the fans turned up wearing the club’s shirts. Scott-Heron would joke “There you go again – once again overshadowed by a parent. I’m going to wear my Celtic scarf and Rangers hat when I come over!” The singer went into more detail about his father’s career in an interview with The New Yorker “It was after the war, working for Western Electric, he also played for the Chicago Maroons, or something like that. A Scottish team came through, and he scored on them, which was not what they had come for. They was all white. He went to Scotland, and the legend goes he scored the day he arrived. He was dubbed the Black Arrow, and played professionally for three more years.”

Writing this article, I discovered that behind a little-known fact was an incredible life story of a man who may be overlooked as the father of his legendary son. However, Gil Heron was a trailblazer in his own right, and his own personal achievements will go down in Celtic history.

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