Sunday, February 7, 2016

His revolution would not be televised - The Story of Gil Heron

Gil Heron (Celtic) 1922 - 2008
by: James Cormack

This story has been told before many times, I am not telling you something that is new, but it is a story that should be retold periodically. Hopefully it is new to some who can appreciate and share it. The beautiful game has many interesting stories.

Throughout Black History Month there will be many great stories retold of great activists, artists and athletes and scholars, who have contributed to the advancement of Africans throughout the known world, the story of Gilbert Heron often goes unnoticed.

Gil Heron was a Jamaican born football player, and as you can tell by the picture he played for Glasgow Celtic. Although not the first black player to ever play in Scotland, he continued to blaze a trail that was started by Andrew Watson who played for Queens Park and Scotland in the early 1880's.

In 1951 Gil Heron, known to Celtic supporters in Glasgow as "The Black Arrow" and also "The Black Flash", became the first ever black football player to play professionally in Scotland and the first black player to play for Celtic FC.

Born in Kingston in 1922, Gilbert Heron also known as "Giles" undoubtedly would have discovered football in his youth as many other children had in the far flung reaches of the British Empire.

During the second World War Gil joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. After the war in 1946 Heron's footballing skills began to attract attention, he was fleet of foot and very skillful on the ball, like many black athletes of his generation, he stood out by excelling through determination and by his very appearance.

Gil was also very physical, he had to be, during his early playing career in the Midwest he frequently became a target for some of the over zealous local players in Detroit and Chicago. His speed and agility quite often helped him avoid tackles designed to remove him from the game.

Gil joined several clubs in the North American Soccer Football League (NASFL) during the late forties and early fifties including the Detroit Wolverines, Detroit Corinthians, Chicago Maroons and Chicago Sparta. The league was short lived lasting only two seasons in 1946 and 1947 but many of the teams continued playing afterwards.

Celtic FC's first major tour of North America took place in 1931 and coincided with a period of severe decline in the US game. A prolonged war of words between the American League and the US Football Association combined with a crippling economic depression had a devastating impact on the sport.

Despite all of that, Celtic managed to pull decent crowds against the odds. 30,000 turned out to see Celtic play the New York Giants. One of the most notable ASL teams of the time, the Fall River Marksmen who's attendances had dropped from the tens of thousands to a mere 3500 in 1930 managed to draw 7,000 in a match that saw them defeat Celtic by a goal to nil.

It would be another twenty years before Celtic would again tour North America, joined by Fulham and Eintracht Frankfurt the "Bhoys" turned out against teams such as the American League Stars, Philadelphia Stars, New Jersey Stars (Kearney XI), Canadian National League XI, and Chicago Polish Eagles.

Somewhere in amongst that tour Celtic scouts had been dispatched to check up on the progress of Gilbert Heron. It is unclear whether Celtic officials went to seek out Heron or whether he played in the tour, but regardless they found him and he was offered a contract to play professionally, 4000 miles away in Glasgow.

Gil Heron's career at Celtic was not a lengthy one but it was successful, he scored on his debut in a cup game against Greenock Morton, earning himself the nicknames "Black Arrow" and "Black Flash". Heron went on to play in a further three league cup games and one league game for the Hoops.

There is no official reason why Gil Heron was released by Celtic but some reports from around the time were that he did not adapt well to the physicality of the Scottish game, and back in 1951 I can imagine it was pretty brutal at times, probably more so than the suburbs of Chicago and Detroit. Gil transferred to Third Lanark and then Kidderminster Harriers in England before returning to the USA to play again for Detroit Corinthians.

18-24 months before signing for Celtic, Gil Heron met his wife to be Bobbie Scott in Chicago, a jazz singer. When Gil Heron left for Scotland in 1951 they separated, but not before bringing a son into the world, that child of course was Gil Scott-Heron, a spoken word poet and jazz musician widely regarded as one of the founding fathers of Rap.

Father and son would not renew their relationship until young Gil was 26 years old. At appearances in Glasgow he would remark that people would turn up at his gigs wearing Celtic jerseys.

In an interview in Scotland, Gil junior was asked about his father's time in Scotland he stated that his father often talked about it, and his son was happy that his family had given a representative of the two things Scottish people love most, football and music.

Gilbert Heron passed away in 2008 in Detroit aged 86, three years later in 2011 his son Gil Scott-Heron died in New York aged 62. Together they had broken new ground as both athlete and artist.

There are many other interesting facts surrounding this story including that the family ancestry actually comes from Scotland, Gil Heron's great-great-great-grandfather was Alexander Heron from Wigtownshire in Scotland.

Gil Scott-Heron gave a Celtic shirt to Robert King, one of the Angola Three, King wore the jersey in an interview on CNN, he had spent 29 years in solitary confinement and a total of 32 years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola before his conviction was overturned in 2001.

If you are interested in this story you can find more source information in the following writings and video.

"Celtic's Black Arrow" by Steve Welsh
Andrew Watson, Scotland's first Black Footballer (video)
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised - London Celtic Punks album review.
Gil Heron - Obituary The Guardian Newspaper
NASFL The Philly Soccer Page
Gil Scott-Heron "Pieces of A Man" full album - (audio/video)
Gil Heron Celtic Photos - The Celtic Wiki

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