Man City legend Alex Williams on becoming the top flight’s first black goalkeeper in the 1980s, dealing with Nazi salutes and being pelted with bananas… and why he’s dedicated his life to the Citizens

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There will be two groups of Manchester City supporter. One who remembers Alex Williams as the first black goalkeeper to regularly play in the old First Division, the one who took over from the great Joe Corrigan in the 1980s.

And the younger vintage will know Williams as the genial face of the club’s charity, City in the Community. The man who has spent 33 years giving back to the region’s streets. His association with City now in its sixth decade, Williams is calling time.

‘At Maine Road, the community team had an upstairs room in a semi-detached house,’ Williams says. ‘Next to the old social club there were two houses. One belonged to the old groundsman, Stan Gibson. We were in the other with the lottery department.

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‘It was quite cosy, laughable today, but in some ways it was great because we were accessible. People would just wander through the house. I remember driving a really rickety old minibus to a school. I got pulled over and got three points because the tyres were bald. We have come a long way since those days.’

The numbers bear that out. The charity has gone from turning over £10,000 a year when Williams took charge to more than £3million now as he leaves his role as ambassador after 12 years. He has driven the growth and a training pitch was named in his honour last week, where the 61-year-old’s speech focused on gratitude to others. Those included Nedum Onuoha, who now sits on the board.

Alex Williams became the first black goalkeeper to regularly play in the old First Division

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Alex Williams became the first black goalkeeper to regularly play in the old First Division

Now, Williams (back left) is known as the genial face of the club¿s charity, City in the Community

Now, Williams (back left) is known as the genial face of the club’s charity, City in the Community

‘We’re standing there next to his pitch and he’s thanking everyone else,’ Onuoha says. ‘I had nothing to do with this but he wants to give me credit. He’s probably embarrassed, even though it’s the least we can do.’ Onuoha, the former full back, was once a kid on the community scheme. ‘He’s a legend of the club and the area itself,’ Onuoha adds. ‘I think he’s irreplaceable. He’ll be sorely missed. The history he has here can’t be matched.’

Williams’s career was effectively over by the time Onuoha was born. He had flourished as a youngster, applauded off at Anfield by the home fans, before an undiagnosed slipped disc forced him into retirement at 25, after a spell at Port Vale.

In the modern era, only QPR’s black goalkeeper Derek Richardson had briefly featured in the top flight before him.

That Williams paved the way for others is an inescapable fact, David James and Shaka Hislop have both said that he acted as an inspiration.

‘It’s not a position where a lot of black or ethnic players play in,’ Williams says. ‘I think that’s changing. I look at MLS, there are a lot of black goalkeepers playing there. Going down to the lower leagues here, there are a lot. There are one or two higher up.’

With parents from the Windrush generation, Williams immediately won the hearts of those at Maine Road. ‘Two young tearaways’, as Williams describes them in his new autobiography, often shouted to chat as he ran through Cringle Park in Levenshulme. Noel and Liam Gallagher. Liam has written a passage in the book and City boss Pep Guardiola has provided the foreword.

English musician Mike Pickering, a former DJ at Hacienda nightclub in Manchester who is close with Noel and a regular at City matches, also pens a tribute.

In that, though, Pickering recounts the Nazi salutes aimed towards Williams at Elland Road on a day where City’s No 1 was pelted with bananas to the extent that kick-off was delayed. Williams was a target in bigoted 1980s England. On another occasion, an intercepted envelope addressed to him at a team hotel was found to contain razor blades.

Williams (right) presented Manchester City's Erling Haaland (left) with his Premier League winners medal

Williams (right) presented Manchester City’s Erling Haaland (left) with his Premier League winners medal

The charity has gone from turning over £10,000 a year when Williams took charge to more than £3million now as he leaves his role as ambassador after 12 years

The charity has gone from turning over £10,000 a year when Williams took charge to more than £3million now as he leaves his role as ambassador after 12 years

‘A goalkeeper in the top flight was unheard of,’ Williams says. ‘It was a shock to the fans. It wasn’t nice but you have to drown it out.

‘Certain games I remember: West Ham away, Leeds away — I was actually applauded at the end of the game. Not just for my performance but dealing with what had been said.’

Mayor of Manchester Andy Burnham, an Everton fan, stood in the Gwladys Street Stand as Williams ran towards them after half-time. One local climbed a fence, leaning over with a twisted newspaper. Alight, he was waving it as a burning cross to imitate the Ku Klux Klan. Others in the stand were laughing.

City signed a commercial deal with Saab and Bernard Manning was hired to ‘entertain’ at the press call. ‘If you win the league this year, you’re all going to get a Saab each,’ Manning told the assembled squad. ‘I think we might be a couple short, so you two n****** won’t get one.’ Manning pointed at Williams and Clive Wilson.

Williams (green top) in action as he collects the ball during a Manchester derby clash in 1989

Williams (green top) in action as he collects the ball during a Manchester derby clash in 1989

‘Complaining would have been seen as a sign of weakness back then,’ Williams remembers. With all of these incidents, the urge for retribution must have been all-consuming. 

‘There was lot of temptation,’ he says. ‘You can’t do that though. You can’t go doing things you’d probably like to. You’ve got to remember who you’re representing: it’s not just the football club, you’re seen as a pillar of the community as well.’

Pillar of the community, Alex Williams.

You Saw Me Standing Alone is available from www.alexwilliamsbook.co.uk for £15.

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