A CAR horn toots, followed by another . . . five sharp bursts. If you could apply a human quality to their timbre you might say they were friendly. They speak to the man at the other end of the phone more than 200 miles away – Howard Gayle or “Howie” as he signs his text messages and emails.

The location is outside a school in Toxteth, the area that Gayle was born into. As a community worker there and a former professional footballer in a football daft city he is a well-kent figure in his “hood”. It is mid May and you can almost hear the sunshine at the other end of the line – a lorry reversing, birds chirping, cars drifting past. Life is sunny for Gayle, too; it is the day before his 60th birthday, he has a grandchild on the way and his beloved football team, a beacon for multi-culturalism, has reached the European Cup final for the seventh time, where they will play Real Madrid in Kiev on Saturday evening.

Thirty-seven years ago next weekend, Gayle took his place on the Liverpool bench as they faced the same Spanish opponents. He was one of only two black players in either squad that night in the Parc des Princes in Paris. The other was Laurie Cunningham, a stylish north Londoner of Jamaican descent, who had joined Real two years earlier for £900,000 from West Bromwich Albion.

Gayle had been the star of Liverpool’s semi-final, second-leg aggregate win over Bayern Munich as a stand-in for Kenny Dalglish while Cunningham, a flamboyant winger with a penchant for dance in his spare time, had struggled with a toe injury all season having had it broken following a cynical stamp in a match against Real Betis. Forced by club doctors to play injured in his next game against Barcelona, he did irreparable damage and was never the same player again.

Cunningham bordered on matinee idol status for young black men: a social icon, he wore silk t-shirts and zoot suits and even designed his own clothes. He had mesmerised defences in England at West Brom and attracted the attention of Real after a particularly hypnotic performance against Valencia in the 1978 Uefa Cup. But he would have no more than a token role in the final, a bystander to much of the action aside from one chance near the end which he spurned.

Gayle, the first black player to represent Liverpool, did not make it off the bench. He had lasted 61 minutes of that semi-final before a harsh booking prompted Bob Paisley, the manager, to withdraw him for fear that he might give the referee reason to send him off.

“As long as Kenny Dalglish was going to be fit he was going to play,” recalls Gayle almost four decades later. “He was our best player and the club was going to move heaven and earth to get him fit. I was just getting ready for the game and was just hopeful that I was going to get on and play a part in it.

“I shook hands with Laurie before the game – I always made a point of that [seeking out other black players] – obviously we were the only two black players on the pitch within the squads and I thought he was a great player. I thought he was a pioneer with what he did and what he achieved at West Brom. He was very similar to myself: he was quick, he could use both feet, he could beat people.”

Gayle would play just a handful of games for Liverpool before embarking on spells at Birmingham City, Sunderland and Blackburn Rovers while Cunningham battled toe and ligament injuries for the rest of his career. Their purpose that evening in Paris was that of trailblazers who paved the way for other black footballers, like John Barnes, to make it at Europe’s big clubs such as Liverpool and Real Madrid. For the record, the former beat the latter 1-0 courtesy of Alan Kennedy’s 81st-minute goal in an unmemorable final.

Gayle, whose parents came to Britain from Sierra Leone in the 1960s, has spent almost all of his life combating inequality. He first encountered it as a young boy in the city’s predominantly white Norris Green where his family was moved to from Liverpool 8 (Toxteth), as part of enforced slum clearances carried out by the council. On the streets, he was taught by his elder brothers to meet its protagonists head on and with force. It was the same on the pitch.

“I’ve stood in a centre circle and a referee has gone to question a coming together or a tackle with a white counterpart and the white counterpart has called me a ‘black so-and-so’ in front of the referee and I’ve looked at the referee and asked him ‘are you going to do anything about that? He’s just racially abused me, he’s just called me whatever’. And he’s said ‘we’ll that’s not my problem’.

“But that was just the culture, that was the way things were. It wasn’t something that didn’t go unnoticed, it did get noticed. There didn’t seem to be anyone man enough or strong enough to protect us from it. I learned from an early age on the streets that if someone hit me I was going to hit them back and it was the same on the football pitch. I couldn’t be bullied.

“People were always looking for excuses to demean black players. There was this false accusation that we didn’t turn up when the weather was cold, that we didn’t do this and we didn’t do that. We weren’t intelligent enough, we couldn’t play in certain positions. We could. A lot of people read into this and believed this false notice that black people had chinks in their armour and we didn’t.

“I am 60 years of age tomorrow and have never had a black person come to me and say ‘you have a chip on your shoulder’. It is a false accusation against me from people who didn’t understand me. I had a responsibility not only to myself but to my culture because they were going to follow in my footsteps like Barnes. Ultimately before I was a football player, before I was a Liverpool fan, I was a black man and I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice who I was to be a football player.”

Once, at school, a young girl shouted “n****r, n****r, pull the trigger” at him during class. He waited until playtime before stabbing her in the back with a compass. In his book 61 Minutes In Munich he details the sexual abuse he was subjected to by his PE teacher and he documents his often difficult relationship with Tommy Smith, a Liverpool legend and a bully, who racially abused Gayle and who was then silenced by the threat of a baseball bat while he went to the toilet.

Two years ago, he turned down an MBE for his work with Show Racism The Red Card and Stanley House, a local mixed-race community football club that he helped set up, because he felt it was a betrayal “to all of the Africans who were killed or who suffered from slavery”. But also the fact that Jimmy Savile had been awarded

an OBE and a knighthood “weighed heavily on my mind” as did the establishment’s handling of Hillsborough and the subsequent investigations which followed.

In a week in which the Windrush deportation scandal remains in the news and the Israeli Defence Force massacred 60 Palestinians in Gaza, Gayle still sees plenty that provokes fury even if Liverpool, the football

club, provides him with reason for optimism.

“There is a fervour right now against immigration and migrants and Muslims in particular because of things that are protracted overseas and there will be fans who will be singing to that tune and those same fans will go on to the terraces and sing Mo Salah’s name. Mo Salah is a Muslim, Sadio Mane is a Muslim, Emre Can is a Muslim. That’s the hypocrisy of it. People buy into racism not having any sort of knowledge about it. The irony is they could be worshipping a footballer on a football field and he is a Muslim.”

Salah, Liverpool’s record-breaking goalscorer, Sadio Mane, an explosive Senagalese winger, and Emre Can, a German international of Turkish extraction, walk the same path that Gayle did as totems for a marginalised community. The former pair will carry a threat Real fear most: searing pace and clinical finishing; they have had a transformative effect on Liverpool’s fortunes this season with Salah being compared favourably to Lionel Messi, the world’s best.

Gayle uses the word “Mecca” to describe Anfield. The imagery is striking. Salah performs the sujood after every goal, it is the Islamic act of prostration, of lying down before Allah and placing one’s nose to the earth. Such has been the propensity of his goal return this season that he has turned sacred symbolism into an emblem of common exaltation.

“What it does is it dispels the myth about Muslims,” adds Gayle. “Salah is an ambassador off the pitch when you see the things he says and does, he’s not militant, he’s not a political figure but he has gone a long way further than organisations or politicians can serving notice of what the Muslim culture is about.

“We have been told that they are all suicide bombers, that they are all killers, they’re all extremists and they’re not like that. There are three players in the Liverpool team who are Muslims and again all they do is play their hearts out on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon to bring glory to the people of Liverpool.

“There is a craving at Anfield. If we do win and that team get to go around the city on an open-top bus you will most probably see Liverpool Football Club take off again. I think Manchester City had 200,000 last Sunday in the city centre, there will be millions here.”

When he warms to a topic, Howie is more quiet tornado than gale, ripping through commonly held beliefs of many in working-class Britain. Ideas that have been allowed to gestate and subsequently fester ever since the Brexit vote.

“There is an ignorance in many ways,” he says. “The vast majority of Liverpool fans aren’t racists and our brand is global. We have fans from all over the world. But there is a minority that have that bigotry and that sense of not knowing of what they are supporting in relation to immigration and racism. It is automation that’s taking people’s jobs, not immigration. That’s where the job losses come but people don’t see that and they look for somebody to blame. ‘It’s the immigrants, it’s the migrants, we’ll jump on that bandwagon’.”

And with that he is done. The fight continues for Howie Gayle.