On a shopping trip I found myself near Edlington Cemetery. The significance of this is that Arthur Wharton the first ever black professional footballer is buried there.
I’d read about his amazing goalkeeping career and how he ended up a publican and for his last 15 years down the pit mostly at the almost adjacent Yorkshire Main Colliery. He died pennyless and only in 2014 after a campaign by his Grand Daughter and Football Unites, Racism Divides, a Sheffield-based community scheme’ was a fitting memorial headstone erected at his grave.
Naively I had read online that he had a black headstone and with only seeing graves in ancient cemeteries in recent years, being met with 70% black headstonees completely confused and made me realise that I had a big hunt in front of me.
Luckily a man was moving some mowers who turned out to be the guardian of the cemetery. He was really helpful and took us to the grave and talked about the campaign to honour Arthur and the search for his unmarked grave which was only revealed when someone came in to enquire about a burial in the 1930’s and there at the top of the page for the date they were looking for was Arthur Wharton’s name which had eluded them for some time.
Arthur played for Darlington, Preston North End, Rotherham Town, Sheffield United, Stalybridge Rovers and Ashton North End between 1885 and 1901. He is also remembered for running 100yds in 10 seconds to equal the ameteur world record in 1886 at the AAA’s championship. The man in the cemetery said that local legend says that he achieved this on an Ash Track at the nearby Miners Welfare in Pit Boots! Arthur Wharton was a complete all round athlete excelling at cycling and cricket too.
The full Arthur Wharton’s story can be read in detail in his biography, ‘The First Black Footballer: Arthur Wharton 1865-1930’ by Phil Vasili, published by Frank Cass. The ISBN for the paperback edition is 978-0714644592 and for the hardback edition is 978-0714649030.
A memorial 16 foot statue of Arthur Wharton can be found at The Football Association’s St George’s Park depicting him tipping the ball over the bar.
Arthur was part of a great line of Black footballers whose achievements can be seen as remarkable despite the racism they experienced.
Andrew Watson was arguably the ‘The Worlds First Black Football Superstar’ as set out in a book of the same title that I reviewed 19th November 2019.
Walter Tull who played for Clapton FC, Tottenham Hotspur and Northampton Town and is honoured with a statue in Northampton not only for his football but the fact that he was nominated for the Military Cross for his outstanding bravery in the First World War where he was the Army’s first ever Black officer to command white troops.
Jack Leslie the Plymouth Argyle legend who was picked for England in 1925 but not played because of the colour of his skin.
Viv Anderson the first black football player to represent England in a full international match. Not until 1978 though.
Brendon Batson, Laurie Cunningham and Cyrille Regis, who were legends playing for West Bromwich Albion in the late 70’s and early 80’s and great roll models to all on how to succeed despite the racism they endured. A statue to them all in West Bromwich town centre is a fitting epitaph.
John Barnes, my personal favourite, was an outstanding player for Watford and Liverpool who suffered many racist chants but kept his cool and destroyed the prejudice not only on the pitch but also in his eloquent observations off it. I recently saw him on a Breakfast program that was trying to make an issue about racism in football but Barnes was cooly saying that it was not a football problem but a wider society one. He was dismissed by his interviewer who should now know that it was he who was wrong. My greatest memory of John Barnes play was a goal he scored at St Andrews in the FA Cup. I was sat in the stand with Birmingham supporters and when I stood up to celebrate the goal and his great skill I thought, why did I do that. To the Birmingham fans credit they all clapped because the skill was a wonder. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6jzx68fnZCQ
Marcus Rashford who humbled the Government into a U turn over free school meals this summer.
There are others but these are the ones that come to mind. There is surely enough material with regards these few alone to create a book about ‘Black Footballers Matter’.