The beautiful game's fear of a black face

Racism denied Arthur Wharton, Britain's first professional black footballer, his place in history - until now, a century after he kept goal.

FOR 67 years, the remains of Arthur Wharton lay in a pauper's grave in Edlington, South Yorkshire. There was nothing to tell the world that this was once the fastest man over 100 yards. Or that he was the first black man to play professional football. Like the athlete Jesse Owens, and the boxers Joe Louis and Jack Johnson, Wharton's performances made him a thorn in the side of white supremacists. Unlike them, he had been airbrushed from history. Until now. A new book about Wharton was published last week, and an exhibition on the history of black footballers opened at Old Trafford.

The illustrious home of Manchester United is the current workplace of Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole, young, gifted black strikers whose combined transfer fees amount to around pounds 20m. Each earns considerably more in a week than Arthur Wharton made in 17 seasons. But then he was playing in the 1880s and 1890s. "Arthur knew the value of his skills and always held out for as much as he could get, which could be pounds 2 or pounds 3 a week," says Phil Vasili, author of the book, a man who loves the beautiful game as much as he loathes racism. "My father is Cypriot and my half-brother is black," he says. "Because I had a funny name and slightly olive skin, I took some abuse on the council estate where we grew up. But not half as much as he did."

We're talking in a pub near the BBC and Vasili is on his way to see a television production company about a documentary on the history of black footballers. Channel 4 has already commissioned a two-part drama on the life of Arthur Wharton, which is likely to be screened next year. Vasili is putting the finishing touches to the script, in conjunction with "an old mate" who has something of a record for screenwriting - Irvine Welsh.

Wharton's story would have been lost for ever had Vasili not spotted a reference to him in an article written in an obscure academic journal in 1990 by Ray Jenkins, a historian specialising in west Africa. Since then, he has painstakingly pieced together Wharton's patchy life story.

Born in the Gold Coast, now Ghana, in 1865, Wharton's mother came from a branch of the Fante royal family. His father was a Methodist preacher, and his uncle and patron was a wealthy Euro-African trader who owned the Gold Coast Times. Great things were expected of young Arthur when he was dispatched to England - first to a preparatory school in Chelsea and later to a Wesleyan college in Cannock, Staffordshire. When it closed, he moved to another college in Darlington. It was here that his goalkeeping talent was spotted.

Throughout his career, he was routinely described in newspapers as a "nigger" or "darkie" and, in one case, as "walnut-visaged". A list of more than 1,000 players in the Football Who's Who for 1900-01 and 1901- 02 (his last season) omits Wharton, as it does the Anglo-Indian Cother brothers of Watford, Fred Corbett of West Ham and John Walker of Hearts and Lincoln City. All were known as "coloured".

Wharton's career coincided with the "scramble for Africa" among imperial powers and Vasili believes that one reason why he was quickly erased from public memory was that he contradicted the widely held belief in white superiority. At the Amateur Athletics Championships at Stamford Bridge in July 1886, he created a new record by covering 100 yards in 10 seconds.

Two years later, he gave an interview to the Athletics Journal in which he recalled an incident at a running-track in Yorkshire. He overheard two competitors saying: "We can beat a blooming nigger any time." He suggested they take him on in the boxing ring - an offer both hastily and sensibly declined. One of Wharton's goalkeeping trademarks was to punch the heavy leather caseball half the length of the field.

When age (and drink) began to affect Wharton's athleticism and reflexes, there was nowhere for him to go. He was turned down for a position in the Gold Coast Colonial Service. So, after a spell in the pub trade, he spent the last 15 years of his working life as a haulage hand at Yorkshire Main Colliery. He died on 12 December 1930, from syphilis. "He was quite a good-looking bloke," says Vasili. "He was travelling around the country and he had money. I don't think he had much trouble finding women."

One of them was his wife's sister, Martha, who bore him three children. Not surprisingly, little of this was talked about when her granddaughter, Sheila Leeson, was growing up. Only gradually did she begin to unearth the truth: that Arthur Wharton, who died the year before she was born, was more likely her grandfather than her great-uncle.

A retired teacher, Mrs Leeson now lives opposite Rotherham's football ground. One day, she opened her local paper and saw a letter from Vasili appealing for information about Wharton. She was able to give him a Bible and a few photographs that had languished for years at the bottom of her wardrobe. "I don't care if he was my great-uncle or my grandfather," she says. "I'm just proud to be related to him."

In May last year, she and Vasili stood in Edlington Cemetery while a pauper's grave was given a proper headstone for the first time in 67 years. In gold lettering on black marble, it paid tribute to Arthur Wharton's athleticism and pioneering role in football history. Also present were members of Sheffield United fans' pressure group, Football Unites - Racism Divides, which campaigned to raise the money.

Fittingly perhaps, the biggest donation came from the Professional Footballers' Association. Members such as Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole discovered that black players in the English game are not a comparatively recent phenomenon. They have a pedigree stretching back well over a century.

`The First Black Footballer: An Absence of Memory' by Phil Vasili, is published by Frank Cass, pounds 12.50 paperback (pounds 29.50 hardback). Discounted copies from Football Unites - Racism Divides, 0114 255 3156

Arts and Entertainment
Kristin Scott Thomas outside the Royal Opera House before the ceremony (Getty)
film
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Channel 4's Indian Summers
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West found himself at the centre of a critical storm over the weekend after he apparently claimed to be “the next Mandela” during a radio interview
music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig and Rory Kinnear film Spectre in London
film
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor