Book Review: Athlete in a league of one

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The Independent Online

It was within these pages 17 months ago that the Arthur Wharton story was described as "the most conspicuously absent volume from the library of British sport". It is no more. Thanks to Phil Vasili, an Open University lecturer and football historian from Cambridge, the extraordinary tale of Britain's forgotten all-time sporting great has finally been told. More accurately, it has been dug up from the grave. For when Arthur Wharton died, 68 years ago next month, his story was buried with him, in an unmarked grave in South Yorkshire.

It might have remained there had Vasili not been so assiduous in researching what was initially intended to be a history of black footballers in Britain. He found Wharton's final resting place. He traced Wharton's descendants, who were as ignorant as the world at large of their long-lost relative's unique claims to fame. And then, having painstakingly tracked every last scrap of information available, he pieced together this precious portrait of a remarkable sporting pioneer.

Wharton was born in 1865 in Accra, in what was the Gold Coast and is now Ghana. He was sent to England as a teenager to become a Wesleyan missionary teacher, like his father. Instead, he became a ground-breaking sportsman. Wharton was the first sprinter to make "even time" in authentic championship conditions: to run 100 yards in 10 seconds. He was the first black athlete to win a title at the Amateur Athletic Association championships. He was Britain's first black professional footballer too.

He stumbled upon his sporting talents almost by accident, while studying at Cleveland College in Darlington. Coaxed into entering a race at the annual Darlington Cricket Club Sports in 1885, he ducked under the tape at the finish line instead of breaking it. A year later he won the AAA 100 yards title at Stamford Bridge, clocking 10 sec in both heat and final. The press of the day, with retrospective political incorrectness, trumpeted the historic feat of "Darkie Wharton," as he was known throughout his sporting life in the Victorian limelight.

Blessed with an unorthodox running style in the manner of Michael Johnson, with a pronounced upright stance, Wharton retained his AAA title in 1887. By then, however, he had gained equal renown as a goalkeeper. He kept goal for Preston North End in their 1887 FA Cup semi-final defeat against West Bromwich Albion and probably would have kept goal for England too, but for the colour of his skin - and the criticism his showman antics attracted. Known to swing on the crossbar and catch shots between his feet, and to race out of goal to take shots from the half-way line, Wharton even swapped positions with the Preston full-back in a match against Rangers. The Athletic Journal sniffed: "Is the darkie's pate too thick for it to dawn upon him that between the posts is no place for a skylark?"

Wharton became a professional sprinter and footballer, playing for Rotherham Town, Sheffield United, Stalybridge Rovers, Ashton North End and Stockport County. But fame and fortune deserted him. He spent the last 15 years of his life working as a haulage hand at Yorkshire Main Colliery in Edlington. He is said to have fathered two children to his wife's sister. He died of cancer and syphilis in a sanatorium in 1930. But now the deeds of Arthur Wharton have been exhumed from his unmarked grave - thanks to Phil Vasili's brilliant Burke and Hare job.