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.

Chris Arnot
Monday 19 October 1998 23:02

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

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