Black footballers nowadays make up around 20 per cent of the professional players in the English football leagues. This comes after many years of trailblazing by talented black players against the racist attitudes of fans and the footballing authorities. What isn't so well known is just how long ago it was that the first black player took to the pitch in England.
The first black person to play for a professional football club in England was a man named Arthur Wharton (1865 - 1930), who joined Preston North End as long ago as 1886.
Arthur was born in Ghana in 1865 to a wealthy family of mixed race parents. His father was half-Grenadian and half-Scottish, and his mother was from Ghanaian royalty. In 1882, Arthur moved to England to train as a Methodist missionary at a school in Cannock, Staffordshire. However, he soon got bored of this academic and religious life and left the school to carve out a career using his sporting talents.
He moved to the Durham area where he competed in athletics competitions, and in fact set a new world record of 10 seconds for the 100 yards dash at Stamford Bridge in July 1886. This success brought him invitations to compete in professional athletics tournaments where he could make a living from appearance fees and from betting dividends. His athletic prowess also brought him to the attention of professional football clubs.
His first professional team was Preston North End, which he joined as a semi-professional player in 1886. He turned fully professional in 1889 when he signed for Rotherham United. Arthur's position was always that of the goalkeeper. Now, this was the era when forwards could legitimately shoulder charge and otherwise attack the goalie, regardless of whether he had the ball or not. As a defence Arthur developed a series of strategies to shield himself from injury by these attacking players. One commentator at the time described an incident when Arthur grabbed on to the crossbar, hauling himself out of the way of three oncoming forwards, and caught the ball between his legs!
During his time with Preston the high point of his success was to play in the FA Cup semi-final of 1887, where they lost 3-1 to West Bromwich Albion. There was speculation at the time that Arthur was a good enough goalkeeper to play for England. Sadly he was never considered by the Football Association for that role, due in part to the racial prejudices of the time. In fact it would be another 90 years before a black football player represented England1.
In 1894, Sheffield United poached Arthur from Rotherham to be their main goalkeeper. An inducement offered to him to make the move was the licenseeship of the Sportsman Cottage pub in Sheffield. Unfortunately for Arthur, the move wasn't a success. The problem was that age was now catching up with him and he couldn't keep his place in the team against competition from the team's other new and younger goalkeeper, Bill 'Fatty' Foulke2.
Arthur's career then drifted as he moved from club to club to try to make a living. Unfortunately, at the same time he started to turn more and more to drink, and eventually retired from football in 1902. His life after retirement was not a happy time and Arthur Wharton died in 1930 as a penniless alcoholic who had spent the last 15 years of his life as a colliery haulage hand.
He remained a forgotten figure in sporting history until 1997 when his story was uncovered by the Sheffield United-based project - Football Unites, Racism Divides. Since then a book of his life has been published by the project, his grave in Edlington cemetery near Doncaster has finally been marked with a headstone, and his picture was included in an exhibition of British Sporting Heroes at the National Portrait Gallery.