October 1865 – December 1930
At the national football centre in Burton-on-Trent there is a statue of footballer Arthur Wharton.
OK. So what? Seems like a pretty appropriate place for it.
Wharton was born into a wealthy family but rejected his upper class roots in order to devote himself to sport. He was a world-class sprinter, played in goal for a raft of professional football teams in the North of England and, in his forties, became an accomplished professional cricketer.
Why, then, did it take until 2014 for a statue to be unveiled in his honour? And why did this working class hero lie for nearly 70 years in an unmarked grave in Edlington? Surely him being black can’t have anything to do with it?
Sadly it did.
Despite being the first black professional footballer, Arthur Wharton was never truly accepted and it took a sustained effort by many, including the Football Association, UEFA, Football Unites Racism Divides, and even Stevie Wonder to right a lifetime of wrongs and get Wharton the recognition he deserved.
Born in Ghana in 1865 he set a world record for the 100 yard dash at the age of 21, clocking in at 10 seconds dead. Just think about that for a moment and remember the year was 1886. That would still be an impressive time today. Playing in goal for Preston North End he reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup a year later and turned professional in 1889 when he was signed by Rotherham United. By all accounts he was good enough to play for England but it would take until 1978 for the FA to pick a black player for the senior team.
Wharton’s early promise faded as he spent the latter part of his career drifting from club to club. He transitioned slowly into an alcohol fuelled sporting retirement and a lengthy stint as a colliery labourer in Yorkshire before being buried in a pauper’s grave in 1930.
Fortunately, and thanks to the tireless work of many, he is now remembered rightly as a supremely talented athlete.
The son of wealthy Grenadian parents, his status ensured he was sent to Britain for his education. Once there he eschewed the privilege that came with his family background and fell in love with sport. It was this love that earned him many fans on the terraces but also plenty of detractors.
By all accounts his love of the game showed in his performances on the field and in wanting to entertain the crowd he attracted much opposition. He was equally at home on the wing as he was in goal. Newspaper reports of the time are astonishing when read from a distance of over 120 years. The words used to describe Wharton clearly come from a different age, but the sentiment behind them is one we sadly recognise all too well.
Football still struggles with racism but this comes at a time when black players have played at the very highest levels for decades. What must it have been like then for a young immigrant being the only professional black player in the whole game? We may never know, but thanks to the work of many we are slowly piecing his life back together.
Wharton died of emphysema in a workhouse sanatorium and remained forgotten until the 1980s when history lecturer Ray Jenkins from North Staffordshire Polytechnic started to investigate his life. Jenkins died but his work was continued by Phil Vasili who published a book “The First Black Footballer: An Absence of Memory” in 1998. Thanks to this work, and the efforts of others Wharton was inducted into the FA Hall of Fame in 2003 and was the subject of a ceremony at Wembley Stadium in 2011 prior to an England international against Ghana.
Funding from the Heritage Lottery will see to it that his story and what he achieved is told to as many people as possible. A young black man from a wealthy family gave it all up to play professional football in the 1890s. He followed his dream but died penniless and forgotten.
The current crop of future England internationals will get to train within sight of the bronze statue erected by the FA to celebrate his life. Perhaps they’ll even participate in the occasional 100 yard dash.
Arthur Wharton. Sprinter, Footballer, Cricketer, Pauper, Legend.