As they warmed up for last week’s England-Ghana friendly at Wembley, Premier League stars such as Ashley Cole and Asamoah Gyan may have noticed a small ceremony taking place pitch-side. What they might not have realised – if they had even heard of Arthur Wharton in the first place – is the debt they owe to the man being honoured.
While Cole, Gyan and scores of their team-mates flourish in an age where footballing talent supersedes colour or creed, Wharton made his name during harsher times for black men and women in all walks of life. As the first-ever black professional footballer, he was a true pioneer and, as England’s Football Association recognised last week, one well worth celebrating.
Wharton wasn’t alone in blazing a trail. Indeed, he followed in the footsteps of Guyana-born Andrew Watson, who won the Scottish Cup with Queen’s Park and even went on to earn three caps for Scotland’s national team between 1881 and ‘82. Watson, however, was an amateur, while Wharton made history by becoming the first black player to earn a living from the game.
Yet his story is far from straightforward, and contains enough twists, turns and incredible feats to be the stuff of Hollywood fantasy. Wharton wasn’t only a top-level footballer, after all, but also set the first world record for the 100-yard sprint, played professional cricket, was a British cycling champion and also excelled on the rugby field.
From sprinter to shot-stopper
This was not the destiny his family had in mind. Born in Accra, Ghana on 28 October 1865 to a half-Grenadian, half-Scottish father and a mother descended from Ghanaian royalty, Wharton had been sent to England at the age of 17 to be educated in his father’s profession as a Methodist minister.
It quickly became apparent that this was not a career for which he was cut out. Where Wharton did find fulfilment was in athletic activity, and it helped that he was outstanding in virtually every sport he tried. Competing initially as a ‘gentleman amateur’, he became the fastest man in Britain by the age of 20, winning the 100-yard sprint and setting a new world record at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge.
This success brought with it the opportunity to compete, and make a living from, professional athletics tournaments, while Wharton’s income was also supplemented by playing top-level cricket during the summer. Yet football was soon beckoning, with Darlington’s manager having spotted the youngster’s athletic prowess and offered him the chance to turn out for his local team.
Remarkably, however, it was not as a speedy striker, nor a pacey winger, that Wharton made his name, but rather in the unexpected role of goalkeeper. Bravery, agility and strength of character marked him out as a natural for the position, while – like so many great goalies – his brilliance came accompanied with a liberal dose of eccentricity.
TH Smith recalled one of Wharton’s more memorable moments in a 1942 Sheffield Telegraph & Independent article: "I saw Wharton jump, take hold of the cross bar, catch the ball between his legs and cause three onrushing forwards… to fall into the net. I have never seen a similar save since and I have been watching football for over 50 years."
Casual racism was common – he was referred to, even by his admirers, as ‘Darkie Wharton’ – and it is claimed in some quarters that he would even have represented England but for the colour of his skin. But this daring keeper was nonetheless a beloved figure among the working-class supporters of Darlington, and reports of the time laud him as “magnificent”, “invincible” and “superb”.
Preston North End, giants of that era, were sufficiently impressed to bring him to Deepdale, and he again earned plaudits as the Lilywhites reached the FA Cup semi-finals of 1887. Within a year, however, he made the decision to switch to professional sprinting, and though this adventure proved short-lived, Wharton was never able to recapture his former glories when he returned to football.
The subsequent years were spent drifting club from club, and as a worsening drinking habit began to take its toll, this popular footballing pioneer went into steady decline. After retiring in 1902, he spent time as a haulage hand in the Yorkshire collieries and, tragically, it was as a penniless alcoholic that he died four years later.
For almost seven decades, it seemed that Wharton’s legacy had gone with him; indeed, it was only in 1997 his unmarked pauper’s grave in Darlington was marked with a memorial stone. Even then, most remained unaware of his unique place in football history, with Viv Anderson, England’s first black international, admitting recently that even he numbered among the ignorant majority.
“Finding out about him was a real surprise,” said the former Manchester United and Nottingham Forest star. “When I saw the exhibition on him at the National Football Museum I was totally flabbergasted. I couldn't believe he's barely heard of today after achieving so much. And you'd think I'd be one of the first to know about him. There's a connection between us that will never be broken. He was the first black professional and I was the first to win a full cap. I'm honoured to be associated with him. Arthur's story is an important part of that English football culture, and he should be more celebrated.”
Thanks largely to a foundation set up in his name, the process of affording Wharton his rightful place in football history appears to be gathering pace. Last week’s ceremony at Wembley, which involved Cyrille Regis and Brendon Batson, two trailblazing black stars of the ‘70s and ‘80s, saw Wharton’s oldest living relative presented with a statue that will be unveiled in Darlington later this year.
The FA contributed £20,000 to the construction of this memorial and, according to Batson, this recognition is the least that Wharton deserves. He said: “When you know his story, and what he went through, it’s great to see the FA making this tribute to such a fantastic individual, athlete and footballer. I mean, you’re talking about the original pioneer - his journey was the start of all the journeys for black players.”
And while the fight to fully eradicate racism rumbles on, one suspects that Wharton would be extremely proud of just how far his successors have come.