Fight against football racism takes its inspiration from story of a trailblazer

Arthur Wharton.  Photo: Heritage Lottery Fund
Arthur Wharton. Photo: Heritage Lottery Fund
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In a week when racism in football has been back in the spotlight, a new film celebrates the life of the first professional black player. Chris Bond reports.

THERE’S no doubt we have come a long way in combating racism in football in this country.

Just 25 years ago, the sound of monkey chants echoing around football grounds and the sight of fans hurling bananas at a black player were commonplace. Now, thankfully, such vile behaviour has largely been eradicated from stadiums up and down the country. Even so, it’s an issue that refuses to go away and in the past year or so there have been several high-profile incidents.

Last month, former England captain John Terry was given a four-match ban and fined £220,000 by the Football Association for racially abusing QPR’s Anton Ferdinand. Terry was found guilty by the independent FA regulatory commission following the incident during the match between Chelsea and QPR in October last year, having been cleared in Westminster Magistrates Court of a racially-aggravated public order offence in July.

In another match, Liverpool player Luis Suarez was also found guilty of racially abusing the Manchester United defender Patrice Evra and banned for eight games. Then last weekend, several leading black players refused to wear the anti-racism campaign Kick It Out T-shirt ahead of Premier League matches, which led to suggestions that some players might set up a breakaway anti-racism group because they feel not enough is being done.

But if racism is still very much a live issue it’s also one that has been around for a long time, and this weekend sees the premiere of a new film about the life of Britain’s first black professional footballer. The Arthur Wharton Story, commissioned by anti-racism project Football Unites Racism Divides (FURD), is being screened on Sunday at the Void Cinema, in Sheffield, on the 147th anniversary of Wharton’s birth.

The film, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Professional Footballers Association, explores Wharton’s remarkable journey from Ghanaian missionary’s son to South Yorkshire sporting hero. The Arthur Wharton Story is part of a wider project which involves FURD retelling Wharton’s story through art, drama, poetry, as well as film, and a team of volunteer researchers have been busy piecing together some of the missing fragments of his life.

It’s a life that has gained increasing recognition in recent years for as well as being the first professional black footballer, Wharton was also the first person to run 100 yards in 10 seconds flat – making him the fastest man on the planet.

He was born in Jamestown, in what is now Ghana, in 1865. His father was half-Granadian and half-Scottish and his mother was Ghanaian, and in the 1880s he was sent to England.

Howard Holmes, of Sheffield-based FURD, believes Wharton is more than just a historical figure and hopes to show the new film in schools across South Yorkshire.

“His story is important because it shows there was a black presence at the start of the professional game,” he says.

“He was the first of many black players to play in England and his story is inspiring, especially to young people from a mixed race background because it really does resonate with them.”

Wharton’s story is as interesting as it is unusual. He was sent to England to be educated, although ironically his sporting prowess pulled him towards a working class life. He played football for, among others, Sheffield United, Preston North End and Rotherham United, and also played cricket professionally in Yorkshire and Lancashire. When he joined Sheffield United he was understudy to William “Fatty” Foulke who went on to play for England.

“When he joined Arthur was on the same wage, but by the second week Foulke’s wages had doubled and Arthur’s hadn’t. He was paid five shillings a week when he joined Sheffield United, which wasn’t very much so he was given a pub to run as well.”

In February, 1895, Wharton made his debut against Sunderland and in doing so became the first black footballer to play in the English First Division. But the colour of his skin made him a target for crowds.

“He had a hard time although in those days people didn’t distinguish between general abuse and racist abuse. He was singled out for special treatment and at the end of one match in Scotland the crowd invaded the pitch to get at the opposition players, particularly Arthur.”

But Holmes says Wharton wasn’t the shy and retiring type.

“He’s described in some reports as being quite cocky and he certainly didn’t see himself as inferior in any way. But by all accounts he was a popular figure and he would represent the players if they had a dispute with the club over the percentage of money they got from gate receipts and things like that, he became something of an adopted Yorkshireman.”

He was also a bit of a crowd puller at matches. “He could add several thousand to a gate receipt.

“But after his playing career finished he ended up having to go down the mines to make a living, so he had a lifestyle that was completely different from 
the one professional footballers enjoy today.”

More than a century after Wharton’s playing career finished the issue of racism in football still hasn’t gone away, but this week the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) chief executive Gordon Taylor has announced a six-point action plan to deal with the issue after criticism from some members. He says the union wants tougher penalties for racist abuse including making it potentially a sackable offence and a form of the “Rooney rule” brought in to boost the number of black coaches and managers.

Clarke Carlisle, chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), supports Taylor’s plan. “I don’t want people to think this is just a knee-jerk reaction to what has happened. These discussions have been going on for almost two years,” he says. “Gordon has taken this opportunity to publicise the work that’s been going on. Some people might think nothing has been happening because they haven’t heard about it, but there have been a lot of meetings and discussions.”

Some people might view the Rooney rule – introduced by the NFL in America in 2003 to make sure qualified black coaches are on interview lists for job vacancies – as an example of positive discrimination, but Carlisle disagrees.

“The application of the Rooney rule is about the integrity of the recruitment process. You sincerely hope that football clubs are run as meritocracies where the best candidate gets the job, the Rooney rule just ensures that the percentage of applicants who are interviewed for a job reflects the make up of the football industry.

“It’s not saying that one in 10 managers has to come from a black and ethnic background, it’s just saying a percentage of interviewees should be – and I think that’s an important distinction,” he says. “There is a lack of opportunities for black and ethnic candidates and they feel the recruitment process is still closed to them and that their CVs don’t even make it to the table. There is a feeling that appointments are done before managers are even sacked and what we need is a clear and open recruitment process.”

But the York City player agrees that attitudes towards race and equality have changed dramatically. “There have been giant strides in terms of tackling abuse and violence, but we’re not at that utopia we want where we have total inclusion, where everyone is free to be involved without fear of abuse and discrimination.”

What he wants to see now is the footballing governing bodies, unions, players and campaigners working together. “It’s important to acknowledge the progress that’s been made but there is still work to be done and issues that continually need to be addressed.

“We have to step on and make sure progress continues to be made and for that we need everyone singing from the same hymn sheet.”

The Arthur Wharton Story is being screened at the Void Cinema, Sheffield Hallam University, on Sunday. The event starts at 6pm.

Life of Arthur Wharton

Arthur Wharton was born into an upper middle class family in Jamestown, West Africa, in 1865.

He was sent to be educated in England in the early 1880s and soon made a name for himself in athletics, winning the Amateur Athletics Association 100 yards sprint in a world record time of 10 seconds.

He then became a footballer, playing as a goalkeeper for the likes of Sheffield United, Preston North End and Rotherham United.

After his playing career ended he worked as a haulage hand in the South Yorkshire pits.

He died in 1930 and was buried in Edlington, South Yorkshire. He lay in an unmarked grave for 67 years until enough money was raised to pay for a proper gravestone.