Nowadays you can watch a premier football match and half the players are black but it wasn’t long ago they were all white. Here I am at the grave of Arthur Wharton who was the first black professional football player in the world. There were other black players before him but he was the first professional to play in the Football League. Nowadays this phenomenon of feet would be earning £200,000+ every seven days for his skill. He held the world record for running 100 yards, was a professional cricketer and British cycling champion.
Thought I’d go and do a salute at his grave. I was going up to Scarborough for a long weekend but took an even longer route over the Pennine hills and up through Doncaster. The overall journey took about five hours but if I’m armed with audio books I slip into another world and don’t mind tootling along motorways for hours.
I found the headstone in a fairly nondescript churchless graveyard outside the centre of Doncaster. Arthur was a long way from home. He was born in Ghana to dad Henry and mum Annie who was a member of the Fante Ghanaian royalty.
How did he end up here? Aged 19 he came to train as a Methodist missionary but was a naturally-gifted all-round sportsman and his speed was soon spotted. A coach saw him running across the forecourt of Cleveland College and it all started from there. He was fast and equalled the amateur world record of 10 seconds for the 100-yard sprint in the AAA championship. He played cricket for local teams in Yorkshire and Lancashire but he’ll always be remembered as a footballer.
He started off in goals for Darlington but it’s a wonder if survived as racism was rife. Being in goals meant he couldn’t run around beyond the vocal volleys of, “Ref get that gorilla off the pitch and back in the zoo!” and “If the nigger scores it doesn’t count!” and “Well saved - chuck that gibbon a banana!” Bananas, apples and pears were thrown at him. However there was deep respect for this goalkeeper who could save a goal and then take the ball across the pitch so quickly that tired players couldn’t catch him. He scored many goals as a goalkeeper.
He was spotted when playing against Preston North End. Soon he was playing football for them and aged 21 was in the team that reached the FA Cup semi-finals in 1886-87.
By aged 24 he was playing for Rotherham Town and was officially doing it for a living. At 25 he married Emma Lister. Football wasn’t well-paid then and by 26 he was the landlord of the Albert Tavern in Rotherham.
By 29 he moved to Sheffield United where he played in the First Division for the first time. First Division? You’d think he would have been on high wages but this was in the 19th century and by aged 30 he had opened a tobacconist shop in Ashton-under-Lyne. Ashton is just a mile or two from where I live and he remained around here for the rest of his playing career playing for Stalybridge Rovers and Stockport County.
His personal life was a messy. Not only had he travelled a long way from his Ghana home but also from his ministry role. Those fast legs carried a wandering log: Arthur fathered two children by his sister-in-law and countless illegitimate children. In later years he became an alcoholic and retired from football aged 37 in 1902.
The latter years were threadbare and he’s now lying in Doncaster as he was desperate for work and went there for a job in a colliery.
He died a pauper aged 65 and was buried in an unmarked pauper's grave. As you can see the headstone looks new. Arthur lay under here for 67 years before this headstone was mounted, paid for by anti-racism campaigners. In 2003 he was inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame and there’re statues of him at the headquarters of FIFA and St George's Park National Football Centre.
At the football ground in Ashton…