Arthur Wharton: Football’s forgotten pioneer

The Preston North End fans were bemused. They had seen nothing like Arthur Wharton: an eccentric, unorthodox goalkeeper, who often jumped up to grab hold of the crossbar in an effort to save shots with his feet. Nor had the Lilywhites fans seen anyone of mixed race take to the pitch at Deepdale.

Wharton, born in Jamestown – now Accra, the capital of Ghana – in 1865, was the first black professional footballer in the world, a trailblazer who, until very recently, earned little recognition for his significant influence on the sport.

During his career, Wharton was forced to endure widespread discrimination too. His arrival at Preston in 1886 was greeted with scepticism and almost every comment on his performances referred to his ethnicity.

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“Is the darkie’s pate too thick for it to dawn upon him that between the sticks is no place of skylark,” wrote an Athletic Journal reporter before an FA Cup tie in 1887. Nine years later, following Wharton’s move to Stalybridge Rovers, the local newspaper wrote that the club had “bagged itself a real n****r, none other than the Darkie who used to guard the North End citadel”.

Racism, then, was rife. Wharton was considered an outsider and that partly explains his relatively obscure reputation. It wasn’t until 1998, when Phil Vasili wrote The First Black Footballer – Arthur Wharton, 1865-1930: An Absence of Memory, that he was truly brought back into the public eye.

Even then, Wharton was not a household name. It has taken the dedicated work of researchers and historians to reveal details of his life, to bring a story so few had heard to prominence. And by now, almost a century after his death, he is finally appreciated, revered for his pioneering role in football.

Wharton didn’t intend to pursue a career in the sport. The son of a Grenadian father and a mother who was a member of the Fante Ghanaian royalty, he grew up in Jamestown, then the capital of the Gold Coast colony. When he moved to England at the age of 19, he did so in order to train as a Methodist missionary. But it soon became clear that he was a remarkable athlete and an accomplished sportsman.

In 1886, he set a world record in a 100-yard sprint, running the distance in just 10 seconds. It would stand for 30 years. Wharton also won the annual race at Stamford Bridge, an achievement that grabbed the attention of those who had been sceptical of his talent. He tried his hand at cricket, rugby and cycling too, before eventually settling on football.

“He was a proud man from a privileged background and was scornful of any racism aimed at him,” Howard Holmes, of the Sheffield-based organisation Football Unites, Racism Divides, said in an interview with Exposed magazine. “He once overheard two opponents in a sprint race querying why they had to run against a black man. He challenged them to a fight, which they sheepishly declined.”

Wharton was not deterred by the incessant sneering, nor did his reduced status in Britain make him any less determined to succeed.

His football career began at Darlington in 1885. He joined the club as an amateur goalkeeper but soon caught the eye of Preston. Wharton excelled with the Lancashire club, establishing himself as a key member of ‘The Invincibles’ of the 1880s.

Wharton quickly became known for his trademark punch, with which he generated more power than most fans had ever seen. His technique, though unorthodox, proved highly successful. The Northern Echowrote that he was “without doubt one of the most capable goal custodians in the country”. Not content to settle in one position, he occasionally played as a winger too.

Clearly, Wharton was a versatile sportsman. In 1888, despite having made significant progress in football, he chose to move to Sheffield and become a professional sprinter. A packed crowd at the Queen’s Ground in Hillsborough watched him win the Sheffield Handicap, after which he was described by the Sheffield Daily Telegraph as “travelling like a racehorse”.

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A year later, though, Wharton had returned to football, joining Rotherham United. He enjoyed a fruitful five-year spell with the Rotherham club, before moving to Sheffield United in 1894. In Yorkshire, he was faced with an unfamiliar problem: the club’s first-choice goalkeeper was William ‘Fatty’ Foulke – famous for being one of the largest men ever to play football – so Wharton managed just three appearances.

From then on, his career began to wind down. Two brief spells with Stalybridge Rovers (where he played under a young Herbert Chapman) and a move to Ashton North End followed. By the turn of the century, Wharton was on his last legs. He’d developed an alcohol problem and was forced to retire while at Stockport in 1902, after which he found work as a colliery haulage worker at Yorkshire Main Colliery in Edlington.

The coal mine took its toll on Wharton. He spent the remainder of his life in the job, his health gradually deteriorating and his successful career in sport largely forgotten. When he died in 1930 having developed cancer of the upper lip, the only mention of his life was a short paragraph in a local newspaper. He was buried in an unmarked paupers’ grave; his achievements, his remarkable career, consigned to history.

That it took such a long time for Wharton’s story to re-emerge is telling. As Vasili put it in The First Black Footballer: “There is an assumption implicit in British culture and history that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was a homogeneous and, above all, white society before large-scale immigration from the New Commonwealth in the 1950s and 1960s. This view denies the existence of the long-established black communities in British cities like Cardiff, Bristol and Liverpool.”

Wharton was considered, by many, an anomaly. Almost every mention of his abilities was caveated by a comment on his appearance, his ethnicity. “Wharton was lionised by a defiant, radical section of the British working-class community and in the process became wilfully proletarianized,” added Vasili. “Photographs of Arthur show his metamorphosis from African aristocrat to Yorkshire miner. In spite of his background, Arthur Wharton chose to become and remain part of that community.”

Wharton didn’t seek the limelight. Had he lived longer, he wouldn’t have sought fame and recognition. But the reaction following the campaign by Football Unites, Racism Divides in the late 2000s would, no doubt, have brought a smile to his face.

In 2014, a statue of Wharton, designed by Darlington artist Shaun Campbell, was unveiled at the National Football Centre in Burton. It depicts the goalkeeper leaping into the air, stretching to push a ball over the bar. It’s a fitting tribute: Wharton, neglected for so long, is now immortalised, appreciated for his indelible impact on the game.

This article was originally published on 7th April 2020.

Arthur Wharton: Football’s forgotten pioneer
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