Celebrating Black History Month, Adam Sundle takes a look at the first black UK professional footballer – and he played for County.

Arthur Wharton’s name has rightfully gained more traction in recent years. Born in what is now Ghana, at the age of 19, Arthur moved to England. Not only would he become a professional footballer, but he also would go on to play cricket and rugby professionally as well at one stage being the fastest man in the world (so it was odd he played as a Goalkeeper).

In the modern day, roughly one-third of professional footballers in England are black. Arthur was most certainly a trailblazer. It would be decades until black footballers were common to appear in every team. It would also be over 100 years until County next had a black goalkeeper, highlighting how far ahead of his time Arthur was. Although County would have the logical thinking that someone with such pace would probably be best utilised on the wing.

Arthur was subject to great degrees of racist abuse whilst he was a player, and he lived in a society which wouldn’t defend him so he would have to fend for himself. He would regularly be insulted being called the ‘N’ word and other racially aggravated attacks. Newspaper articles would regularly refer to him as ‘darkie’.

Indeed, this was an era of British perception of superiority and exceptionalism. The scramble for Africa stimulated further ideas of white supremacy and consequently, the notion that black people couldn’t be as or more successful than white people. Black people, particularly from African countries were deemed inferior and they were treated as a pawn in European diplomatic endeavours. European countries believed African nations to be subordinate and therefore as part of their colonial ambitions would go on supposedly ‘civilising missions’.

So, Arthur was not just different in the sporting world, but he was unique in British society. He developed a very successful footballing career in the late 1880s and 1890s. He was a part of the Preston invincible title-winning side.

Due to the Gold Coast being a British colony, Arthur was technically eligible to play for England. Being a part of the Preston invincible side meant his name must have surely been in contention for the national side.

But, the FA had a ‘little-Englander’ approach to international football. They would not part-take in the world cup until 1950 due to its snobbery to the rest of the world. The idea of a black player playing for England would have contradicted what the FA’s ethos of what it meant to be English. It would take until 1962 for a black player to represent England.

His final club would go onto be the Hatters in the early 1900s. His time at County would prove to be more of a retirement home for Arthur but, as the first black footballer to play for County his influence on not just the club but the history of British football can’t be undermined.

Arthur’s time at County was brief and proved to be his last professional club. His final game would be against Newton Heath (now Manchester United) which finished 3-3.

During Arthur’s stint at County, there was a revolt from the players against the ownership over their salaries. Arthur was reportedly an outspoken individual who would have likely been at the forefront of such a movement.

This highlights that Arthur was a trailblazer in many ways. Indeed, the early 1900s were an important time for the progress of the Labour movement and trade unions. Arthur and the team were championing working-class rights – an important aspect of Manchester’s history.

Whilst Arthur was a trailblazer, there is still some way to go to achieve inclusivity and representation in the modern game. Whilst 33% of professional footballers in the UK are black, 93% of coaches in the game are white.

Moreover, County’s very own Arjhan Raikhy is one of just 15 pros in the English game that are Asian despite 7.5% of the population being Asian. There are also no openly gay professional footballers in England.

In recent years there have been many ways in which Arthur has been commemorated. There is a statue of him at St George’s Park and there is a mural that has been constructed of him in Darlington. Maybe one day, it would be nice if Arthur could be commemorated at County in some form….

Thank you to the Arthur Wharton foundation for helping with the blog.

By Adam Sundle

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