Somewhere in a windswept South Yorkshire cemetery, in a pauper’s grave, lies a footballing pioneer.
Arthur Wharton was no ordinary player. Quite apart from his extraordinary athletic ability (he held the world record for the 100 yard sprint), he was the world’s first black professional footballer. Wharton blazed a trail that would be followed by Raheem Sterling, Les Ferdinand and John Barnes. In another era he’d have been a decorated icon; as it was he became a journeyman before swapping his boots for a miner’s pickaxe, and eventually winding up discarded in an unmarked grave.
Wharton’s story is a riches-to-rags tragedy: a casualty of colonialism and its associated racist attitudes in minature. Now more than ever, it deserves to be known.
Wharton was born in what is now Accra, Ghana in 1865 – coincidentally the same city that current United player Christian Atsu would be born in nearly 130 years later.
His childhood was one of privilege, descended through his mother from Ghanaian royalty. As such, he received a good education and was destined for the priesthood. Aged 19 with colonial violence worsening, he made the long journey to the North East to train as a Methodist preacher in Darlington. However, it quickly became apparent that he was far more interested in sport than he was in becoming a man of the cloth and he set about making a name for himself as something of a sporting polymath.
Before football through, there was athletics, cycling and cricket. And to say that Wharton excelled is something of an understatement.
In 1886 he became the fastest man in the country, equalling the world record of 10 seconds for the 100-yard sprint; while a year later he set a new record time for cycling between Preston and Blackburn at a time when presumably the Tour de Lancashire rivalled the Tour de France for prestige. And in his spare time, Wharton played cricket at a high level in both Yorkshire and Lancashire.
However, it was football which captured most of the young man’s attention, and he was quickly snapped up by the local side where he became a goalkeeper. There, Wharton established himself as something of a shot-stopping powerhouse: one writer describes him as having a ‘prodigious punch’ which always connected with one of two things: the ball or an opposition player’s head.
Club loyalties weren’t what they are now in the 1880s, and while still a Darlington player, Wharton was selected for the prestigious Newcastle and District team – a side at the time who were a cut above the East and West End sides that combined to form Newcastle United in 1892.
In 1886, he was in turn signed by Preston North End and was part of the team that reached the FA Cup Semi-Finals in 1886/87, becoming part of the side that was – more than a century before Wenger’s Arsenal side – dubbed ‘The Invincibles’. One news report of the time gushed that ‘without doubt one of the most capable goal custodians in the country’ while, bowled over by Wharton’s mix of showboating flair and physical power, another gaped:
‘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’
Depressingly however, the colour of Wharton’s skin was the prime focus in other coverage and crowd attention: racial slurs (even in the press) were commonplace. Abuse was disgustingly ever-present, and Wharton bore the brunt of it.
After a stint at Rotherham, Wharton’s big move brought opportunity, but also led to his downfall.
Tempted by the sweetener of taking over the nearby Sportsman’s Cottage pub (the kind of incentivised contract clause that was common at the time), he moved to Sheffield United where he found himself understudy to regular first-team goalkeeper William ‘Fatty’ Foulke – one of the great keepers of the late 19th and early 20th century.
Despite a playing a handful of games for the Blades, Wharton couldn’t break through and so was forced drop down the leagues for game-time with Stalybridge Rovers, Ashton North End and Stockport County. Fond of a few beers before playing, Wharton’s drinking consumed him when he retired in 1902, and he ended up working in the mines of South Yorkshire as a haulage hand – a dangerous and exhausting job.
The last years of his life were spent in the mines and he took part in the General Strike of 1926 before dying penniless in 1930. Despite his tragic demise, Wharton’s trailblazing achievements remain.
‘Arthur Wharton is an icon’, said former United striker Les Ferdinand a few years ago. ‘And not just for football reasons, he should be an inspiration for every young person in an ethnic minority, or black kid, who really wants something’
Sadly, 90 years on from his death Wharton remains largely forgotten by society. A true pioneer, he deserves to be far better known.