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READ | The First Black Professional - Arthur Wharton feature

13 October 2020

With Black History Month well underway, millions of people across the globe are celebrating the achievements and contributions to society made by the Black community.

The unique passion of football resonates all over the world, making it a truly inclusive and diverse sport.

Here at Rotherham United, we are proud of our diverse community and even prouder to have had the world’s first black professional footballer make history in our town over 130 years ago.

Arthur Wharton signed for Rotherham Town in 1889 and with that, eventually, marked his place in history as a pioneer of the game.

Playing predominantly as a goalkeeper, but occasionally on the right-wing, Wharton was blessed with talent, with reports that he would have been considered for England, had it not been for the colour of his skin.

A sad sign of the times he lived through, and of how far society has come since then, but, his story remains a reminder of how far we still have to go.

He was born in Ghana, which was then a colony of the British Gold Coast; in 1865, moving to England when he was a teenager.

Originally, Wharton came over to these shores to train as a Methodist preacher, but this was a profession that never really enthused him and given his ability to excel in sports, he pursued the opportunity to make his name in athletics.

And what an amazing sportsman he was. At Stamford Bridge in 1886, he became the fastest man in England, winning the Amateur Athletics Association competition by becoming the first man to run 100 yards in 10 seconds flat.

On top of this feat, he broke the record for cycling between Preston and Blackburn, as well as going on to play cricket professionally.

But first football. Having already signed up to become Darlington’s goalkeeper in 1885, he moved to Preston to become part of a North End side that reach the 1887 FA Cup semi-final.

After briefly leaving football to concentrate on his running career, he moved to Rotherham Town in 1889 to become the first black professional footballer.

In a career which spanned 17 years, Wharton would go on to play for Sheffield United, before hanging up his boots following a further spell at Stockport County.

If reports are anything to go by, Wharton was a goalkeeper befitting of the modern game, often standing crouched by the goalpost as the opposition attacked, before frantically charging out to put off forwards.

During one match, he is believed to have jumped to hang from the crossbar and catch the ball between his legs rather than using his hands, a true entertainer.

After suffering from a number of illnesses in his later life, he died in 1930 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Edlington Cemetery in South Yorkshire.

However, following a campaign in 1997 by anti-racism body ‘Football Unites, Racism Divides’, his grave was given a headstone and six years later he was inducted in to the English Hall of Fame in recognition of the impact he made on the game.

In 2014, his career was commemorated with a 16-foot statue of a giant bronze goalkeeper tipping the ball over the bar in the memorial garden at the Football Association’s St. George’s Park.

Maybe that, is Wharton’s true legacy. His place at FA headquarters, proof of a black presence at the very beginning of the professional game. Once forgotten, he is now forever remembered.

Now with his rightful place in history, he deservedly stands tall and leaps even higher.


The Arthur Wharton statue at St. George's Park

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