On Tuesday 29th March England will play Ghana at Wembley in the first meeting between the two countries. The game will honour the memory and achievements of Arthur Wharton, the World’s first black professional footballer.
Wharton was born 1865 in Jamestown, Gold Coast, current day Ghana. His father was a Methodist priest from Grenada and his mother was a member of the Fante royal house. In 1882 he left for England to train as a missionary and it was whilst at college in Darlington that his talent for sports shone through. He soon gave up his studies to become a full-time athlete.
He was a very talented individual indeed, in 1886 he became the first man to run the 100 yards dash in ten seconds and in 1887 set the fastest time for cycling between Preston and Blackburn. But it was in football that he was to make his name.
He joined Darlington FC as a goalkeeper and his displays earned him superlative praise. He was spotted by Preston North End and signed for them in 1886. The high point of his stay with the Deepdale club being an 1887 semi-final appearance. he left Preston in 1888 and moved to South Yorkshire to take up a career as a professional runner but he was soon back in the game when he signed for Rotherham Town in 1889. It was with Rotherham that he became the first black professional footballer to play in the Football League and in all made 34 league appearances for the club.
He moved to Sheffield United in 1894, maybe it was the offer of running a pub alongside the football that swayed him? Unfortunately for Wharton he was at Bramall Lane the same time as legendary keeper Bill ‘Fatty’ Foulkes and this limited his opportunities. He turned out for the Blades just five times making his debut in a friendly against Linfield Athletic. His next appearance was Division 1 fixture away at Sunderland making him the first black player to play in the top flight of English football. he appeared in a United Counties League match versus Leicester Fosse and his last game for United was a friendly against his old club Rotherham Town.
His brief one season stay at Bramall Lane was followed by stints at Stalybridge Rovers, Ashton North End and Stockport County. After retiring from football Arthur lived in the Doncaster area making a living at the Yorkshire Main colliery. He died, penniless, in 1930 and was buried in an unmarked grave.
Thanks to the efforts of his biographer Phil Vasili, Sheila Leeson, his oldest living relative and Football Unites Racism Divides a campaign successfully raised enough money to pay for a gravestone so that his achievements and legacy could be remembered and recognised. In 2003 he was inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame.
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