The legacy of 19th centure goalie Arthur Wharton and why it matters

The legacy of 19th centure goalie Arthur Wharton and why it matters

By Gareth Dennison | 18/11/2020

The legacy of 19th centure goalie Arthur Wharton and why it matters


SPORTS pioneer Arthur Wharton became the first black professional footballer when he signed for Rotherham Town in 1889.

He was the first official 100-yard sprint world record holder, covering the distance in ten seconds in 1886 wearing pigskin shoes on a shingle track — a time that was not beaten for more than 30 years.

He played professional cricket, both codes of rugby and won a cycling championship in his spare time.

“Arthur Wharton was unarguably the world’s most iconic, prolific, recognisable all-round sportsman that the globe has ever seen,” said Shaun Campbell (right), founder of the Arthur Wharton Foundation.

“And arching all of that was this remarkable humanitarian spirit.

“In a bleak Victorian England, during the industrial era, where it was cold, poverty-stricken, disease-ridden, this young Ghanaian played seven games of football in ten days to feed the poor, for charity, in the face of his own adversity.”

Arthur was sent to England by his West Indian father, the Rev Henry Wharton, to train as a missionary teacher.

His talent as a goalkeeper and speed on the athletics track were first spotted when he was at college in Darlington.

Rotherham Town became the first club with a fully-professional black footballer when Arthur arrived from Preston North End 131 years ago.

Goalies of the day were not protected as they are in the modern game. They were harangued and bullied off the ball; barged into by on-rushing opponents.

Arthur was strong enough to meet such challenges — and even quick enough to run up the pitch to grab the odd goal himself!

The Athletic News of September 13, 1887, called him: “The coolest customer that has ever stood between the goalposts.”

But being a trailblazing sportsman is not without its problems — his skin colour raised the issue of racial discrimination.

Many believed his being black was the sole reason Arthur was never chosen to represent his adopted homeland. It was another nine decades before Viv Anderson became the first person of colour capped by England.

Arthur enjoyed success with Town and was in the starting line-up when they became Liverpool’s first opponents at Anfield in September 1892.

Arthur’s mother, Annie Egyriba, had been of wealthy Fante royal descent, but he soon became a working class hero in northern England.

He supplemented his club wage by running two Rotherham pubs — the Plough on Greasbrough Road and the Albert Tavern in Masbrough.

But a drink problem contributed to his retirement from sport aged 36, after which he worked in haulage at Edlington’s Yorkshire Main Colliery, taking part in the 1926 NUM march.

He died in 1930, aged 65, and was buried in a pauper’s grave in the village. It was not until 1997 that his final resting place was given a headstone, thanks to Football Unites Racism Divides and author Phil Vasili.

Arthur’s story feels more relevant than ever in 2020, with footballers taking the knee at each match and Black Lives Matter at the forefront of people’s minds.

But despite plenty of talks and suggestions, we have nothing in Rotherham to honour Arthur beyond the wall painting in the Bridge Inn’s outside smoking area.

A 16-foot statue of him was unveiled at the FA’s national football centre St George’s Park, Staffordshire, in 2014.

A blue plaque was erected in his honour two years earlier in Greater Manchester, recognising Arthur’s impact on football in the area.

Just last month, a huge mural was painted outside the foundation’s base in Darlington — celebrating 155 years since Arthur was born. It even gives him his Ghanaian name Kwame, which means born on a Saturday.

The piece was completed by Spanish artist “Jaykaes” and filmed for a BT Sport documentary.

Darlington mayor Chris McEwan said the mural was magnificent — and added: “I think it will rival the Angel of the North.”

Liam Rooney, Arthur’s great-great-grandson, and other family members were invited from Rotherham to Darlington for the unveiling.

“The story has been something that we have all spent time looking into and researching,” he told the BT film. “It’s certainly had a positive effect on our lives. I hope he has inspired a lot of other people.

“I grew up as a runner myself, so to then learn that I’m a descendant of someone who held records for sprinting, was unbelievable.

“I think my dad always wanted to take credit for my ability ...but it was Arthur!”

Shaun said: “It was a fantastic day. To see the joy on people’s faces, people learning about Arthur’s story, that’s what it’s all about.

“His legacy has to be to make meaningful change in race relations, in discrimination, in working towards equality for all.

“To black and brown people all across the globe, we know our lives matter.

“But until black history matters, until it’s in our educational structures and workplaces, black lives will never matter to the people in power and authority.

“We pledge that we will do everything in our power to ensure that black history is taught on a par with other histories, towards meaningful change in the future. That has to be Arthur’s legacy.”