The Eccentric Pioneer

Working class icon. World-record breaking sprinter. African royalty. Goalkeeper. Arthur Wharton's story is worth a few moments of your time, Josh Clarke elaborates.

The fact that Hollywood hasn't cottoned onto the story of Arthur Wharton proves that they must have something unfathomably gripping up their sleeves, or they're just plain stupid.

This month marks the 80thanniversary of the death of the world's first black professional footballer. Standing between the sticks however, was one of many strings to Arthur Wharton's bow, not counting the ability to grow one of the greatest 'taches ever seen. He boasts a biography that is Dickensian in its characterisation and Odyssean in proportions. Perhaps it's best to start at the top.

Wharton was born in Accra, the now capital of Ghana, in 1865. The chalk and cheese combination of a half Scot/ half Grenadian Methodist minister dad and a mum born into African royalty (the Fante royal family – an indigenous Ghanaian people) does a decent job of symbolising the bewildering eccentricity of Wharton's life. An idyllic life on the Gold Coast was cut short though when aged 19, Wharton relocated to the somewhat more grim setting of Darlington, to commence Methodist Preacher training. It was whilst expressing himself extra-curricularly that Wharton embarked upon an almost Clark Kent-esque discovery of physical aptitude. Religion's loss quickly became sport's gain.

Natural talents in cricket, where Wharton represented local teams based in Yorkshire and Lancashire, and cycling, where he is alleged to have annihilated the Preston to Blackburn sprint record, were undeniably eclipsed by his talent on the running track. In 1886, competing at the Amateur Athletics Association Championships, he became the fastest man on the planet, a literal forerunner for Carl Lewis, Michael Johnson and Usain Bolt, when he claimed a world record breaking time of 10 seconds for the 100 yard dash.

Which makes it seem bizarre that when Wharton was eventually spotted by his local club Darlington FC, they decided against utilising his mercurial pace...and stuck him in the nets. Imagine if you will, Theo Walcott or Aaron Lennon donning the number 1 jersey. Neville Southall this man was not. Although in those days, long before the formation of what we now recognise as modern-day football, things were very different.

If the goalkeeper's union of today think they've got it bad, then they should spare a thought for the custodians of the 1880's. Rather than the limited spacial restriction of only being allowed to handle in the box, 'keepers were permitted to handle the ball anywhere inside their own half. On the flip-side, protection was at a premium and it was perfectly fair game for an aggressive opponent to charge down a 'keeper – with or without the ball.

If the old adage that all goalkeepers are madwasn't initially applied to Wharton then I couldn't hazard a guess at its origin. The gladiatorial, anarchic rules of the game combined with Wharton's athletic prowess led to the development of a style that would lead an goalkeeping coach into an uncontrollable anxiety attack. By all accounts, his tried and tested formula would be to wait in a crouching position at the side of the goal, leaving it fully unguarded, before rushing out to save the ball. However, eye witness accounts of times when Wharton had to pull something special out of the hat make Rene Higuita look almost conventional:

"In a match between Rotherham and Sheffield Wednesday at Olive Grove 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. I have never seen a similar save since and I have been watching football for over fifty years."

Sheffield Telegraph & Independent, 12th January 1942

Whether it was his entertaining presence at the back, or the rare sight of a black man in what was essentially a prejudiced white man's world, people began to sit up and take notice of Wharton. A series of rave reviews whilst playing at amateur level at Darlington soon resulted in the enigmatic Wharton being spotted by Preston North End, one of the titans of pre 20th century football. He was an integral member of the side which reached the 1886/87 FA Cup semi final and was awarded for his endeavours by becoming country's first black professional footballer, an achievement that enough credit cannot be given for considering the atypically ignorant views prevalent in the country during that era:

"Good judges say that if Wharton keeps goal for the North End in their English Cup Tie the odds will be lengthened against them. I am of the same opinion…is this darkie's pate too thick for it to dawn upon him that between the posts is no place for a skylark? By some it's called coolness - bosh."

'Whispers', a columnist in The Athletic Journal, 1887.

Ever enigmatic, Wharton decided to leave Preston in order to concentrate on his running. Retaining his title at the AAA Championship was probably scant consolation to missing out on keeping nets for the Preston team that subsequently went on the win the 88/89 double. This disappointment, as well as the guaranteed income, was probably the motivating influence behind Wharton re-entering the beautiful game, as he joined Rotherham Town on a professional contact for what was the only period of relative stability in his career.

1894 brought about a move to Sheffield United, a move which was the catalyst for the beginning of the end of Wharton's career, getting the ball rolling on a period of journeyman-ism around the north that Trevor Benjamin would be proud of. At United he featured as the understudy to William 'Fatty' Foulke, another larger than life character whose distinct size is said to have been the inspiration for the universal question 'who ate all the pies'?

With his way blocked by the sizable Faulkes, Wharton saw a restricted amount of first team action and started only three games. A subsequent move to Stalybridge Rovers was cut short by a tiff with management and was followed by a move to Ashton North End. Bankruptcy problems for the club ended Wharton's spell there, sent him back to Stalybridge, then on to Stockport County, where he hung up his boots.

The colour evident in Wharton's footballing career was sadly not matched after his retirement. He was rejected by the Gold Coast colonial administration for a civil service post, being told that his sporting past deemed him 'inappropriate' for work as a colonial official. Whereas an attempt to keep up his athletic and cricketing endeavours proved unfruitful, it was reported that, even in his fifties, 'he could catch pigeons' with his bare hands. Once you've got it, you don't lose it.

Unsurprisingly, the rewards of professional football, back in those days, were a world away from what you see now. Wharton spent the rest of his working life as a colliery haulage hand in the South Yorkshire pits. His death in December 1930 went unheralded and Wharton, despite his wealthy African heritage, was buried penniless and in a third-class grave.

It wasn't until 1997 that Wharton's grave was even given a headstone, following a campaign undertaken by Football Unites/Racism Divides. Despite never winning a major honour and never winning an international cap, Wharton was inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame in 2003. His life story beggars belief but it provokes a fascinating insight into an icon who helped define football as we now know it.  A genuine eccentric pioneer, they just don't make 'em like that any more.

You can see more of Josh’s work at his excellent blog, and follow him on Twitter @joshkclarke