I was at Wembley on 29th March 2011 in the midst of the colourful and noisy Ghanaian fans when Asamoah Gyan scored a last minute equaliser. I had extra reason to celebrate as Gyan played for my team Sunderland at the time, as did John Mensah and Sulley Muntari also in the Ghana side. The celebrations were so wild the Ghanaian friend I was with lost his mobile phone in the excitement.
Ghana also has a very special place in the history of English and indeed world football. Arthur Wharton the very first black professional footballer was born in Accra. Such is his importance he has a statue at the English Football Association’s national football centre in St George’s Park, Burton.
Arthur isn’t the only player of Ghanaian heritage to make an impact on English football. Along with David Gleave, I am co-author of the book Football’s Black Pioneers – the stories of the first black players to represent each of the 92 English League clubs. No fewer than three players of Ghanaian heritage have the distinction of being the first black player for an English League club. Let’s take a look at each of them.
By far the biggest name is Arthur Wharton, born in Accra on 28th October 1865. His mother was Annie Florence Grant the mixed heritage daughter of a Scottish merchant and a Ghanaian woman, Efua Ama-Egyriba. Arthur’s father, the Reverend Henry Wharton, a missionary, was born in Grenada of Scottish and African heritage.
Arthur went to England in 1883 to train as a Methodist minister but his sporting prowess soon came to the fore and on 30th October 1886 he became the first black player to appear for Preston North End, at the time one of the leading clubs in Britain.
Arthur played in goal for the Preston side that reached the FA Cup semi-final in 1886/87. They were defeated by West Bromwich Albion. Arthur’s near miss meant it would be another 78 years before a black player appeared in the Cup Final – South African, Albert Johanneson of Leeds United.
The Football League was not formed until 1888/89 when Preston won the very first title along with the FA Cup, going through the entire season undefeated. Arthur had left Preston by then but became the first black footballer ever to appear in the Football League when he played for Rotherham Town in a 3-0 defeat at Walsall Town Swifts in a Second Division game on 26th September 1893. Arthur made 19 League appearances that season, featuring on the winning team only four times as Rotherham ended the season second from bottom of Division Two.
Clearly Sheffield United must have absolved Arthur of any blame for Rotherham’s plight as they signed him the following season. Thus on 23rd February 1895 Arthur once again made history as the first black player to appear in the English First Division (now the Premier League). He couldn’t have chosen a more difficult debut as it was away to Sunderland who would go on to win the title that season. The match was played in freezing cold conditions with Sunderland running out 2-0 winners.
Arthur doesn’t seem to have been at fault for either goal with the local reporter describing the second goal as follows; ”the siege gradually converging on Wharton, he was left to deal alone with a drive by McCreadie which LOWERED HIS COLOURS. The Darkie did not confess himself beaten until he had sprawled full length between the sticks.” Clearly such racist language would not be permitted these days.
That was Arthur’s sole appearance for Sheffield United. He returned to Rotherham Town the following season where he played 15 League games. Rotherham once again ended the season second from bottom of Division Two and this time were demoted from the League. Rotherham Town never returned to League football and nor did Arthur until 1901 when he played six games for Second Division Stockport County.
Arthur retired from football in 1902, found work as a miner and died in 1930.
Such was Arthur’s significance to the game of football that he was inducted to the English Football Hall of Fame in 2003.
The story of Arthur’s life is well documented in various other publications. Aside from football he was an outstanding sportsperson. He also shone at rugby, cycling, cricket and athletics where he was the amateur world record holder for the 100 yards sprint with a time of 10 seconds exactly.
Arthur Wharton is quite literally an impossible act to follow. No one else can be the first ever black professional footballer, the first black player to appear in the Football League and then the first in Division One, or the first black player for Rotherham Town, Preston North End, Sheffield United and Stockport County.
There were very few black players in English football until the 1960s when about a dozen English teams fielded a black player for the first time . One of these was Peter Foley, the next player after Arthur Wharton to have Ghanaian connections. Because Football’s Black Pioneers focuses only on current League clubs, Peter appears in the book as the first black player at Scunthorpe where he made his debut at Peterborough on 19th August 1967.
Peter was born in Edinburgh on 28th June 1944. His father was a Ghanaian student studying at Edinburgh University. His name was Albert Kobina Kuta-Dankwa and Albert went on to become a respected Doctor in his home country.
Peter never met his father, indeed he did not know the identity of Albert until long after he had retired from football. In a bizarre twist of fate he found that his father was also the parent of one of his best friends, another Scottish ex-footballer called Dougie Johnson. Both friends had spent the first 40 or so years of their lives without knowing they were also half-brothers! Peter and Dougie had been born to different mothers just eight months apart.
Peter began his career with Workington Town then in the Fourth Division but now no longer in the League. He made his bow at Reading in a 1-0 defeat on 13th February 1965. Later that season young Peter suffered horrendous racist abuse in a game at Queens Park Rangers. It affected him badly and when he saw that Workington’s first game of the following season was at Millwall, a club notorious for displays of racism, he panicked. He couldn’t face the expected abuse so told his manager he was injured when he was in fact fully fit. After the game he realised he had let himself and the club down and vowed to do all he could to combat racism. He was so successful that in 2003 he was awarded the MBE for his anti-racism work. A true pioneer and hero.
The next footballer with a Ghanaian father to become the first black player at a League club was Frank Peterson who was born in Croydon, England on 3rd April 1951. We know nothing more of Frank’s parentage but we do know he was already an England Youth international when he made his first appearance for Millwall at Portsmouth on 30th November 1968. Only 17 years of age he was an outstanding prospect. Sadly his League career lasted for only three games before he was released by Millwall to join non-league Chelmsford City.
Frank’s career was further thwarted by frequent clashes with football and non-footballing authorities. He was imprisoned on at least one occasion and missed a lot of games because of a three year jail sentence and regular suspensions.
In an act of great irony Frank appeared as an extra in the film version of the TV comedy series Porridge which was based on the lives of inmates at the fictional Slade Prison.
On 12th April 1968 Frank became the first black player to represent Millwall at the Den, a ground that had previously proved extremely unwelcoming to players of colour. All the evidence is that he was well received, helping to forge the way for black players such as Phil Walker and Trevor Lee who very soon followed.
Ghana can rightly claim to be the home of the first ever black professional footballer. Arthur Wharton was not only born there but grew up and learned his football in Accra in the late 19th century. Arthur is buried in Edlington, near Doncaster and has a statue in Burton but he will always be a son of Ghana.
Football’s Black Pioneers – the stories of the first black players to represent the 92 League clubs – by Bill Hern and David Gleave. Available from the publisher Conker Editions, Amazon or any good bookshop.