Remembering England’s first black national footballer

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October is celebrated in Britain as Black History Month and is a time when people reflect on the contributions of Black people to British society. One of the areas in which Black people have made a significant contribution is in the sport of football. For example, when Viv Anderson put on an England shirt in 1978 and represented his country, he was widely regarded as the first Black player to achieve this remarkable accomplishment. His achievement as the first Black player can be contested, however, as another young man, Paul Reaney, had earlier represented England in an under-18 international match on 20 March 1962 against Israel. In fact, he scored a goal in England’s 3-1 win and would later play two more games for England’s under-18 side. These achievements, as significant as they are, are eclipsed by the more remarkable accomplishment of John Francis Leslie, popularly known as Jack Leslie. He was the first Black player to be selected for the national senior England team, and this was before World War 2. The main difference, however, among these three Black footballers was, that, while Reaney and Anderson actually played for England, Jack Leslie appeared to have been deselected and never played for his country.

Established in one of my own publications, Andrew Watson: The World’s First Black Football Superstar is the fact that Andrew Watson was, arguably, the first Black player to play for a national team, when he played for and captained the Scottish national team in 1881, which resulted in a 6-1 defeat for England. The Jack Leslie story is, nevertheless, remarkable not for his football skills and abilities, but for his apparent deselection from the national team. Jack Leslie (1901–1988) was born in Canning Town, East London to a Black Jamaican father who was also named John Francis Leslie and Anne Leslie, a White English woman. Jack began his career at Barking FC before going on to play for Plymouth Argyle. During Jack’s time at Plymouth, he scored 137 goals in 400 appearances. In 1925, he was chosen to play for England. He was regarded by many at the time, as one of the country’s most outstanding footballers. However, he was subsequently deselected when the selection committee realised he was Black. Jack Leslie, who did not seem to be outwardly impacted by this, would later remark that the English Football Association (FA) obviously did not realise he was a ‘coloured boy’.

Despite this clear demonstration of racial discrimination, Leslie continued to play and do well in his sport. It is fitting, therefore, that a statue of the once famous Canning Town-born footballer, who was blocked from playing for England because of his skin colour, was unveiled on 7 October after a campaign. It was also fitting that the unveiling of the statue occurred during Black History month when there is a greater emphasis on Black contributions to British history and society. According to one of his granddaughters, Leslie Hiscott, Jack was never told why he had been dropped. He was playing brilliant football, he wasn’t injured, and he had not been suspended. The only issue was the colour of his skin and the presumption was that was the reason. But what is particularly telling, is the fact that the FA is awarding Jack Leslie a posthumous honorary cap, to recognise ‘his unique contribution and set of circumstances – and to right the historical wrong’. This act, 97 years after he was mysteriously deselected from the national squad, demonstrates that the FA’s action back then was unfair. The most important issue from Jack Leslie’s story is the need to ensure that the memory of these sporting pioneers is never forgotten.

Tony Talburt is a Senior Lecturer at Birmingham City University in the UK.

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