On Thursday 7th September, 134 years to the day that he made his professional debut, a blue plaque was unveiled in Rotherham to celebrate the life and career of Arthur Wharton.
Arthur Wharton made history as England’s first black professional footballer when he signed for Rotherham Town FC in August 1889.
Born in Ghana in 1866, Arthur Wharton moved to the UK in 1883 aged 18 to train as a missionary at Cleveland College in Darlington, Co. Durham.
However, his athletic ability soon became evident, not only as footballer but also in athletics. Aged 20, he set a world record time of ten seconds in the 100-yard sprint at the AAA Championships at Stamford Bridge.
In the same year, Arthur played amateur football for Darlington where he was selected as goalkeeper. He was known for a unique and somewhat eccentric style and would apparently wait in a crouching position at the side of the goal before rushing out to save the ball.
Later, he was scouted by Preston North End where he was part of the team that reached the FA Cup semi-finals in 1886-87. He left Preston to concentrate on his running and moved to Sheffield, which was at the time the acknowledged centre of professional running.
He returned to football in 1889, signing a professional contract at Rotherham Town. In this period, Rotherham Town won the Midland League in consecutive years and were invited to be the first team to play Liverpool in their first season at Anfield. It was also a period of social unrest and Arthur faces bigotry and racial spite at times.
Despite being a professional player, Arthur needed to supplement his income. He did so by running two pubs, the Albert Tavern and the Plough Inn in Masbrough. After retiring from football in 1902, Arthur took up a job as a miner at Edlington Pit.
He died in 1930 aged 65 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Edlington until Football Unites, Racism Divides (FURD) raised money for a headstone in 1997.
The plaque, commissioned by Rotherham District Civic Society, has been installed on the entrance to Rotherham Titans’ Rugby Club’s Clifton Lane ground which is where Rotherham Town played.
Former Chelsea and Southampton player, Ken Monkou, unveiled the plaque. Monkou was the first black player to voted club player of the year in his first season at Chelsea. He is now an ambassador for the Professional Footballers’ Association and for Show Racism The Red Card.
Also in attendance were Shaun Campbell, founder of the Arthur Wharton Foundation, former Chelsea goalkeeper David Speedie, Simon Hyacinth, the CEO of Sheffield-based Football Unites, Racism Divides, Rotherham United’s chief operating officer Paul Douglas, and the Mayor of Rotherham, Cllr Robert Taylor
Descendants of Arthur Wharton were also there on the day, including his two great-granddaughters, Dorothy and Nancy Leeson.
For more information on Arthur’s story, visit the Arthur Wharton Foundation website: www.arthurwhartonfoundation.org