The man Arthur Wharton was born in the then Gold Coast, at James Town in Accra in 1865 to a mixed race parents. His father was half-Grenadian and half-Scottish, and his mother was from Ghanaian royalty.
Arthur moved to England to train as a Methodist missionary at a school in Cannock, Staffordshire. Available literature says he got bored with academic work and religious life and so he quit school to find expression in his sporting talents. He moved to the Durham area where he competed in an athletics competitions. There he set a new world record of 10 seconds for the 100 yards dash at Stamford Bridge in July 1886. This achievement led to invitations to compete in professional athletics tournaments from which he could earn an income and make a living from sports.
During his athletics career, he drew attention to himself from football clubs.
He subsequently began his first professional career as a footballer with Preston North End. He joined the team in 1886 as a semi-professional player. He turned fully professional when he signed for Rotherham United in 1889 as a goalkeeper.
Arthur was noted for his exceptional skills as a goalkeeper in an era when forwards could legitimately charge onto a goalkeeper whether he has the ball or not. One commentator reportedly described an incident when Arthur grabbed on to the crossbar, hauling himself out of the way of three oncoming forwards, and caught the ball between his legs!
The high point of his career came in 1887 when he played for Preston in the FA Cup semi-final in which they lost 3-1 to West Bromwich Albion. After
this feat, there was speculations that he would be called up to play for England, but due to the racial prejudices of the time he never was called into the England squad.
Arthur was poached from Sheffield United in 1894 by Rotherdam to be their main goalkeeper. For his inducement he was given a licenseeship for the Sportsman Cottage pub in Sheffield. Unfortunately, at this point Arthur’s career began to suffer a dip as age caught up with him and he couldn’t compete for a place in the team with the team’s other new and much younger goalkeeper Bill ‘Fatty’ Foulke.
He then moved from one club to another, so he could make a living, but as he met with little success, he turned to drinking and eventually retired from playing football in 1902. He then lived an unhappy life after retirement from football working as a coal mine haulage hand till he died in poverty in 1930 as an alcoholic.
He remained forgotten until until in 1997 when his story was uncovered by the Sheffield United-based project – ‘Football Unites, Racism Divides’. Since then a book about his life has been published by the project, and his grave in Edlington cemetery near Doncaster has finally been marked with a headstone, and his picture was included in an exhibition of British Sporting Heroes at the National Portrait Gallery.
A statue of Arthur will be mounted in his honour as the first African professional football player of the world. A campaign is already ongoing to raise funds for the statue in Darlington, and one of the supporters of the campaign is musician Stevie Wonder. It has also won the support of the England 2018 World Cup bid Ambassador Viv Anderson – the first Black man to win a full England cap.
(Materials for this article were sourced from the BBC and the Observer)
By Emmanuel K. Dogbevi