Forgotten Plymouth Argyle footballer may soon be remembered

By Jovan Belev Source: Global Times Published: 2020/7/9 18:23:41

The Home Park stadium, home of the Plymouth Argyle Football Club, where Jack Leslie spent 14 seasons with Photo: VCG

Jack Leslie is not a name that many in England know but that might be about to change. 

That is the aim of a campaign, which aims to raise 100,000 pounds for a statue to honor the former footballer outside of Plymouth Argyle's Home Park ground.

Leslie's story - which has been described as extraordinary by former England international turned football journalist Gary Lineker - has come to the fore amid the UK's Black Lives Matter movement.

Statues honoring figures who were key participants in the slave trade have become the subject of much debate, as have the number of those around the country which commemorate non-white Britons. A similar debate has arisen over the naming of streets, too. 

The campaign aims to add at least one more statue of a non-white Briton in the form of Leslie. 

Jack Leslie Photo: Coutesy of Jack Leslie Campaign

Kid from Canning Town

Born in 1900 in the Canning Town area of London's Docklands to a Jamaican father and a white English mother, Leslie entered into football with Barking Town in England's lower leagues. 

A prolific record as a center forward attracted the attention of third division Plymouth Argyle in 1921. 

Leslie impressed at Home Park, with a move to inside left and a partnership with Sammy Black contributing to his renown beyond Devon. 

In 1925, international recognition was set to come with a first England call-up for Leslie. He was told by Argyle boss Bob Jack that he had been selected and Leslie was "knocked sideways" at the news, he later recounted. But it was not to be. 

The National Football Museum in Manchester notes Leslie's nod for a game against Ireland but the call-up was called back. 

When the team was published in the national press, Leslie was demoted to a travelling reserve and Aston Villa's Billy Walker had taken his place in the squad for the game against Ireland. As it was Leslie did not even travel and he was never called up again. 

Leslie recounted, long after his playing days had prematurely ended and while he was working in the backroom staff at West Ham United, that it was his ethnicity that ended his international career before it even began. 

"They [the selection committee] must have forgotten I was a colored boy," Leslie said years after the incident. 

He said, "I did hear, roundabout like, that the FA had come to have another look at me. Not at me football but at me face. They asked, and found they'd made a ricket. Found out about me daddy, and that was it.

"There was a bit of an uproar in the papers. Folks in the town [Plymouth] were very upset. No one ever told me official like but that had to be the reason; me mum was English but me daddy was black as the 'Ace of Spades.' There wasn't any other reason for taking my cap away."

A cartoon by artist Rob Bullen featuring Jack Leslie wearing a Plymouth Argyle jersey    Photo: Courtesy of Jack Leslie Campaign

Global attention

While the statue appeal has garnered global attention for Leslie, he has been remembered at Argyle, where he played 14 seasons. That partnership with Black, Argyle's all-time top scorer, saw Leslie become the club's fourth top scorer and find himself ninth on the list for appearances. In total he played 401 times for Argyle and scored 137 times for the club. 

Argyle noted his place in their history when the club renamed the boardroom the Jack Leslie Boardroom in December 2019.  They have also expressed their support for the campaign for the fan-funded statue, which began earlier this year. 

Elsewhere it has received backing from the English FA and politicians. 

"Jack Leslie should have been the first black player to appear in an England shirt but was dropped once selected because of the color of his skin," Luke Pollard, Member of Parliament for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, wrote on Twitter.

"Stories like this are incredibly sad," FA Chairman Greg Clarke said in a statement. 

"Discrimination in the game, in any form or from any time period, is unacceptable. We must always remember pioneers like Jack Leslie and be thankful that football is in a very different place today. We are very pleased to support this campaign which will hopefully ensure that Jack's career is appropriately recognized."

Recognition is also set to come with the naming of a Plymouth square in his honor. Leslie was suggested as the local council looked to rename Sir John Hawkins Square, as the city distanced itself from the slave trader. Last month the footballer was decided as the most fitting figure to replace Hawkins. 

With Leslie overlooked, it would not be until 1978 that Nottingham Forest fullback Viv Anderson would become the first black player to appear for the England national team. Many others have followed but the pioneers who led the way have been forgotten. 

A cartoon by artist Rob Bullen featuring Jack Leslie wearing a England jersey   Photo: Courtesy of Jack Leslie Campaign

Not the only one

Leslie is chief among them but far from the only one. 

Another forgotten footballer, and one who actually represented England in wartime and victory internationals was Frank Soo. The Liverpool-raised player was born to a Chinese father and English mother and was the star of a Stoke City side containing Stanley Matthews. 

Soo was expected to play for the Three Lions until the war broke out in 1939, disrupting his career. None of the games he played for England are counted as proper internationals by the FA and as such there is still no Asian player to have pulled on the shirt. 

Similarly, Benjamin Odeje is unknown but he was the first black footballer to play for England at any level when he represented England Schoolboys in 1971, predating Anderson's debut for the full national side against Czechoslovakia by a full seven years. 

Almost a century before was Arthur Wharton, who is regarded as the first black professional footballer. Wharton played for the all-conquering Preston North End side as an amateur in the 1880s before eventually going pro with Rotherham Town in 1889 before moving to Sheffield United where he would become the first mixed-race player to feature in the First Division. 

As The Plymouth Herald noted of Leslie in 1930, he was "known throughout England for his skill and complexion." Perhaps, soon Leslie and these other forgotten pioneers will be known throughout the land for their achievements. 
Newspaper headline: You don’t know Jack


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