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The Black footballing pioneers who made their mark against Sunderland

Author Bill Hern tells the little known stories of the early Black footballers who came up against Sunderland, and the north-eastern weather.

By Bill Hearn

I would bet my life that no one knows the connection between the following three games all played at Roker Park;

The crowd size is shown in brackets.

  • 25th August 1973 Leyton Orient 1-1 (28,211)
  • 23rd November 1974 Notts County 3-0 (25,677)
  • 2nd January 1978 – Hull City 2-0 (29,396)

It’s a tough one.

Sunderland’s scorers were Billy Hughes, Ian Porterfield, Pop Robson (two) and Gary Rowell (two) but ‘players we’d love to have back’ isn’t the connection.

Roly Gregoire became the first black player to play for Sunderland in the game against Hull. That little prompt might be enough to allow those of a certain mindset to make a ‘First Black Player’ link. Yes, in August 1973 Bobby Fisher became the first black player to appear for Leyton Orient, and the following November Pedro Richards achieved the same feat for Notts County.

I was at the first two of these games but missed the Hull game in 1978. I don’t remember any fuss being made and, thankfully, no racism, although I would be astonished if there had been no comments about Pedro Richards’ Afro hairstyle.

Soccer - Notts County Photocall
Pedro Richards of Notts County
Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images

Bearing in mind that in 1975 the eminent journalist Bernard Joy was declaring that ‘coloured [sic] players’ had four major obstacles to overcome before they could have any hope of succeeding in English football; temperament, English conditions, physical contact and barracking, it is worth noting that Fisher went on to play 487 times, mainly for Leyton Orient and Richards played 485 games for Notts County. Sadly Roly, who suffered badly with injuries, came nowhere near to matching this, his career comprising only 15 appearances.

Joy also prophesied that there was no sign of any black players ever overcoming these temperamental and physical obstacles and making it into the England team. Three years later Viv Anderson won the first of his 30 England caps. In October 2020 Reece James became the 100th black player to appear for the full England side.

I saw the debuts of Pedro Richards and Bobby Fisher but, ironically given I am a Sunderland fan, not Roly Gregoire. There will be some people present at all three games, if so, they saw history being made – three times.

It can be guaranteed that there is no one still around who saw the other two players who became their club’s first black player at Sunderland.

If a group of fans was asked to name the earliest black footballers it’s a good bet the names of Arthur Wharton and Walter Tull would top that list. Remarkably, both made their bows at Sunderland. In the case of Wharton this was so long ago that the club was still playing at Newcastle Road.

While Wharton was the very first black player in the Football League, Tull was only the fifth. The other, ‘forgotten’ three are John Walker of Lincoln City the first black outfield player in the League, Willie Clarke the first black goal scorer (for Aston Villa) and Fred Corbett the first black player at several clubs including West Ham.

Arthur Wharton is so famous there is a statue of him at the National Football Centre at Burton but he only made one appearance in the First Division and that was for Sheffield United at Sunderland’s Newcastle Road ground.

Wharton’s lack of first team football was due to the form of first choice keeper William Foulke who was routinely referred to as Fatty Foulke. That is far from the worst of the politically incorrect comments that were common place at the end of the 19th century. What can’t be denied is that in the later stages of his career Foulke is reported to have weighed in at 24 stones. He was, however, good enough to have been capped by England.

Mural of Arthur Wharton Unveiled in Darlington
A mural of Arthur Wharton, the first black footballer in the Football League, who turned out for Darlington, was created in the town in 2018
Photo by Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

Indeed Foulke was listed as goalkeeper when the teams for the game on 23rd February 1895 were printed in the Sunderland Echo on the evening before the match. We don’t know what caused Foulke’s absence but perhaps the weather was a factor? Temperatures around the country had fallen as low as minus 15 degrees. South Shields had suffered 15 hours of continuous snowfall causing the shipyards to be closed. Who would fancy standing for 90 minutes in that?

The Echo revealed that the United team was staying in Durham prior to traveling to Sunderland the following morning. The trek up Houghton Cut the next day must have been a sight to behold.

As further evidence of the exceptionally inclement weather, the Echo informed us that “a farmer named Mulholland yesterday safely crossed Lough Neagh from Glenroy to Rama Island, 3 miles distance, with a Clydesdale horse and sleigh. A similar feat has not been completed since 1814.” This seems a bizarre way to gauge the severity of the weather and leaves one wondering how many Clydesdale horses perished in unsuccessful attempts during the intervening years?

Sunderland were top of the League and fresh from an 11-1 FA Cup win over Fairfield earlier in the month. The Yorkshire side were placed comfortably in mid-table.

In previewing the game the Newcastle Daily Chronicle referred to the Yorkshire team as “the cutlery team.” It doesn’t have quite the same ring as the Blades does it?

In a level of detail lacking these days, the reporter even described the toss, “The respective captains, having shaken hands in a friendly sort of way, a coin was spun. United named the bronze, and took the top end of the field with the breeze.” As a sign of the north-south divide what the Sunderland Echo described as a breeze was invariably termed at the very least as “a strong wind” by reports in Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire newspapers.

The reporter rather grumpily pointed out that the kick-off was delayed by the late appearance of Sunderland’s Andrew McCreadie who “at last showed himself” allowing the game to kick off. This public admonishment of McCreadie really does seem harsh as the game kicked off at 3.16pm only one minute behind the scheduled start time. We know the precise time of the kick-off because the reporter included it in his report. He was clearly a stickler for punctuality as well as detail. Or perhaps he was simply freezing and wanted to go home as soon as possible?

A special train had been put on from Sheffield so fans of the Blades (or the Cutlers) were well represented in the 7,000 crowd.

Nudger Needham
An image of the Sheffield United team, drawn in the late nineteenth century
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Wharton seems to have played well enough but, the Sunderland Echo recorded:

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.

The term ‘Darkie’ was, sadly, commonplace in those days. Willie Clarke, for example, was routinely referred to as Darkie Clarke.

Sunderland’s goal scorers in a comfortable 2-0 victory were Johnny Campbell and the latecomer, Andrew McCreadie. The club went on to win the League title for the third time in their then short history. Scottish international McCreadie had the unusual distinction of being a five feet 5 inch centre half.

The win might have been more emphatic as Sunderland had a goal allowed and then disallowed – a precursor of VAR? The Sheffield Evening Telegraph reported that:

Referee West of Lincoln, giving a goal to the consternation of the Sheffielders, afterwards changed his mind to the amusement of the crowd.

Further proof of just how fair-minded and sporting we Mackems are –the ref awards us a goal, changes his mind and we all have a good laugh over his unfortunate mistake.

Arthur Wharton had played 19 League games for the now defunct Rotherham Town prior to his sole game in Division One. It was to Rotherham Town that he returned the following season. An all-round sportsman Wharton excelled at cricket, rugby, cycling, athletics and held the world record for the 100 yards.

It was 1st September 1909 before another black player appeared at Sunderland. The club had of course moved to Roker Park by this time. The player was Walter Tull and he appeared for Spurs, who were making their first ever appearance in the First Division.

It was the opening game of the season, an evening game and the weather was bright and sunny although the reporter for the Tottenham and Edmonton Weekly Herald found the air “keen and bracing.”

Tull was making his first team debut having signed from non-league Clapton FC in the close season. He had won an FA Amateur cup-winners medal the previous season when Clapton hammered Teesside’s Eston United 6-0 in the Final.

Young Walter Tull
Walter Tull
Photo by Walter Tull Archive/Finlayson Family Archive/Getty Images

A crowd of 10,000 saw Sunderland win the game 3-1 with George Holley scoring two of the goals. Walter Tull, it was commented, “dallied a little too much.”

Spurs had been hoping to face a Sunderland reserve side as the Players Union and the Football Association (FA) were in dispute, the FA being unwilling to recognise players who were members of the Union. The entire Spurs squad had resigned from the Union earlier in the week. The Sunderland players along with others, particularly those from Newcastle and Manchester United, remained loyal to the Union. In fact the weekend before the game Sunderland suspended 17 of their players who had re-joined the Union. A last minute compromise was reached and the game went ahead but it was hardly ideal preparation for the forthcoming season.

Walter Tull played in five of Spurs’ first six League games but then at Bristol City suffered racist abuse that was horrific even by the standards of the early 20th century. The Spurs’ directors seemed uncertain how to handle the controversy that was associated with having a black player in the side and Tull played only five more games over the next 18 months before joining Northampton Town who were then in the Southern League.

When World War One broke out Tull enlisted immediately. A born leader, he became an officer. Some say he was the first ever black officer in the British Army, that isn’t quite true but he was certainly one of the very first and at a time when officers had to be of pure European descent. Tull clearly did not satisfy this criterion as he had a black Barbadian father and was very visibly non-white.

Tull was killed in action in France on 25th March 1918. His body was never recovered.

His bravery earned him a recommendation for the Military Cross, but this was never awarded even though as recently as 2018 a letter signed by 127 MPs from all parties was sent to the then PM Theresa May urging that he be awarded the medal posthumously. He is still waiting.

All 92 League clubs have a ‘First Black Player,’ that five of them achieved this feat in Sunderland seems to defy the laws of probability. That there were no reports or recollection of any racism on these occasions is something the fans can be proud of.

Officials from Northampton Town Football Club visit the site of the Battle of the Somme
Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink signs a vistors book at The Arras Memorial after laying a wreath to honour former player Walter Tull
Photo by Pete Norton/Getty Images

Bill Hern along with David Gleave is co-author of Football’s Black Pioneers – the Stories of the First Black Players to Represent the 92 League Clubs published by Conker Editions and available from the publisher, Amazon, Waterstones and all good book stores.