Viv Anderson has hailed the world’s first black professional football as an ‘incredible’ inspiration, in the week that marked 150 years since his birth.
One of ten children, Arthur Wharton was born in Jamestown, Ghana, on October 28 1865, before moving to England 17 years later and making his Football League debut for Darlington as a 20-year-old.
The goalkeeper went on to play for the Preston North End ‘Invincibles’ side, before finishing his career at Stockport County following spells at now-defunct Manchester clubs Stalybridge Rovers and Ashton North End.
Anderson, the first black England international when he made his debut in 1978 and Sir Alex Ferguson’s first Manchester United signing, is a patron of the Arthur Wharton Foundation and told MM that the long-deceased Ghanian, who passed away in 1930, was a pioneer ahead of his time.
“The Football Museum – in Preston at the time – was going to open up an exhibition for Arthur Wharton, and I said ‘I don’t know who Arthur Wharton is!’ Anderson said.
“I did some research, and it is an incredible story.
“The name of Arthur Wharton rings out all over the world now, and I think we have helped with that legacy of a pioneer all those years ago.
“He has got to be an inspiration. Now we go to schools and different societies and talk about Arthur, and rightly so because he was the very first and people should know the name.”
Wharton, who gained the affectionate nickname of ‘Darkie’ during his 17-year career, was a sporting all-rounder who played professional cricket in Lancashire and Yorkshire as well as becoming the first man to run 100 yards in 10 seconds.
But it was football where he made his name, as an eccentric goalkeeper who was reported to have dangled from the crossbar and saved shots with his legs.
“I dread to think what he must have faced,” said Anderson, who was awarded an MBE in 2000.
“There were not many black faces around and he seemed to become a local hero in that town – what he did was absolutely unbelievable.
“It is impossible to try and put ourselves in his shoes. He just had to get on with it himself.
“Going back to when I played there was Clyde Best and that was it, but when he started there was nobody he could talk to or have a conversation about how he was and everything else.”
Despite never being capped in international football or winning a competitive honour, Wharton’s legacy has endured with statues of him residing at St George’s Park as well as The FA and Uefa offices. He was also inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame in 2003.
Sadly, however, Wharton died penniless after descending into alcoholism, and was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave when he died in 1930.
His legacy was revived in 1997, when he was given a headstone after a campaign by anti-racism organisation Football Unites Racism Divides.
Anderson told MM he did not fully understand why 83 years passed between Wharton’s first professional appearance and his own England cap, but still believes that the latter’s impact on the game is something to be celebrated.
“It is a crying shame that I never knew anything about it when I was playing – it is an incredible story that has to be told,” he said.
“It seems bizarre that there wasn’t another black player a few years later or whatever it may be and it just didn’t materialise.
“1800s to 1970s seems a hell of a long time.”