By Nii Ayitey Tetteh
If you asked any average football fan who Arthur Wharton was, you would most likely be given the shrugged shoulder and raised eyebrow look. That’s exactly what I got when I posed that question to my friend, Kwame. After helping him with the answer, I got more than gestures in return: I got words, strong ones too.
Kwame couldn’t understand the over emphasis on “Blackness”. “Why can’t an athlete, a president or an actor, be exactly that; why do they have to be the black athlete, black president or black actor? Ever heard of a white athlete, a white president or a white actor? I bet not, they are simply athletes, presidents or actors. So why do we, Blacks, have to lay emphasis on our skin colour, isn’t that a subtle admission of complex?” That was Kwame, after I revealed who Arthur Wharton was; the first ever “Black” professional footballer.
I could see where Kwame was going with that line of argument. But then again, I believe there are good reasons to celebrate Arthur Wharton, whose impact, until recently, had been underplayed. A series of activities to highlight Wharton’s pioneering role in football in particular and sports in general, have been ongoing since 2007, when principal promoter, Shaun Campbell, got inspired by Wharton’s story from a brochure, at a Town Hall meeting to mark Black History Month in Middlesborough, UK. Those activities have reached a climax. Later this month, the English FA will unveil Wharton’s 16ft bronze statue at St Georges Park, 125 years after signing as a professional for Rotherham United in 1889. Wharton’s is a unique story of perseverance and rising against the odds in a time of limited opportunities for Black people. It is a story that cannot be told enough; it is the reason why I am putting fingers to keys to relive the Legend of Arthur Wharton.
“Arthur” of all trades
When Arthur Wharton was born on 28th October, 1865, in Jamestown, a suburb of Accra, Ghana to Annie Florence Egyriba and Henry Wharton, a half-Grenadian and half-Scottish Methodist Minister and Missionary, it could have passed as any other birth. Nineteen (19) odd years later, young Wharton would travel, ostensibly, to train as a Methodist missionary/preacher at Cleveland College, Darlington; Ostensibly? Yes ostensibly, because it was in Darlington that Wharton discovered his sporting prowess and jettisoned his “missionary” calling to become a full time sportsman.
He competed in various disciplines ranging from football, athletics, cricket and cycling. An all-round sportsman and athlete, Wharton became the first official 100-yard world record holder and world champion in 1886, after making 10 seconds at the AAA Championships in London. He continued to excel in one sport after another and even continued playing cricket and athletics into his late fifties. He was so quick that a fan famously intimated that 'He (Wharton) could catch a pigeon'. Although Arthur excelled in these sporting disciplines; it was in football that he made significant impact.
Master of One!
Wharton started his football career while in college for Darlington FC and though he featured in different positions including playing as a winger, it was in goal that he flourished. Preston North End, then the most prestigious club of that time, spotted and signed him where he made a number of appearances. Those appearances will culminate in him signing a professional contract when he joined Rotherham Town in 1889 in the Midland League. Wharton was a showman who grabbed attention. In a match between Rotherham and Sheffield Wednesday at Olive Grove, Wharton jumped, got hold of the crossbar and caught the ball between his legs, causing the three onrushing forwards to fall clumsily into the net. Such was his Charisma that even his fiercest critics took to him. That was the endorsement needed to tear down the Victorian idea of racism, in essence, a hierarchy of different ‘races’ based upon our biological evolution, which sought to put down Black people. As Wharton proved his competitiveness, it paved the way for a gradual acceptance of Blacks in British sport and beyond.
Arthur Wharton may have passed on in 1930, but his contribution to football has gained widespread recognition. Apart from being inducted into the English Hall of Fame in 2003, maquette statues of him adorn the offices of the English FA, FIFA, UEFA and Ghana FA in Accra. When the bigger statue is unveiled later this month, it will be more than a physical statue; it will be symbolic and a constant reminder of the ideals the Arthur Wharton Foundation, set up by Shaun Campbell seeks to promote; racial harmony, equality, diversity and sporting opportunity. That is why we celebrate Arthur Wharton, to remind us, that no matter the odds, you can surmount if you dare. Hopefully, you, like Kwame, have been won over, inspired and converted to an Arthur Wharton campaigner; I can almost hear Wharton’s kinsmen from James Town say in the local Ga dialect “Tswa Omanye Aba!”