Statue of world’s first black footballer to be unveiled

Sheila Leeson (left) poses with Brendon Batson (centre) and Cyrille Regis (right) along with a statue of her grandfather Arthur Wharton, the world's first black professional footballer at Wembley in 2011.
Sheila Leeson (left) poses with Brendon Batson (centre) and Cyrille Regis (right) along with a statue of her grandfather Arthur Wharton, the world's first black professional footballer at Wembley in 2011.

A huge statue of the world’s first professional black footballer is to be unveiled next week.

Arthur Wharton, who is buried in Edlington, broke boundaries in the game when he became the globe’s first black soccer star in 1899.

The 16ft bronze statue, which depicts the goalkeeper flinging himself backwards to tip a ball over the bar, will be unveiled at the Football Association’s National Football Centre in Burton next Thursday.

2014 marks the 125th anniversary of Arthur signing for Rotherham in 1889 to become the world’s first black professional footballer.

The campaign for the statue all started seven years ago in Middlesbrough Town Hall.

Artist Shaun Campbell was giving a speech in the town as part of Black History Month. He picked up a brochure and read, for the first time, about Wharton - a Methodist missionary who moved from the Gold Coast to Darlington in the 1880s.

“I couldn’t believe what I was reading,” says Campbell. “This young man achieved so much - and he did it in Darlington, County Durham, the town where I was living.”

Campbell went back to his art furniture shop and painted a picture of Wharton. “I just wanted to celebrate this remarkable young man and remember what he did,” he says.

A customer saw it, asked Campbell who it was, and told local newspaper and the campaign was born.

The campaign received an unlikely backer in 2008 - singing legend Stevie Wonder.

“I was in Birmingham for a furniture trade fair,” explains Campbell. “Along with my ticket, there was a flier for a Stevie Wonder concert. I thought, ‘I’ll stay on, watch the concert, that will be great’.

“Then I thought about it. And I thought that if anyone in the world understands the importance of embracing cultural diversity and equality for all, it would be him.

“Next thing you know, we’re on stage in front of thousands of people and Stevie Wonder is waxing lyrical about Darlington and Arthur Wharton.

“Don’t ask me how I did that. It was 56 hours from concept to realisation.”

Since then, a string of high profile footballers including Rio Ferdinand, Theo Walcott and Viv Anderson have backed the campaign.

And plans to create another statue honouring Arthur have also been unveiled.

Rotherham United’s New York Stadium will be the venue for the second statue.

He was born in Jamestown, Gold Coast - now Accra in Ghana - in 1865.

He played as an amateur for Darlington and Preston North End, and professionally for Rotherham Town and Sheffield United and was reportedly the first man in England to run 100 yards in ten seconds.

Arthur died in 1930 in Edlington and for 67 years was buried in an unmarked grave until a permanent headstone was created after an appeal to remember his contribution to the game.