Arthur Wharton may not be a household name today but his place in football history is unmatched. He was the first black professional football player in the FA and one of the best goalkeepers to ever grace the field, pioneering many techniques. Originally from Ghana, Wharton came to Darlington when he was 19 in 1882 to train as a Methodist Missionary at Cleveland Collage.
However, it was at collage he found his true passion – sport. He soon quit training as a missionary to become a full-time athlete. Arthur was a keen runner, cyclist and cricket player. In 1886 he was the first northerner to win the Amateur Athletics Association national 100 yards champion at Stamford Bridge, London. A year later he set a time record for cycling between Preston and Blackburn.
Arthur’s athletic talents were soon spotted by Darlington Football Club which was established in 1883. He played as goalkeeper and was known for his eccentric moves, one of which was to hold onto the top bar of the goal and catch the ball with his legs. At other times he was known to stay in the crouching position beside the goal and pounce on the ball!
Arthur stands in the middle of this photograph of the Darlington Harriers 1900. Image courtesy of the Centre for Local Studies, Darlington Library.
He was with Darlington Football Club for the 1886/87 season before joining Newcastle United. He went on to play for the most prestigious team of the time, Preston North End. In 1887 the team reached the final of the FA cup but were beaten. Arthur played for many different football clubs and many people thought he should go on to play for England, but due to the prejudiced attitudes of the Victorian age he was prevented from doing this.
Arthur moved around from town to town maintaining a day job to support his family. He kept his hand in the game as a semi-professional, but the years took their toll on him and he developed a drinking problem. In 1902 he retired from football and found work in a colliery until his death in 1930 at 65 years old.
Arthur was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave but was remembered locally for his many sporting talents. The Doncaster Gazette reported on his funeral thus – ‘a fairly large attendance which was representative of all the sports and organisations he had been connected with.’ A headstone was later erected in his memory.
Arthur Wharton was a key name in football during the 1880/90s, but his legacy was thwarted by the racial prejudice he encountered on and off the pitch. Today the Arthur Wharton Foundation exists to raise the profile of this remarkable sports man. In October 2014 a statue was unveiled at St George’s Park National Football Centre and in the 1990s he was inducted into the Football Hall of Fame in Manchester.
Arthur was as famous for his eccentricities off the pitch as he was on it, but he always remained true to sport as he recalled to a newspaper reporter;‘I recollect a man once offering me £20 to lose a race, I asked him if he knew who he was speaking to, and he said, of course he did, but I told him I would run and if he ever made an offer like that again, I would report him to the Athletics Association.’