Revealed: Scotland's forgotten black football pioneers

They are the forgotten black pioneers of Scottish football, who blazed a trail through the English game and rewrote the record books along the way.

William Gibb Clarke was the first black footballer to score in the English football league.
William Gibb Clarke was the first black footballer to score in the English football league.

Now, a new book celebrates the long-forgotten achievements of some of the country’s earliest black footballers.

They include William Gibb Clarke, an Ayrshire-born winger who became the first black player to score in the English football league.

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The book also shines a light on the tragic life of John Walker, who made history as the first black player to play professionally in both the Scottish and English leagues, before dying at the age of just 22.

It also celebrates Arthur Wharton, the first black footballer to play in the English league. His mother, Annie Florence Grant, was the daughter of a Scottish merchant and a Ghanaian woman, while his father, the Rev Henry Wharton, was born in Grenada of Scottish and African heritage.

The title, ‘Football’s Black Pioneers’, is an exhaustive study into the history of the first black players who turned out for English league clubs, a roll call which includes several Scots.

While there has been growing recognition of the achievements of early black Scottish footballers, such as Andrew Watson, the world’s first black international player, the book aims to shine a spotlight on those sportsmen who are all but forgotten.

One of the standout stories is that of Clarke, who hailed from the East Ayrshire town of Mauchline. The pacy winger, whose father came from Guyana, turned out in his homeland for sides including Third Lanark, before moving south at the turn of the 20th century.

His attacking prowess soon earned him a move to Aston Villa, the most successful English side during the Victorian era. When he found the back of the net against Everton in 1901, Clarke became the first black goalscorer in the English football league.

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Despite this claim to fame and others - the Scot was only the third black player to play in the English league - his achievements are little known.

Bill Hern, co-author of the new book, said: “Until relatively recently, Willie Clarke hadn’t even been widely recognised as the first black player at Aston Villa. We are talking about events that happened 120 years ago and whereas he was always referred to as ‘Darkie’ in the press, his ethnicity and background were not formally documented.”

The book - the result of four years of research by Hern and David Gleave - also provides a timely reassessment of John Walker, who made history as the first black player to play professionally in both the Scottish and English leagues, having turned out for Leith Athletic and Hearts before joining Lincoln City.

Walker, whose father came from the Caribbean, endured a tough childhood growing up in Leith, but became the first black player to play and score in the Scottish league.

He made only a handful of appearances for Lincoln before dying of tuberculosis in August 1900, aged just 22.

‘Football’s Black Pioneers’ is published by Conker Editions.

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