When Matt Tiller recently told me that the first black footballer player to be selected to play for England was a chap called Jack Leslie who at the time was playing for Plymouth Argyle, I was staggered. I was even more amazed when I found that the year of selection was 1925. What?! First black footballer for England was surely Viv Anderson, 1974, right?
Well maybe not. Although Anderson played for the full English team, Laurie Cunningham was the first black player to represent England at any level (having played at under 21 level) and in May 2013, The Football Association amended their records, so that now Benjamin Odeje holds this record, having represented England seven years earlier at schoolboy level.
All of this however was in the 1970s. So who was this Jack Leslie character, and how is it that hardly anyone knows of his selection a half-Century earlier?
Well Jack Leslie was selected, but then never got to play. It turns out that when the selection board (an amateurish affair at the time) took a look at Jack Leslie, there was an abrupt change of heart, and there is no avoiding the fact that it was the realisation that Jack Leslie was a “person of colour” that was the significant factor. You can understand why the FA are not keen to promote that fact, with the underlying prejudice that operated to Jack Leslie’s detriment at that time.
But a look at Jack’s career reveals an incredible story – how the boy from Canning Town, London ended up in Plymouth as part of an Argyle team that beat Man United and toured South America playing international sides. His stats are phenomenal. Jack Leslie is not a footballing legend. But he should be.
Matt and I decided that we should try and do something to raise awareness of Jack Leslie and get some recognition of his achievements, if only at his adopted home club of Plymouth Argyle.
We managed to get in contact with club chairman Simon Hallett. To our surprise, and his credit, the club were already in the process of recognising Jack, by naming the board-room in the newly-completed grandstand after him. However, rightly or wrongly despite the club’s efforts and press release which had local coverage there was little wider interest, and the Jack Leslie story remains largely unknown. There is still no public facing acknowledgement of the Jack Leslie story.
So Matt and I decided to fundraise for a statue to Jack Leslie. In part we were inspired by the recently completed crowd-funded Nancy Astor statue campaign, also in Plymouth. We have since found out about other successful crowd-funded campaigns for football icons at other football grounds, so we know it can be done, although neither of us realised quite how much work would be involved.
There is currently no statue at Argyle’s football ground Home Park. It would be great if the first could be one of Jack Leslie.
We then realised that the campaign was about much more than just recognising Jack Leslie as a former player of Plymouth Argyle Football Club. The real significance is addressing the historical racism that denied a player of his opportunity to represent his Country. This is not just a campaign for a statue. This is a campaign that puts equalities at the front. There should be recognition for Jack Leslie from the FA to show that attitudes today are different. Jack Leslie’s family should be given the England cap that Jack should have been given back in 1925. There should be no place for racism in society or in sport.
Kick it out? We cannot address the problems of today, if we do not recognise and correct the injustices of the past.
We cannot do it alone. We need help, advice, friends, and supporters. Please join us, and support the #JackLeslieCampaign