A campaign is raising funds to erect a statue of a black footballer believed to have been denied the chance to play for England in 1925 because of the colour of his skin.
Jack Leslie, born in east London to an English mother and a Jamaican father, was lauded as the best left winger in the country in the 1920s and was one of only two black players in the football league at the time.
The other player, Eddie Parris, became the first black man to play for Wales in 1931, but a similar breakthrough in English football did not come until 1978 when Viv Anderson made his debut against Czechoslovakia.
Things could have been different. At 24, Leslie was starting his fifth season at Plymouth Argyle and had been making headlines for his performances. When the England selectors came under pressure to choose a side with flair for that season’s British home championship, they decided he could be the answer.
In an interview in 1978, Leslie recalled the day he heard he would be called up. “One day, a Tuesday, as I remember it, the manager calls me in,” he was quoted as saying. “‘Johnnie,’ he says, ‘I’ve got great news for you. You’ve been picked for England.’”
For Plymouth, a third division side who had been elected to the football league only five years earlier, the selection was a huge deal. There were stories in the local press and celebrations. But before his selection was officially confirmed, Leslie was dropped to travelling reserve, and then dropped entirely.
“All of a sudden, everyone stopped talking about it,” Leslie remembered. “I did hear that the FA had come to have another look at me. Not at me football, but at me face. They asked, and found they’d made a ricket. Found out about me daddy, and that was it. No one ever told me officially, but that had to be the reason.”
England went on to record a 0-0 draw against Ireland that month and, after subsequent losses to Scotland and Wales, finished last in the home championship.
Argyle, meanwhile, became the top-scoring side of any English league, with Leslie on the left flank accounting for 17 of their 107 goals. He went on to captain the side in the 1930s, helping them to a promotion and a championship, and by the end of his career he had notched up more than 400 appearances for the club. With nearly 140 career goals, he remains Plymouth’s fourth highest-scoring player.
After retiring in 1935, Leslie returned to east London where he worked in the boot room at West Ham. He died in 1988.
Plymouth Argyle supporters are now trying to raise £100,000 to erect a bronze statue of Leslie outside the club’s Home Park stadium, to commemorate his impact on the game as well as the injustice he faced.
Matt Tiller, an organiser of the campaign, said a launch had been planned for earlier this year but had been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Then other events pushed it to the fore – obviously with the events in America, but more how it has resonated around here with the debate about statues,” he said. “We thought: we have got to do something about it.”
Greg Clarke, the chair of the Football Association, which has agreed to sponsor the campaign, said: “Stories like this are incredibly sad. Discrimination in the game, in any form or from any time period, is unacceptable. We must always remember pioneers like Jack Leslie and be thankful that football is in a very different place today.”