Jack Leslie would have been the first black man to play for England, had he not been dropped.
Viv Anderson’s name stands proudly alongside the accolade of being the first black player to play for England. This is, of course, something to be proud of and will mean that Anderson will forever be remembered in English football history.
However, what if someone else should have had the honour of being the first black player for England 53 years earlier but was denied this because he was black. Peter Kenny Jones tells the story of one of England’s forgotten pioneers, Jack Leslie.
The formative years of Jack Leslie
Leslie was born to a Jamaican father and English mother in 1901. His father, John Leslie was a mariner who travelled the world whilst with work. His travels led him to Islington in London where he met and settled down with Anne. They stayed together in London and had three children, Jack being the youngest of the three.
His early footballing days were spent with Barking Town and this is where Leslie stamped his name on the footballing map. Being a prolific goal scorer for the London League side, he was given the opportunity to represent his county and his league in tournaments at home and abroad. This led to attention from professional sides and so, at the age of 20, he was signed by Plymouth Argyle and made the 250 mile move to the South West of the country.
Career with Plymouth Argyle
By making his debut with Plymouth that year, against Welsh outfit Merthyr Tydfil, he became the only black player to be playing in the Football League at the time and would remain the only one for the following eight years. Compared to today’s football where around 20% of the Premier League players are from BAME backgrounds. Plymouth narrowly missed out on promotion into the Second Division of English football in Leslie’s first season.
Despite being a pioneer in the game at the time, Leslie was finding it difficult to nail down a first-team slot for the Third Division South Side. It was not until the 1924/25 campaign that he managed to get a solid run in the side, he repaid his manager, Bob Jack’s, faith in him as he scored 14 goals in a solid year. Plymouth were again pipped to the promotion post, however, as they finished their fourth successive season as runners-up.
The start to the following campaign in 1925, brought with it, what was to be, the moments that Jack Leslie’s life were to be best remembered for. The 1925 Charity Shield, as per the format in that era, was contested between an Amateur and Professional side on the 5th of October 1925.
At this time, The FA were also trying to arrange a mid-season international game shortly after the Charity Shield took place. As many of the leading sides had players in the Charity Shield game, they feared that these top clubs would not want their players to take part in an international friendly as well, during the league campaign. The FA’s selection committee was then forced to turn to the lower divisions to select a full squad.
Call up to the England squad
Amongst the 13 names drawn up to be provided as reserves for the England friendly was Jack Leslie, the list was then printed in the national press. Plymouth were also quick to congratulate their player and were proud to say that their man had been selected for the England squad. Travelling reserve or otherwise, this was also a major coup for the Third Division South side. The local press ran the headlines of ‘Argyle Player Reserve Against Ireland’, further displaying the local pride for Jack Leslie.
However, when the England squad met up, Leslie had been replaced by West Ham’s Stan Earle.
Due to the lack of technology at the time and the regionalisation of the lower leagues, it has been thought that the FA selectors were unaware that Jack was indeed a black player and had only seen his recent form and his ability to play in several positions. However, when it had reached the press and began to gather attraction that a Third Division black player was going to get an England call up, he was mysteriously cut from the team.
The truth is, no one will know for sure if this decision was based on the colour of his skin, if Leslie would have played in the friendly against Ireland and if this would have kick-started his international career. However, he was the only player removed from the reserve list of players, he was fit and playing well at the time. In fact, Leslie played and scored twice on the same weekend as the England friendly.
What may have made this even worse was that another player, Sam Wadsworth, had to withdraw from the squad through injury. Despite Leslie’s local press being supportive of their man making his debut, they were very much stereotypical of the racist beliefs of the time when they wrote:
“A substitute, of course, will now have to be found, and it is not unlikely that Leslie, the darkie forward of Plymouth Argyle, will fill the vacancy”.
Despite their ill-worded positivity, Leslie was again overlooked to the 35-year-old Frank Hudspeth for his one and only cap.
Jack Leslie’s life in Football
Leslie was no stranger to racist abuse and prejudice during his playing days, he stated:
“I used to get a lot of abuse in matches, ‘Here darkie, I’m gonna break your leg,’ they’d shout. There was nothing wicked about it — they were just trying to get under my skin”.
He took it all within his stride and was, unfortunately, playing in a time that this abuse was deemed just part and parcel of the game. It can be assumed that even he made little of being overlooked for the England team, but when this is viewed anachronistically, his omission doesn’t feel right, and it is important to remember and highlight this story all these years later.
Leslie went on to spend fourteen seasons at Plymouth Argyle where he eventually achieved promotion into the Second Division. He remains their ninth-highest appearance holder of all time and remains a fan favourite to this day. In recent years there has been a push to commemorate his impact on the game and ensure his legacy is not forgotten. Plymouth named a boardroom in his honour in 2019 and last year saw the start of the Jack Leslie Campaign.
The Jack Leslie campaign
The Jack Leslie Campaign was devised to raise funds to erect a statue in Leslie’s honour as well as promoting his story and the racial injustice he endured. They have far surpassed their £100,000 target which means a statue will be built in celebration of Leslie’s life and ostracization from the FA with a permanent physical commemoration. The fact this was backed by the FA and their ‘For All’ campaign further promote the opinion that Leslie was overlooked due to the colour of his skin.
During the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, much attention was given to remove statues and road names of former slave owners. This was also the case in Plymouth where plans are in place for Sir John Hawkins Square to be renamed Jack Leslie Square. Despite efforts from local bigot Danny Bamping, it looks set to still go ahead with the renaming of the square in honour of one of Plymouth’s finest adopted sons.
In all, Leslie lived a life of a Third / Second Division footballer in the 1920s and I doubt he thought much of his omission and abuse during his life. However, the celebration of him and what he had to put up with shows the progression made in today’s football.
The opposition from Bamping shows how far we still need to improve today but the important steps are being made to commemorate some of this country’s footballing pioneers. Jack Leslie is a man that will be remembered above his peers of the time, all for the fact he was so readily ignored due to the colour of his skin.
PETER KENNY JONES