Much has been said and written, and rightly so, to improve recognition of Arthur Wharton, the first black footballer.
Rabbi Howell was a much more significant figure in footballing terms, and yet he has been largely ignored and forgotten.
Howell was the first Romani footballer and the first Romani international, playing his first game for England in March 1895 and scoring in a 9-0 defeat over Ireland.
He played for his country again in 1899 and arguably should have been selected more often – he was clearly and consistently one of the best half-backs in the game for many years and if selection had been based purely on merit would undoubtedly have played more.
This was an era when fewer international games were played: England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland playing each other once a year.
Also, many in the hierarchy of the game still had a sentimental attitude towards ‘gentlemen players,’ such as the amateurs of the Corinthians, and selection often seemed tilted in their favour.
Rabbi Howell was anything but a ‘gentleman player.’
There was a clear master-servant relationship in Victorian football – the players were expected to doff their caps and do their club committee’s bidding.
Howell didn’t always conform – he was regularly up in front of the Sheffield United committee for undefined disciplinary matters and in 1901 appears to have been the ringleader in a player revolt on the pitch when playing in a minor game for Liverpool: he was suspended for a month.
So what do we know about Rabbi Howell? The historical record is limited.
He was born on 26th October 1867 in Dore, now a posh suburb of Sheffield and his birth certificate suggests he was born in a tent as there were no houses at the address given.
He started playing local league football as an amateur, whilst earning a living as a miner, for Ecclesfield, a village to the north of Sheffield where his family lived.
He had a brief spell in another local league team: Rotherham Swifts before signing a professional contract with Sheffield United in their first season, 1889/90. He continued to play for United and was a mainstay of the team right through to a couple of weeks before they won the English First Division in 1898.
Why Rabbi left Sheffield Untied was a bit of a mystery – in effect he was sacked just days before they achieved the ultimate glory.
A few weeks before he had scored two own-goals in a possibly pivotal defeat to their nearest rivals, away at Sunderland; and so the rumour seems to have grown up that there was match-fixing.
The real reason appears to be that he left his wife and family of young children, including a newborn, for another woman who he took with him to Liverpool.
Adultery would have been a huge scandal in 1898, especially for a club like Sheffield United, built along strict Methodist Christian lines. That it was hushed up was not surprising: other rumours filling the vacuum.
Howell’s debut for Liverpool
He played his first match in a Liverpool shirt in a friendly against Grimsby, on the day that the United secured the championship. He played a key role in Liverpool’s half-back line in 1898/99, providing the steadying experience alongside the young Alex Raisbeck, a future Liverpool star.
That season he was also only the third Liverpool player to win an England cap when he played in the international against Scotland in April. He was a first team regular the following season, but played only a fringe role in Liverpool’s first Championship win in 1900/01. He was by this time 33 years old.
He was then transferred to Preston North End where he played for two and a bit seasons before breaking his leg in a tackle during a league game against Burnley. The crack as his tibia fractured was heard all around the ground.
He played at the top level until the age of 36, an incredible achievement, especially in those days before sports nutrition, sports medicine and all the support a modern player gets, and given how much more ‘robust’ play was back then.
Rabbi then went on to run a fruit and vegetable business in Preston. He died in July 1937. He is buried in an unmarked grave in Preston.
The player’s lack of recognition
It is uncomfortable to deliberate on why Rabbi Howell is not better known, and to wonder to what extent that is because of his ethnicity. Yes, he was a bit of a rebel, but Arthur Wharton was not exactly a saint.
Anti-Romani prejudice remains strong throughout Europe – around English grounds you still hear calls of “gyppo” when a player of a certain appearance (including beard or long hair) plays for the opposition and few regard it as anything overtly negative. It still seems to be a prejudice that carries little taboo.
We need a headstone for Rabbi. No one who has played for their country should be buried in an unmarked grave. We need to recognise him as a pioneer: the first Professional Romani footballer. Ricardo Andrade Quaresma, Hristo Stoičkov, Gheorghe Hagi, Andrea Pirlo, Dani Güiza and Eric Cantona all walk a path first taken by Rabbi’s footsteps.
From In Bed With Maradona
Steven Kay is the author of ‘The Evergreen in Red and White’, a novel based on Rab’s last turbulent year in Sheffield.