The role of a Yorkshire grandmother in discovering the history of the first black professional footballer is to be recognised by the English FA before England’s friendly with Ghana at Wembley on 29th March.
Sheila Leeson, from Rotherham, is the granddaughter of Arthur Wharton whose remarkable sporting feats – which included becoming the world’s fastest man – had been largely forgotten until Sheila played a crucial part in uncovering a remarkable story.
She has now been invited by the FA to be a special guest at next Tuesday's international against Ghana – the country her grandfather hailed from, when it was called the Gold Coast.
Sheila's interest in her long-gone grandfather, who died in 1930, a couple of years before she was born, was sparked one afternoon while looking through some old family photos. One of the pictures showed a handsome young black athlete alongside a giant trophy – presented to Arthur when winning the AAA’s blue ribbon event at Stamford Bridge in 1886.
Her interest fuelled by researcher Phil Vasili, who was tracing Wharton's history in the mid-1990s, Sheila then trawled through public records in South Yorkshire, eventually locating Arthur’s final resting place, an anonymous pauper's plot in Edlington Cemetery, near Doncaster.
In 1997 FARE partner Football Unites, Racism Divides(FURD) unveiled a headstone on Wharton’s previously unmarked grave, following a public appeal fund.
One of FURD’s lasting achievements has been in helping to uncover and publicise the story of Wharton, who played for Preston North End, Rotherham Town, Sheffield United, Darlington, Stalybridge Rovers and Stockport County in the late nineteenth century. He was also the first man recorded to run 100 yards in 10 seconds, a professional cricketer and a champion cyclist.
The FA has chosen the first-ever full international between England and Ghana to acknowledge the unique role played by Arthur as an early black pioneer. Sheila will be joined by modern-day black footballing pioneers Cyrille Regis and Brendon Batson at Wembley as guests of the FA at the sell-out international on 29th March, along with FURD co-ordinator, Howard Holmes
The fixture has added significance for everyone at FURD as they are hoping to see Kyle Walker make his full England debut. Kyle was the first player that FURD coaches recommended to Sheffield United, when he was a young nipper.
The England-Ghana game almost certainly represents the biggest black attendance at any football game played in England, as the Ghanaian allocation of 21,000 was quickly sold out, as well as the many black England and Ghanaian fans who will have bought tickets in the home section.