Inspirational Black footballers from forgotten heroes to England stars who beat the odds
When three young Black footballers stepped up to the penalty spot for England in the Euro 2020 finals, it was a symbol of how the beautiful game has changed for the better.
However, following July’s heartbreaking shootout defeat, the racist abuse of Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho also showed how far there is still to go.
Over the decades, a number of pioneering Black footballers have battled against discrimination to reach the top of the game and leave their mark on the sport forever.
Even today, fearless youngsters like Rashford – who has campaigned tirelessly to end child food poverty – have used their platform to give a voice to millions across Britain.
In celebration of Black History Month, which runs throughout this October, here we remember some of the great Black footballers – from the first female player through to those still influencing the sport in Britain today.
For more than a hundred years, the story of Britain’s first Black female footballer was lost to time.
Born in 1876, Emma Clarke honed her skills on the cobbled streets of Liverpool while working as a confectioner’s apprentice.
One of 14 children, she went on to play in what is widely accepted to be the first fully fledged women’s game played under football’s founding association rules.
Remarkably for the era, women’s football in the late 19th century actually attracted crowds of thousands, but it wasn’t without its problems.
Female players were ridiculously forced to wear bonnets, high-heeled boots and corsets, leading to sniffy reviews from the footballing press.
“Their costumes came in for a good deal of attention,” the Manchester Guardian said of an early game. “One or two added short skirts over their knickerbockers. When the novelty has worn off, I do not think women’s football will attract the crowds.”
In 1894 a woman known under the pseudonym Nettie J Honeyball set up the British Ladies, the first women’s association club team.
The following year, Clarke – by now playing for a club down in London – lined up for her first match, an exhibition pitting the ‘North’ against the ‘South’.
The game was hotly anticipated, attracting fans from all corners of the country.
“All through the afternoon train-loads of excited people journeyed over from all parts, and the respectable array of carriages, cabs, and other vehicles marked a record in the history of football,” wrote tabloid newspaper The Daily Sketch.
“Yet all that this huge throng of ten thousand had gathered to see was the opening match of the British Ladies’ Football Club.”
While Clarke’s ‘South’ team ultimately lost 7-1, it paved the way for a footballing career that would have seen her paid around a shilling a week, according to Common Goal.
In 1896, the attacker joined the team Mrs Graham’s XI for a tour of Scotland. The team was led by Helen Graham Matthews, who lived near her family home back in Liverpool.
The women’s game continued to rise in popularity up to the 1920s, when the FA introduced a ban that would sadly last 50 years.
Clarke’s story went forgotten until in 2017 historian Stuart Gibbs came across her name while researching females in football for an upcoming exhibition.
Two years later, her legacy was cemented with the placement of a blue heritage plaque at Campsbourne School in North London, which also commemorated her sister, Florence Clarke.
The school is the site of the former Crouch End FC, where Emma and Florence once played.
Dr Jak Beula, CEO of the Nubian Jak Community Trust, said during the ceremony: “Although it gives me great pleasure to honour Emma Clarke with a Nubian Jak Community Trust blue heritage plaque, the plaque is also tribute to her sister Florence Clarke, to other footballing pioneers like Carrie Boustead, and for all the pioneering women of the last century and this, who had to overcome a number of barriers just to enjoy playing the game they loved.”
Walter Tull was a hero on and off the football pitch – and one of the first Black professional outfield players in the UK.
After losing both parents at a young age, the orphan excelled at sport and started playing for amateur team Clapton FC.
At the age of just 21-years-old, Tull signed for Spurs in 1909 and soon found himself playing at White Hart Lane in front of crowds in the tens of thousands.
Tottenham’s club historian, John Fennelly, said: “At the time he was about the best going. Somebody everyone wanted. We were delighted to get him here.
“He remains an incredible hero to us all. He is massive in our history. The legacy is amazing.”
Tull was subjected to horrific racial abuse from the stands, with a newspaper reporting a “cowardly attack” on him during a match at Bristol City in 1909.
The reporter wrote: “Let me tell those Bristol hooligans that Tull is so clean in mind and method as to be a model for all white men who play football. In point of ability, if not actual achievement, Tull was the best forward on the field.”
When his career drifted at Spurs he signed for Northampton Town in 1911 for a “substantial fee”, but he gave up his football career at the outbreak of the First World War.
Tull enlisted with Middlesex Regiment, part of a ‘Footballers’ Battalion’ that drew professional players from a range of clubs.
Walter became the first British Black officer in the First World War and was recommended for the military cross.
He came home after suffering from shell shock, then went back out to serve in The Somme, where he would sadly die in March 1918.
During an ITV documentary last year, Spurs players Dele Alli said he heard about Tull’s story when he first joined the club.
He said: “It really inspires and motivates you to know you can make a change and to be brave and stand for what you believe is right. It’s crazy to think about what he had to go through.”
Justin Fashanu was a ground-breaking footballer who was an inspiration to millions.
Growing up in foster care alongside brother John, who also became a professional footballer, he rose up through the ranks at Norwich and cemented his legendary status with Match of the Day’s Goal of the Season in 1980 with a superb strike against Liverpool.
Fashanu was the first Black footballer to command a £1million transfer fee with his move from Norwich to Nottingham Forest in 1981.
The forward represented England at U21 level and played for a total of 22 clubs in England, North America, Scotland and New Zealand.
In 1990, Fashanu became the first male English professional to come out as gay while still playing – and 30 years on still remains the only male footballer to do so while playing professionally in the top tiers.
Tragically, Justin took his own life in 1998 aged just 37.
In February last year, Fashanu was inducted into the National Football Museum’s Hall of Fame on what would have been his 59th birthday.
His niece Amal Fashanu, who campaigns against homophobia in sport and is a co-founder of The Justin Fashanu Foundation, received the award on his behalf at the museum in Manchester during LGBT History Month.
“One of my favourite memories of Uncle Justin was his playful, cheeky character. He was so fun to be around and he would have been the life and soul of this event,” said Amal.
“Justin Fashanu was talented, smart, well-loved and charming. It warms my heart to witness his legacy being honoured more than 21 years after his untimely passing.
“It’s unfortunate that we are still discussing discrimination in football in 2020 and it’s because of this harsh reality that we decided to create a platform in his name to tackle homophobia, racism and mental health within the game.
“The Justin Fashanu Foundation would like to thank The National Football Museum and all stakeholders involved who came together to honour my Uncle Justin.”
Viv Anderson won everything the domestic game had to offer, but it’s his England career which really stands out.
After being released after a year as a schoolboy with Manchester United, Viv came back to his hometown of Nottingham and broke into the Forest team in 1974.
With the arrival of legendary manager Brian Clough he became a first team regular and was part of the side who won promotion to the First Division, then won the title and League Cup the following year.
In 1978 he made his senior England debut against Czechoslovakia in 1978, becoming the Three Lions’ first Black international and second non-white after Paul Reaney.
The defender endured sickening abuse from opposition fans and even some of his own – having bananas, pears and apples thrown at him while he was warming up for one match at Carlisle.
“Back in the day we didn’t have a voice. I had to do what the manager said,” explained Anderson in a BBC interview last year, revealing he once asked not to go on the pitch after being abused by “the entire stadium”.
“In my heart of hearts I wanted to be a footballer. I just wanted to play.”
Anderson got his hands on the European Cup and European Supercup in 1979 with Forest before moves to Arsenal, Manchester United, Sheffield Wednesday and Barnsley during his distinguished career.
He became assistant manager to Bryan Robson at Middlesbrough in 1993, but despite retiring he played two games for the club during their promotion season during an injury crisis.
Anderson was inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame in 2004 and the shirt he wore on his England debut is displayed in the People’s History Museum in Manchester.
Arguably the most famous Black player in the English game, John Barnes has also become one of football’s most outspoken voices on race.
Arriving in Britain from Jamaica at the age of 14, he came from a family of high achievers – his father Ken was not only an international footballer but also a heavyweight boxing champion and politician.
He began his career playing for Stowe Boys Club in Paddington and later explained how he witnessed fellow Black players struggling to fit in.
“I was very fortunate that my character allowed me to play [despite the racism],” Barnes told the Independent.
“I know a lot people who were given opportunities who were then sacked because they responded in a certain way.”
Despite going on to spend 10 years at Liverpool and becoming a club legend, Barnes said upon his arrival at Anfield in 1987 he received letters telling him to “go back to Africa and swing from the trees”.
During his time with the club, the star won two league titles and an FA Cup, but was the subject of vicious racist abuse from the terraces.
In the most high profile incident of his career, he was photographed casually kicking away a banana that was thrown at him during a heated derby match against Everton at Goodison Park.
“It was almost an accepted part of society so not very much was made of it. I considered them to be ignorant, so I never responded to it because I thought they would have won if it had affected my game.
“There has been a big deal made of it recently, but it would have been nice if they’d done that 20 years ago!”
On an iconic debut for the national team in June 1984, Barnes scored an incredible solo goal against Brazil. He went on to win 78 caps for England.
After spells with Newcastle, Charlton and Celtic, he retired, but has become a powerful – and sometimes controversial – voice on matters of race.
Arguing against legislation to clamp down on racism, he has instead called for fans to confront the “unconscious racist” in everyone.
As well as working as a football pundit and speaker on current affairs shows like Question Time, Barnes has been an ambassador for charities including Save the Children.
The first Black player to win PFA Footballer of the Year in 1988, he was awarded an MBE in 1997 for services to the game.
Women’s football has snowballed in popularity over recent years and nobody has done more to advance its cause than Hope Powell.
In 1998, Powell became the first full-time coach of the England women’s team – an appointment that also made her the first Black manager of any international side.
During her five years at the helm, the coach won the Cyprus Cup twice and led the Lionesses to two World Cups and four European championships.
Speaking to the Sunday Mirror, Powell admitted the opportunity was “very exciting but a bit scary too”, but said she wanted to be a positive role model for young Black women trying to enter the game.
“I thought this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I’ve got to do it,” she said.
“Being young, female and Black I knew I could be a positive role model. I hope I can help young Black people to believe in themselves and strive to be the best.
“I want to succeed for myself and, as the first Black player in such a senior position, for everyone else as well.”
However, it was her coaching career that cemented her legacy. In 2003 she became the first female ever to acquire a UEFA Pro License – the highest achievable qualification for a coach in Europe.
Seven years later, Powell was also awarded a CBE in recognition of her contribution to women’s football.
Asked by the BBC what could be done to get more young women into football, Powell said they “need to have role models to aspire to”.
“When I played football was somewhat taboo for a girl,” she said.
“Today it’s not as much of a problem. Not all girls want to play football but it’s not a case of ‘Oh my god she plays football, that’s a bit odd.’ It’s a lot more accepted now.”