|Sheila Leeson at Wembley (pic courtesy of the Football Association)
The role of a Yorkshire grandmother in discovering the history of Britain’s first black professional footballer was recognised by the Football Association 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.
Sheila was invited by the FA to be a special guest at the 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 Football Unites, Racism Divides 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 chose the first-ever full international between England and Ghana to acknowledge the unique role played by Arthur as an early black pioneer. Sheila was 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 and Shaun Campbell from the Arthur Wharton Foundation
FURD was hoping the fixture would have the added significance of seeing 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. However, he had to withdraw from the squad with an injury.
Sheila Leeson and Howard Holmes appeared on BBC Look North talking about Arthur Wharton. The feature can be viewed on Youtube by following the link below.