Football comment: All right-thinking football fans will have been disgusted by the recent racism scandals involving John Terry and Luis Suarez. Now comes the latest and sickening news that Terry is to to remain as Chelsea captain despite being found guilty by the FA of racially abusing QPR’s Anton Ferdinand.
So come with me to the small and peaceful memorial gardens beside Northampton Town’s Sixfields Stadium and I’ll tell you a story that illustrates how institutionalised racism has plagued the sport for more than a century.
Here outside the Cobblers’ ground is a striking black and white sculpture dedicated to Walter Tull, one of Britain’s very first black footballers.
Tull was a great sportsman, a real hero and a man treated badly because of the colour of his skin.
Tull was born in 1888 in Folkestone. His father, the son of a slave, had arrived from Barbados in 1876 and had married a girl from Kent.
Tull was only seven when his mother died. His father remarried but died just two years later. His widow was unable to cope with six children and Walter and his brother Edward found themselves in a London orphanage.
After a stint as an apprentice printer Tull turned to his first love — football. London amateur club Clapton spotted his talent and young Walter played in their first team in the 1908-9 season.
With him in the forward line Clapton won several important London cups and scouts from Tottenham Hotspur soon spotted and signed the young black player — a brave move when there were virtually no other black players in British football.
Spurs paid Tull a £10 signing fee and £4 per week, but he never got the appearances he thought he deserved. He soon moved to Northampton Town in the Southern League.
Just like today, racist abuse from the terraces was alive and well a century ago, as this contemporary newspaper report shows. “A section of the spectators made a cowardly attack upon him in language lower than Billingsgate...’’
Early in 1914 Scottish giants Rangers made a bid for Tull. But a bigger game was about to kick off — war was declared. Tull was quick to volunteer. He joined the Football Battalion and promotion came quickly as he was made a sergeant.
In July 1916, at the battle of the Somme, he developed trench fever and was sent home to England to recover.
When fit again he was sent to an officer training school in Scotland. Despite military regulations that effectively banned black officers Tull received his commission in 1917.
He was the first black combat officer ever in the British army. Lieutenant Walter Tull was sent to the Italian front and was mentioned in dispatches for his “gallantry and coolness” under fire.
Tull returned to France in March 1918 and soon organised an attack on the German trenches. Against heavy German machine-gun fire he led his troops over the top.
Alas, a bullet pierced his skull, killing him. Despite efforts by his admiring men, his body was never recovered. Tull was just 29.
His men reported his outstanding heroism to their senior officers but it was never officially recognised. The campaign to award him the Military Cross continues to this day, but because his father was from outside Britain he was not entitled to a military award.
Walter Tull, Britain’s first black professional footballer, first black British combat army officer, hero, has never had the recognition he deserves.
Over the years there have been proposals for a statue of Tull at Tottenham Hotspur’s ground White Hart Lane, but it never happened. A proposal for a statue in the grounds of the Imperial War Museum was refused planning permission. Only Northampton Town did anything to pay tribute to this remarkable man. They unveiled their memorial to Tull in 1998.
Apart from that, Tull, like so many black pioneers, is almost entirely hidden from history, while Chelsea’s Terry is still leading his team out down at Stamford Bridge.
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