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How racism lost football star Jack Leslie his shot at England glory

BY Matt Tiller

6th Oct 2022 Sport

How racism lost football star Jack Leslie his shot at England glory

Jack Leslie was a legendary footballer, and the only Black professional footballer in England in the 1920s. Then racism cost him his dream to play for England

Jack Leslie woke up on October 7, 1925, believing he had won the ultimate honour in football, to be picked for his country. This wasn’t a dream; it was the realisation of a dream.

He was 24 years old and the only Black professional footballer in England. Nearly one hundred years later, a statue of this pioneering player was unveiled. It stands to celebrate his achievements and remember a shameful injustice, that he was quietly dropped before the match because he was Black. 

Jack Leslie's impressive career

On October 5, 1925, the FA Selection Committee had chosen Jack as travelling reserve for England’s game in Belfast against Ireland. And the next day his manager at Plymouth Argyle gave Jack the news, which also hit the papers that morning.

Jack Leslie's team, courtesy of Jack Leslie's family

Jack Leslie's team. © Photo courtesy of Jack Leslie's family

When Viv Anderson became the first Black player to win a full England cap 53 years later in 1978, Jack was interviewed by The Daily Mail. "Mr Bob Jack calls me in. He’s looking over his glasses and smiling. He stands up and puts his arms on my shoulder…I’ve got great news for you. You’ve been picked for England."

"It was quite a thing for a little club like Plymouth to have a man called up for England"

"Everybody in the club knew about it. The town was full of it. All them days ago, it was quite a thing for a little club like Plymouth to have a man called up for England. I was proud—but then I was proud just to be a paid footballer."

Jack was an outstanding inside left from East London who turned down Chelsea, Spurs and West Ham for Plymouth Argyle, who lured him with postcards of the sea and an extra ten bob a week.  

Portrait of Jack Leslie. © Photo courtesy of Jack Leslie's family

Portrait of Jack Leslie. © Photo courtesy of Jack Leslie's family

He was a key player in a team that were runners up in Third Division South six times in the 1920s before winning promotion as champions in 1930. He also became the first Black captain of a professional side for Plymouth in the 1930s before injury ended his career. He is a bona fide Argyle legend with 137 goals in 400 appearances.  

What an accolade for Jack Leslie to be selected for England. Local and national papers recognised his talents, and the colour of his skin. But within days his name disappeared from the team sheet.  

Racism in the football world

"Everyone stopped talking about it…Didn’t look me in the eye. I didn’t ask outright. I could see by their faces it was awkward. But I did hear, roundabout like, that the FA had come to have another look at me. Not at me football but at me face…There was a bit of an uproar in the papers. Folks in the town were very upset. No one ever told me official-like, but that had to be the reason, me mum was English but me daddy was black as the Ace of Spades. There wasn’t any other reason for taking my cap away."

"Leslie was at that time playing quite well enough to be chosen"

The Daily Herald followed up on the scandal questioning the FA who denied ever picking Jack, while the Press Association was adamant they had. Meanwhile one local reporter said, "Unfortunately, my pen is under a ban in this matter, but I may say that a mistake was made in London and transmitted to me. Anyway, Leslie was at that time playing quite well enough to be chosen."

Jack Leslie in action. © Photo courtesy of Jack Leslie's family

Jack Leslie in action. © Photo courtesy of Jack Leslie's family

Jack was a hero on the pitch and the Plymouth fans loved him. Just as it was during the First World War, great comradeship existed between Black and white service personnel, and there was integration in many areas of the United Kingdom. But Black soldiers, both British born and from British colonies, were also subject to racist abuse and denied the "opportunity" to serve.  

Jack himself said he regretted being too young to have signed up. And in 1919 dockland communities, including Jack’s birthplace Canning Town, saw race riots as returning soldiers felt Black immigrants had taken their jobs and women. White immigrants were not targeted in the same vicious, and sometimes murderous, way. 

"Jack was a hero on the pitch and the Plymouth fans loved him"

What happened to Jack in 1925 was unspoken racism. Jack said he got abuse from other players, but it was individually targeted, and he felt it was part and parcel of the game. And he seemed to accept the FA’s decision: "They found out I was a darkie, and I suppose they thought that was like finding I was foreign." Echoes of that sentiment were heard in the 1970s when some racist England fans felt Black footballers were somehow not their countrymen, despite their parentage or birthplace.

For Jack, it seems he shrugged his shoulders and got on with his job. On October 24, 1925, when England limped to a goalless draw against Ireland, Jack scored twice for Plymouth in a 7-2 victory. In a matter-of-fact way The Daily Mail stated in 1933, "Had he been white he would have been a certain England international." Yet, the denial of this opportunity that should have led to an international career did stay with him, "Listen, that was different times. I won’t lie and say it don’t matter. It does… I think I was entitled to it. Honestly, I’m not a boasting man. But I was good enough."

Greg and Matt with Jack's football boot

Greg and Matt with Jack Leslie's boot

A life and a quarter size bronze statue of Jack Leslie will be unveiled this month. It will stand atop a granite plinth, outside Home Park in Plymouth where he played from 1921 to 1934. It has been created by renowned artist Andy Edwards and was commissioned by The Jack Leslie Campaign who raised more than £100,000 in 2020. 

You can read more about Jack’s story and the Jack Leslie Campaign which fundraised to build the statue here: https://jackleslie.co.uk/jack 

Matt Tiller’s biography of Jack Leslie, The Lion Who Never Roared, will be released by Pitch Publishing in 2023 

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