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Plymouth council is not racist for planning to rename square after black footballer, says judge

Jack Leslie (pictured) played for Plymouth Argyle between 1921 and 1934

Jack Leslie was the only professional black player in England between 1921 and 1934 while he played for Plymouth Argyle.

He formed a legendary partnership with outside left player Sammy Black.

In 1925 the talented Leslie was poised to become the first ever black player to pull on the England shirt, only for the decision to call him up to the national side to be reversed.   

Bob Jack, his manager, told him he had been selected but the invitation was later removed.

At the time, he told a journalist: ‘They must have forgot I was a coloured boy.’

After showcasing his remarkable talent in the old third division with Plymouth, Leslie was selected to play for England against Ireland in Dublin. He would never attend the match.

In the days following Leslie’s selection, the national newspapers published the team which instead included Billy Walker, of Aston Villa.

Walker was in the starting line-up whereas Leslie was named as a travelling reserve before being dropped, after selectors became aware of the colour of his skin. He did not travel to the match, instead remaining in Plymouth and scoring two goals in a 7-2 victory over Bournemouth.

It was not until 1978 that England would field their first black footballer, following the selection of Viv Anderson.

Born to a Jamaican father and English mother, Leslie (bottom, second from right) became a vital player for Plymouth Argyle and carved a strong reputation for himself

Born to a Jamaican father and English mother, Leslie (bottom, second from right) became a vital player for Plymouth Argyle and carved a strong reputation for himself

Leslie (third from right) pictured warming up with his Plymouth team-mates. In 1925 his England call-up was reversed after selectors realised the colour of his skin

Leslie (third from right) pictured warming up with his Plymouth team-mates. In 1925 his England call-up was reversed after selectors realised the colour of his skin

Leslie was born in Canning Town, in London’s docklands, in 1900, to an English mother and a Jamaican father.

A gifted athlete, he played for Barking Town, where his prolific scoring record attracted the attention of Plymouth Argyle, then a third-division club.

He joined Argyle in the 1921-22 season and stayed for 14 years, making 401 appearances and scoring 137 goals – a feat made all the more impressive because of the racial abuse he experienced at the hands of both crowds and opponents.

Leslie became club captain, leading his team to a cup victory against Manchester United 

He is remembered as a great attacking inside left but also a utility player who could fill in as a central defender. 

Leslie in action for Plymouth - the team for which he made 401 appearances and scored 137 goals in the positions of inside left or central defender

Leslie in action for Plymouth – the team for which he made 401 appearances and scored 137 goals in the positions of inside left or central defender

Leslie’s football career came to an end in 1934 after he sustained an injury when a lace from a leather ball flew into his eye. He and his family then returned to east London and he resumed his trade as a boilermaker.  

Following his retirement and with time on his hands, his wife Lavinia urged him to go to West Ham United and ask the club if there was any work he could do.

He met manager Ron Greenwood, who immediately recognised and remembered him as a great player.

Greenwood offered him a job in the boot room where, poignantly, he cleaned the mud from the boots of England stars Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst, Martin Peters and Trevor Brooking.

Viv Anderson went on to become the first black player to play for England, making his debut in 1978 - some 53 years after Leslie should have received a national cap for the Three Lions

Viv Anderson went on to become the first black player to play for England, making his debut in 1978 – some 53 years after Leslie should have received a national cap for the Three Lions

In a further ironic twist to his story, Leslie also cleaned the boots of West Ham’s black striker Clyde Best, who, in the late 1960s and 1970s, was still one of only a small minority of black players in top-flight English football.

Leslie died in 1988 at the age of 88. 

Bill Hern co-author of the book Football’s Black Pioneers said: ‘Jack Leslie should have been a major figure in the history of British football and society.

‘Everyone needs a role model and young black footballers didn’t have that major role model in the 30s, 40s and 50s.

‘Had he played for England as he should have, he would have fired the aspirations of generations of young black players.’

Speaking of Leslie’s initial selection for the national team his granddaughter, Lesley Hiscott, told the BBC: ‘I believe that the manager sent in his request, saying: “I’ve got a brilliant player here, he should play for England,’” 

‘So then someone came down to watch him. They weren’t watching his football, they were looking at the colour of his skin.

In his retirement, Leslie asked West Ham United for work, ending up in the boot room where he cleaned the mud from the boots of England stars including Bobby Moore

In his retirement, Leslie asked West Ham United for work, ending up in the boot room where he cleaned the mud from the boots of England stars including Bobby Moore

‘And because of that he was denied the chance of playing for his country.’ 

Following his career, Leslie later suggested that finding out he was black, for the selectors, must have been ‘like finding out I was foreign’.

But he accepted what had happened and according to his granddaughters never expressed any bitterness. They remember him as a kind and loving grandfather.

He had married their grandmother, Lavinia, in 1925, at a time when it was unusual for a black man to marry a white woman.

And as a consequence, some of the family, and Lavinia in particular, experienced racial abuse.

Lyn Davies, Leslie’s other granddaughter, said: ‘If I walked down the street with my friends and he was coming the other way, he would cross to the other side of the road so I could pretend that I didn’t know him, so I didn’t suffer.

‘But I’d run across and say, “Hello Granddad.”‘


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