Nation should salute pioneering black footballer


Introduction by Simon Woolley

As many readers will know I’ve crossed 'swords' with the writer Rod Liddle many times, not least around the Mary Seacole debate. Last Friday he came into OBV’s offices to talk about education and the proposed new curriculum. As he walked into our offices he held out his hand, ‘Hello Simon, I know we’ve done battle in the past, and in particular on Seacole, but I accept you won with a strong and convincing argument. During the discussion about British history and Black involvement, I mentioned Walter Tull and the injustice of not been awarded the Military Cross. ‘It’s a great story, Simon.' Liddle enthusiastically responded. ' I’ll write something in this week's Sunday Times'. Here’s his piece:


His final resting place may remain a mystery but the story of Walter Tull is one that deserves to be remembered. Somewhere deep under the sandy brown earth in the farmland surrounding the little village of Favreuil in Pas de Calais, lies the body of a footballer. Nobody knows where, exactly. Walter Daniel John Tull was killed during the Germans’ Ludendorff offensive 95 years ago this month. He had survived the Somme and managed somehow to get through Passchendaele intact, more or less. But the Kaiser’s desperate spring offensive in March 1918 did for him and his body has never been recovered. He lies just out of sight of his home, Folkestone.Tull’s story is a good corrective to the stuff we have in football today —although it is also, in an odd sort of way, a good news story for the game.

Football, to its credit, has remembered Walter Tull rather better than the rest of society has, but then so it should. Walter was the first black professional outfield player in the British game and was beaten to the title of first black professional only by Darlington’s genial goalkeeper Arthur Wharton. Both men deserve to be remembered; Wharton, a Ghanaian, was the first black professional player in the world, never mind Great Britain,and ended up skint and wrecked.

Tull’s story, meanwhile, is the more uplifting and I suppose the more remarkable. While black pressure groups, rightly, demand that Tull should be given wider recognition, he is a more than adequate hero for the rest of us, especially when his character is placed in comparison with today’ spampered and arrogant little scallywags. Tull epitomises somewhat forgotten and even derided qualities — discipline, loyalty, bravery and a resilience in overcoming hardship. By the last of those, incidentally, I do not mean that he sometimes had to suffer a bottle of Cristal that had been insufficiently chilled or that his Baby Bentley had developed a strange noise when it hit 120mph.Tull’s father hailed from Barbados, the son of a slave.

Walter began his life in Folkestone, where his father worked as a carpenter and married a local girl, but both his parents were dead by the time he reached nine, so he was shoved in an orphanage in Bethnal Green. His footballing skills were noticed early on and at the age of 20 he started turning out for Clapton. He signed professional terms for Tottenham Hotspur a year later but played for them only 10 times (scoring two goals) before he was dropped from the first team. There is the suspicion that he was dropped because of the colour of his skin,or at least as a consequence of the effect the colour of his skin had upon opposing supporters, who were inclined to racially abuse him.

How times change, huh. Still, at least he didn’t have to come up against Luis Suarez or John Terry. Tull signed for Northampton Town in 1911 and stayed with them until the war broke out in 1914; he played more than 100 games and was a hugely popular figure about the club. Given the long parade of “firsts” achieved by Tull, it is no surprise that he was the first Northampton player to enlist for his country, in the Middlesex Regiment, where he quickly rose to the rank of sergeant. You can only imagine the level of discrimination he had to put up with in the army. I got an insight some 30 years ago when I asked a senior officer of the Welsh Guards why there were no black squaddies in the regiment, Cardiff, the main recruiting ground, having a large community of black working-class youngsters.

Wouldn’t look very good under a bearskin, would it,”

came the reply, which left me incapable of speech for several minutes.

Still, Tull was an extremely able soldier and, incredibly, became the first black combat officer in the British Army when he was commissioned to the rank of second lieutenant, despite there being in place a bar on all ethnics minorities achieving such an exalted position. He was cited for gallantry. It had been suggested that at the end of the war he would sign for Rangers but of course he did not make it to the end of the war. He was killed a month short of his 30th birthday.

Tull is commemorated at Northampton, in their garden of remembrance, and football in general has been effusive — if late — in marking his achievements in the game. There have been vague plans to erect a statue in his honour at Spurs’ new ground, though beyond football Tull still lacks the recognition he deserves. The Conservative Northampton MP, Brian Binley, and the director of Operation Black Vote (OBV), Simon Woolley, have called for Tull to be posthumously awarded the Military Cross for his valour. You can sign a petition to this effect at the OBV website if you re inclined. Woolley says:

Walter Tull is a Great Briton, and he’s black. The story of his heroic feats on the football and battle fields will inspire a generation .”

It’s more than that, though. While Tull was a victim of war, and most likely a victim of discrimination, it is not as a “victim” that we remember him. We remember him for what he did, against the odds.

Rod Liddle