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  Inside Out - South West: Monday 27 September, 2004


Jack Leslie on the 1930s Plymouth team. Image courtesy of the Plymouth Argyle Media Centre
Jack Leslie's England dreams were shattered

When Jack Leslie signed for Plymouth Argyle FC, the number of black players could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Now Inside Out profiles the man whose England dream was ruined - not because of his ability, but because of the colour of his skin.

Picture the scene. It's the 1920s and there are next to no black players anywhere in the British leagues.

Jack Leslie, Pilgrims' goal-scoring prodigy, sits down with manager Bob Jack, who delivers the heart-stopping news - he's been picked to play for England.

Being called up to join the national side is a dream come true for any player, but more so for one whose career peaked during a time when black footballers received little recognition for their efforts, let alone the chance to play for their country.

A national dream

In a Daily Mail interview in 1978, Leslie recalls the day he received the news.

"One day, a Tuesday, as I remember it, the manager calls me in.

"'Johnnie' he says, '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. Then the papers came out a day or so later and Billy Walker of Aston Villa was in the team, not me."

Jack's daughter Evelyn
Jack's daughter Evelyn recalls his disappointment

It later emerged that the real reason behind the decision was down to FA officials, who stated that they hadn't known that he was, as they called him, "a man of colour."

Jack's daughter Evelyn recalls her father's England disappointment.

"It would have been the icing on the cake, but it was taken away from him.

"He had a lot of disappointments because of his colour."

Battling adversity

Despite an impressive 15-year run which saw him playing to crowds of over 40,000 people and notching up an impressive 400 match appearances with over 130 goals, Leslie had to put up with catcalls from the crowd, who discriminated against him because he was black.

"I used to get a lot of abuse in matches. 'Here darkie, I'm gonna break your leg,' they'd shout.

"There was nothing wicked about it - they were just trying to get under my skin."

Jack Leslie and the 1930s Plymouth team.
Jack Leslie and the 1930s Plymouth team. Jack is on the front row, fourth from left.
Image courtesy of the Plymouth Argyle Media Centre

But whatever the crowd's reaction, Leslie's ability always made its mark. Argyle co-ordinator Peter Hall reminisces about the times he saw Leslie play.

"On August 26, 1933 - I was six years old - we played Manchester Utd and won 4-1.

"I always remember that Jack Leslie played a huge part in that win - it was a real treat to watch him play.

"He was everywhere, his passing was first class, and his shooting power was enormous. If there ever was an Argyle legend, it was Jack Leslie."

Leslie had more than proved himself as a top goal-scorer, holding the record for the most league goals scored (35) between 1927 and 1929, but this still wasn't enough for officials who believed he wasn't fit to join the esteemed national side.

"I heard that the FA had come to have another look at me - not my football but my face."
Jack Leslie

"They found out I was a darkie and I suppose that was like finding out I was foreign."

It was a shocking realisation, and one which shattered Leslie's dreams of an international career.

He famously commented to Pilgrims teammate and later journalist Brian Woolnough, "They must have forgotten I was a coloured boy."

Moving on

But, it seems, times have changed.

Fast forward to 2002: it's the World Cup, and for the first time there are more black English players on the pitch than white.

Among the squad for England's clash against Brazil are Darius Vassell, Ashley Cole, Rio Ferdinand, Sol Campbell, Kieron Dyer and Emile Heskey - a line-up that would have made the late Jack Leslie rightfully proud.

It's a more positive picture, but the reality is that while there are more black players in the British leagues than ever, behind the scenes things are not so good.

Torquay Utd coach Leroy Rosenior
Torquay coach Leroy Rosenior remembers Leslie's prolific career

There are very few black coaches, managers and board members, and racist attacks are still not unheard of in the national game.

Torquay United coach and former West Ham striker Leroy Rosenior is one of the few. He recalls the influence Leslie's career had on him.

He said, "We're talking 80 years ago, who can imagine what it was like for Jack - and I thought it was hard when I was playing!

"It says to you 'no matter what you come up against, you've got to go through it.' That's the sort of thing that people like Jack Leslie have done for me."

We may have come a long way since Jack's career, but racism has yet to be eradicated entirely from sport.

Let's hope Leslie's legacy can serve as a reminder - to put talent before race.

See also ...

Football - Plymouth Argyle FC Homepage

On the rest of the web
Plymouth Argyle Official Site

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Joanne Healey
I am Jack Leslie's Great Grand daughter and I am immensely proud that I can be associated with someone of such influence over black football players today.

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