PETER FROST finds a memorial in Northampton with a sad story of a forgotten hero and a century of racism in football.

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All right-thinking soccer fans will have been disgusted by the John Terry affair and the way the football establishment have dealt with it.

Now comes the latest and sickening news that Terry is to remain Chelsea captain despite accepting the racism charge.

So come with me to the small and peaceful memorial Gardens beside Northampton Town’s Football Club Ground and I’ll tell you a story of how institutionalised racism has plagued the sport for more than a century.

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Here outside the Cobbler’s 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.

Walter Tull was born in 1888 in Folkestone. Walter’s father, the son of a slave, had arrived from Barbados in 1876 and had married a girl from Kent.

Walter 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 brief time as an apprentice printer Walter turned to his first love football.

East London amateur club Clapton spotted his talent and young Walter played in their first team in the 1908-09 season.

With him in the forward line Clapton won several important London Cups.

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 – the Cobblers – 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…”  For Black footballers it seems things haven’t changed for a hundred years.

Early in 1914 Glasgow Rangers made a bid for Walter Tull.

But a bigger game was about to kick off – War was declared.

Tull was quick to volunteer. He joined the Football Battalion. Promotion came quickly – he was made a sergeant.

In July 1916, at the battle of the Somme Tull 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.

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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.

A bullet pieced his skull. Despite efforts by his admiring men his body was never recovered. Walter Tull was just 29.

As in Italy is 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 – 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. A commemoration is held here every year.

Apart from that Walter Tull, like so many Black pioneers is almost entirely hidden from history.

Never mind, the British establishment has got its priorities right, John Terry is still leading the team out down at Stamford Bridge.

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This article first appeared in the Morning Star in 2012. It is even more timely today as we mark the start of the First World War one hundred years ago.  


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