Spring 2019 and the thirtieth birthday of someone my wife worked with a bit. Joe’s a nice guy so we bobbed along to a trendy bar in the kind of hip area of London I’d rarely be seen to toast his significant life achievement. When we got there he was very excited to introduce me to his dad. Now, people don’t often get excited at paternal introductions, but this was different. When someone outside Britain’s Ocean City learns that two people are Plymouth Argyle fans, it seems to generate some kind of hysteria. They are desperate to light the touch paper and watch the sparks(y) fly.
Joe’s dad, Tony Fitz-Gerald is an ebullient character and he immediately launched into the story of Jack Leslie. He was passionate about sharing this piece of history and as soon as he began, I could tell why. Frankly, I was stunned and ashamed that I’d never heard of Jack and his achievements. And the more I listened, the more intrigued I became.
I grew up in the Tommy Tynan era, my interest beginning around the time of Plymouth’s 1984 FA Cup run when they reached the semi-final, a match I desperately wanted to attend but was denied by the cruel, uncaring parents I never forgave… until they bought me a season ticket the next year. My parents are not from Plymouth and not football fans and I think they feared I would be swept up in a tide of violence and be recruited by The Central Element (Plymouth’s hooligan crew who emerged in the mid-eighties). Thankfully, I lack a penchant for thuggery and racism.
These were exciting years at the club with a promotion following soon after the FA Cup glory and as a young fan the focus was on the here and now. I knew the odd bit of history — that England striker Paul Mariner had played for us early in his career and that Pele had visited Home Park with his club side Santos and got beat. Take that, you Brazilian show off. You’re no Mickey Evans. But, like most fans it seems, I didn’t delve further back into the archive and the club didn’t showcase it’s rich history.
That party chat over a beer with Tony continued and he told me about Jack’s England call up and we both wondered whether or not it was an apocryphal tale. Did Jack travel to London only to be turned back when they saw the colour of his skin? Of course, it may not have happened exactly like that but we do know that Jack Leslie was named in the England team but that his name then swiftly disappeared and he never won his cap. Jack himself recalled how the Argyle manager, Bob Jack, told him of his selection and how FA officials then came to have a look at him, ‘not at me football but at me face.’
Tony is a great character and has been full of enthusiasm since we met, sending me links and offering help which has been encouraging and invaluable. Soon after the party I wrote a song about the story – I am a very semi-professional songwriter whose work is mostly comedic (or at least it tries to be) but this serious song seems to sit well. I’ve played it live a few times and audiences are intrigued by the story. One of my biggest (only) fans is Greg Foxsmith, someone I’ve known since childhood and who now chairs PASALB (Plymouth Argyle Supporters Association London Branch). On hearing the story and the song (which will be released to support the campaign, of course), Greg immediately suggested a campaign to build a statue.
And that’s how it all began.
Since then we have talked to the club and been hugely encouraged by chairman, Simon Hallett, who is as keen to further recognise Jack Leslie’s achievements as we are. We’ve been busy talking to local politicians, key groups such as the PFA, Kick It Out and, most importantly, have now been in touch with Jack’s family. Yesterday I spoke to one of his granddaughters, Lyn, who has already given me a fascinating insight into a man who was, without a doubt, one of the finest players to grace Home Park and an inspiring, charismatic character to grow up with.
Argyle had planned to host Jack’s family in April and Greg and I were to attend. That is obviously on hold until later in the year. But in the meantime we are working hard to ensure that, when we do launch, our campaign to raise the funds needed for a statue of Jack Leslie is a success. I hope you will join us along the way. Please do let us know if you have any suggestions. We are working through a list of people we know we need to talk to, so if we haven’t got to you yet then do email us.
Thanks Tony. And, most importantly, thanks Jack. I’m sorry this took so long. The recognition you deserve should have happened during your lifetime.