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England Came Knocking – But Then The Door Slammed Shut

by Matt Tiller

Picked to play for his country, Jack Leslie was good enough to win that place and was only deselected because of his skin colour.

We are indebted to Bill Hern, co-author of Football’s Black Pioneers; Martin Johnes, Professor of History at Swansea University, Phil Vasili, author of several books on early black footballers, the amazing Greens On Screen website and the National Football Museum for sharing their research and enthusiasm. And, of course, Jack Leslie’s family and others who have taken the time to support the campaign and talk to us about Jack.

Although there is much information online and in print, it feels right to set out the story of Jack Leslie’s selection and subsequent rejection as clearly as possible here. In fact, I’ve wanted to write this for months, but the only available mode of transport since the campaign took off was the seat of my pants. At least they’re Covid-secure. I can’t speak for Greg’s, or those of the other committee members.

When I first heard the tale during a drunken chat with a fellow Argyle fan, I couldn’t believe it. As a Plymouth Argyle supporter, it seemed incredible – a Pilgrim called up to play for England? But the more I’ve researched the story, like the authors of Football’s Black Pioneers who began their journey with similar scepticism, the firmer my belief became.

Some people question Jack’s story, their queries full of anger, disbelief and a Caps Lock key they just can’t seem to type without. They wonder how it could possibly have been racism without some cast-iron statement to that effect by the FA, as if that was likely to be recorded. That shows a misunderstanding of how to examine the historical evidence and a failure to accept that racist societal attitudes existed in the early 20th century when we know that they did. How can Jack’s rejection be a surprise to anyone? His is not the only story of its kind.

Here are some of those key questions answered briefly, before we get into the minutiae…

Was Jack Leslie selected for the England team? Yes. His name was printed in several papers on Tuesday 6th October 1925 and the following days after the FA’s International Selection Committee met on Monday 5th October to discuss the forthcoming England v Ireland game, which was to be played on Saturday 24th October.

Was he good enough? Without a doubt. He was noted as being of international class in the national press at the time of his selection and subsequently.

Even as a Third Division player? While it was rare for players at Jack’s level to be selected, it was not unheard of. In fact, one member of that October 1925 England team was playing in the same division for Charlton Athletic, who finished second from bottom, while Plymouth were runners-up as usual.

Was his rejection down to the colour of his skin? There is no footballing reason for the deselection and the evident controversy that followed in the press at the time. This can be set alongside Jack’s personal testimony, and his unimpeachable character confirms it. I believe Jack Leslie.

Surely the FA must have known he was black?  Some, but not necessarily all of the 14-strong selection committee must have known. There was either a disagreement within the committee, or external pressure was applied. This does not negate the argument. Instead, it makes it all the more intriguing and suggests that some spoke up for Jack while others were against him.

Right, let’s get into this…

Imagine being told you’ve been picked to represent your country? You’ve striven to play the sport you love professionally and established yourself in the first team. You’ve even toured South America, played and beaten the Argentina and Uruguay national teams. Achievements to be proud of, for sure, but to be so talented and to have worked so hard that the national team wants you – well, that would be something to tell the grandchildren. And you’re not some “fancy dan” playing in the First Division for Manchester United, Liverpool or Huddersfield Town (don’t scoff, they won three titles in a row in the 1920s).

You play for Plymouth Argyle in the Third Division South.

Well, that happened to Jack Leslie in October 1925. An inside left who made and scored goals, he was feared by opponents and adored by Argyle fans. Jack had many achievements as a Pilgrim; scoring 137 goals in 400 appearances, winning promotion and being appointed club captain. But he never boasted about those glories, nor the fact that he was picked for England. It happened almost one hundred years ago, was reported and garnered attention but was then quickly swept under the carpet. One thing is certain. It happened.

Jack Leslie already had a reputation when he signed for Plymouth Argyle in 1921 from Barking Town (now Barking FC) where he had been a prolific goal scorer who also represented Essex at county level and travelled with them to play in Paris. The President of Barking, Dave Blewitt, says, ‘My late father Fred, who was born in 1906 and passed away in 1986, told me Jack was the greatest player he had ever seen play for Barking in his 60-plus years of watching the Blues.’ Memories such as these of Jack as a player and a person have made the campaign all the more worthwhile and make my belief in him and his testimony all the stronger. 

It took time for Jack to establish himself in the Plymouth starting XI, but manager Bob Jack must have had faith in his young signing. In the 1924-25 season, Leslie was the top scorer with 14 goals and next season Argyle got off to a flyer. By the time the FA International Selection Committee met on 5th October 1925, the club was topping the division, having scored 31 goals in eight games with six of those notched by Jack Leslie. 

Jack Leslie scores in a 6-2 victory against Southend United – Daily Mirror – 31st August 1925

Argyle’s free-scoring play attracted national press attention and Jack’s record combined with the confidence and recommendation of Bob Jack, an Argyle playing and managing legend himself, was enough to get Jack Leslie the call-up for England.

The announcement made several papers on 6th October and in the days following too. Publications including The Birmingham Gazette, The Northern Whig, The Western Daily Press and The Liverpool Echo all listed an identical team with Leslie named as a travelling reserve, one of only 13 players selected for the England team. So, Jack Leslie was named in the England team, and the news attracted some comment, in the Western Daily Press on 7th, for example…

This was, in itself, a massive honour and one that could and should have led to greater things for such an exciting young player. On the 24th October, unaware that Leslie had not travelled to Belfast, The Northern Whig wrote, ’Leslie, who has scored plenty of goals for the Argyle, is an inside forward of great ability and will soon work his way into representative matches.’

With two weeks until kick-off in Belfast, there was still the opportunity for Jack to make the starting XI. After the Huddersfield left-back Sam Wadsworth picked up an injury, The Western Daily Press on 12th October said, ‘A substitute, of course, will now have to be found, and it is not unlikely that Leslie, the darkie forward of Plymouth Argyle, will fill the vacancy.’  While Jack Leslie was a versatile player able to defend as well as attack, this turned out to be press speculation. The FA at first put their hope on Cope of Notts County, but when he was also ruled out, Frank Hudspeth was eventually drafted in for his first and only cap at the ripe old age of 35. 

What we can’t get away from is the fact that Jack Leslie was named in the team and seemingly given a chance to be involved. And his ability to play in a variety of positions made him a perfect travelling reserve. Perhaps this would be the start of his international career? But, no. On 19th October, The Athletic News reported on the England team, and the reserves were now listed as Nuttall and Earle. Nuttall was then injured and replaced by Baker of Arsenal. But what of Jack Leslie? He had suffered no injury, nor was he serving a suspension.

On 24th October 1925, England limped to a nil-nil draw against Ireland with its amateur captain Claude Ashton putting in a lacklustre performance in his only appearance for the national team. I’m being harsh, as were the press at the time. Ashton was a fine sportsman, but it’s fair to say that Jack Leslie couldn’t have done any worse than him. That afternoon he scored twice for Plymouth in a 7-2 victory against Bournemouth and Boscombe Athletic. Jack Leslie never let that disappointment affect his game.

In the aftermath of the Ireland international, the controversy was reported on, both locally and nationally. In The Daily Herald on 28th October, a London reader wrote asking, ‘Leslie, of Plymouth Argyle, was down as reserve (to travel), but for some reason, not made public, Leslie played for his club on Saturday while Earle, of West Ham United, travelled to Ireland instead.’ He goes on to lament the snobbery blighting first-class football. The Herald was a left-wing paper, so was this reader a proto-woke virtue signaller? If so, I’m with them.

The paper followed up on the query by phoning the FA and the Press Association…

We have checked the FA minutes, and they note that Nuttall and Earle were ‘selected as reserves in any event’ on 5th October and then on 19th October Howard-Baker of Arsenal was chosen in place of Nuttall. This was an error, and it should have simply read Baker, as Howard-Baker was the keeper already selected. Confused? I think the committee might have been too. These minutes are printed, not handwritten and could have been entered at any point after the event. It’s ludicrous to think that the FA would keep a record of a decision that they clearly reneged on later.

The issue also attracted comment locally in the Football Herald on 31st October with a reporter saying, ‘My readers may be expecting from me a comment upon the Argyle Club’s announcement that Jack Leslie was not chosen as reserve forward for England. Unfortunately, my pen is under a ban in this matter, but I may say that a mistake was made in London and transmitted to me. Anyway, Leslie was at that time playing quite well enough to be chosen’. This is a telling quote that backs up Jack’s own testimony. This was an unspoken, awkward, systemic racism. A far cry from the terrace chanting that blighted the modern game for so long, this had to be accepted by Jack and the local press who supported him.

It does seem unfathomable that none of the fourteen FA selectors knew Jack was black. His colour was reported in the press, and one or two of the committee had enough connections with the South West to suggest they would have seen him play. We do know that the meeting on 5th October can’t have been a long one, as it was scheduled between a game and a fancy dinner with players and they were probably all eager to get cracking into some decent food and wine. Did one of the committee members put Leslie forward, backed up by his stats and get it signed off, without mentioning his colour? He’d certainly been recommended by Bob Jack, a significant figure in the game at the time, who rated him highly.

Once named, why did the FA renege on Jack’s selection? There is no footballing reason and what other grounds could there be, other than the one Jack himself stated in such a matter-of-fact way? It’s possible that more committee members looked at Jack when Argyle faced Reading on 17th October and then they changed their mind either formally at a meeting on the 19th, or informally beforehand. It is also possible that external pressure came to bear. Although we don’t think of this as a time of racial tension, post-World War I Britain did see race riots in 1919. Might there have been a fear at a governmental level that seeing a person of colour promoted to the national football team could be destabilising?

There is no doubt that Jack Leslie was named in the England side in October 1925. It’s possible that he was considered for the starting XI, but he was definitely selected as a travelling reserve and had the ability and versatility appropriate for that role. There is no sensible footballing reason for his omission, and Jack’s testimony and character alongside the curious comments surrounding the case make it clear that his skin colour was the issue. The FA never admitted to a ‘mistake’ but simply denied that Jack had ever been chosen. The evidence is against them here, and the fact that there is no other explanation shows the real reason was being swept under the carpet.

Some people have suggested it is scandalous that we are accusing the FA of racism. We’ve not accused anyone and, of course, we don’t know if a specific committee member spoke out in that way. Conversely, we do know it’s likely that one or more actually spoke in favour of Jack. The fourteen members either changed their mind as a committee once they all became aware of Leslie’s heritage or they were pressurised to conclude that the inclusion of Jack Leslie was not appropriate. However it came to pass, whoever pushed back against his selection, it happened because of the colour of Jack’s skin and the FA allowed it to happen. But, then, so did everyone, because it was simply accepted.

When Viv Anderson finally made that breakthrough as the first black player to win a full England cap in 1978, The Daily Mail interviewed Leslie who was then working in the West Ham boot room. He told how his manager, Bob Jack, called him into his office to tell him that he’d been picked for England…

Everybody in the club knew about it. The town was full of it. All them days ago it was quite a thing for a little club like Plymouth to have a man called up for England. I was proud — but then I was proud just to be a paid footballer.’

Jack clearly had no one he could discuss this with. Who could he talk to and how could he possibly raise an objection as the only black professional in England at the time?

‘Then all of a sudden everyone stopped talking about it. Sort of went dead quiet. Didn’t look me in the eye. I didn’t ask outright. I could see by their faces it was awkward. But I did hear, roundabout like, that the FA had come to have another look at me. Not at me football but at me face. They asked, and found they’d made a ricket. Found out about me Daddy, and that was it. There was a bit of an uproar in the papers. Folks in the town were very upset. No one ever told me official-like, but that had to be the reason, me Mum was English but me Daddy was black as the Ace of Spades. There wasn’t any other reason for taking my cap away.

Are those the words of a boastful, deluded man? I don’t think so, and everyone I’ve spoken to tells me what a humble, gentle man he was. There is no reason not to believe Jack Leslie. He was there, he knew the score, and while he was regularly taunted by opposition supporters and players, he shrugged it off… “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.” This is a man who didn’t complain and just got on with his work on the pitch.

As a player, he was loved in Plymouth and became nationally famous, especially for his partnership with Argyle’s Scottish striker, Sammy Black. Ninety-five-year-old Bill Stephens remembers watching the pair play, ‘Whenever one of them got the ball there was a real rustle in the crowd, they knew it, there could be a goal.’ Many fans have told us how their parents and grandparents talked about Jack Leslie as a legend and Bill continues, ‘I remember my father saying he was at a game and Jack wasn’t playing, but he was just standing there watching. He thought it was a good chance to go and speak to him, so he went up to him to tell him what a great player he was. He was a real gent, he played the game the right way, he didn’t cheat, and he didn’t foul’.

We also know that players like Clyde Best, Sir Trevor Brooking, David Cross and Harry Redknapp, who had their boots cared for by an elderly Jack Leslie at West Ham, remember him fondly. They also tell of a humble, modest man who would do anything for them and, unbelievably, never spoke of his footballing achievements. Through the campaign, we’ve had so many wonderful memories of the man we are celebrating, and they only speak highly of him. The more I learn, the more I believe Jack Leslie.

It is heartening to know that he wasn’t simply a mild-mannered man who was fierce on the pitch, but quiet off it. This East London lad who made his name in Devon had a personality and charisma, and he would have needed that inner strength to deal with the ups and downs of any football career, let alone what he faced. His granddaughters tell of a charming, entertaining and engaging person who told them and their school friends creative, funny stories. They say the Argyle fans loved him and how he was apparently a terrible driver but would get away with murder because he was so well-liked. And they were proud as punch when his retirement as a boot boy at West Ham was featured on ITV’s The Big Match. But he should have been known then, and now, for so much more.

When we talk of modern racism, we often talk about equality of opportunity and levelling the playing field. The chance to be a part of the England set-up, once denied, spelt the end of opportunity and at that moment in October 1925, the gates to an international career effectively slammed shut on Jack Leslie. A consistent player for more than a decade, he would have been in the running for selection in many more games, but Jack was never spoken of in connection to the national team again. Later reports prove this. According to The Football Herald in 1930 Jack was “known throughout England for his skill and complexion,” while The Daily Mail called him a “coloured genius” in 1932 and the following year wrote, “Had he been white he would have been a certain English international.

The national press said it, and he said it. Jack Leslie should have been the first black footballer to play for England.