Who Were The First Black Footballers At Every London League Club?

By Londonist Last edited 10 months ago

Last Updated 30 August 2023

Who Were The First Black Footballers At Every London League Club?

Fred Corbett debuted for Thames Ironworks, soon to become West Ham United, in 1899. He would also become Brentford's first Black player in 1905.

Football’s Black Pioneers, a new book by Bill Hern and David Gleave, tells the story of the first Black players to represent the 92 League clubs. Here’s a taster of the incredible range of characters, stories and experiences featured in the book, which spans from 1886 to today.

Note: the list below includes only those London teams currently (2020/21) in the top four flights of the league.

ARSENAL: Brendon Batson (1972)

Born Grenada, 6 February 1953

West Brom's "The Celebration" sculpture, featuring Brendon Batson with Cyrille Regis and Laurie Cunningham

Aged just 19, Batson became Arsenal’s first Black player when he came on as a sub for Charlie George at St James’ Park, Newcastle, in March 1972. It was a baptism of fire. Unable to secure a regular right-back berth in the side that had done the Double in 1970/71, he switched to Cambridge in 1974 – and then followed boss Ron Atkinson to West Brom in 1978. That’s where he gained legendary status alongside Black team-mates Cyrille Regis and Laurie Cunningham as the so-called ‘Three Degrees’. Later awarded the MBE and OBE for his work with the PFA.

BRENTFORD: Fred Corbett (1905)

Born Mile End, 3 September 1879; died Brentford, 15 April 1924

Fred Corbett pictured bottom-left.

“There are few centre-forwards the equal of Brentford man, Fred Corbett,” gushed the Eastern Daily Press back in 1907. “He is essentially an opportunist, quick to seize a chance and turn it to account.” These were saleable attributes which saw the Londoner also become the first Black player at Thames Ironworks/West Ham United (see below), Bristol City and Gillingham. He died at 44 of kidney disease, while employed as an unskilled ‘rubber tyre maker (journeyman)’ in a Brentford factory.

CHARLTON ATHLETIC: Steve Stacey (1970)

Born: Bristol, 27 August 1944

Steve Stacey

‘GI baby’ Stephen Darrow Stacey was named for the American civil rights lawyer Clarence Darrow, but still suffered a harsh start to life in wartime Britain. The US authorities, in Steve’s words, “refused to grant my father permission to marry my mother, who was from a poor white family, simply because he was black and she was white.” Also a footballing Pioneer at Exeter City and Ipswich Town, Stacey emigrated to Australia in 1974 and enjoyed a successful career as a player, manager and football administrator.

CHELSEA: Paul Canoville (1981)

Born Southall, 4 March 1962

When Canners played his first semi-pro games for Hillingdon Borough, he was sleeping rough in an abandoned Toyota. Signing for Chelsea in 1981 seemed to provide a fairytale escape, until the club’s own fans joined the opposition’s in tirades of shocking racist abuse. They never applauded his goals, and even constructed League tables without his contribution. His career ended by injury, Paul recovered from addiction and two bouts of cancer, and he now helps young people through the Paul Canoville Foundation.

CRYSTAL PALACE: Tony Collins (1957)

Born Kensington, 19 March 1926

Tony’s career as a fast, effective winger at Palace, Norwich and Watford in the ‘50s was eclipsed in the eye of history when he became the first Black manager in the Football League in September 1960, leading Rochdale to giant-killing success in reaching the final of the 1962 League Cup. He went on to work as a scout for Ron Atkinson, Don Revie and Alex Ferguson, and is still going strong, aged 94.

FULHAM: Hassan Hegazi (1911)

Born Cairo, 14 September 1891; died Egypt, 8 October 1961

Hegazi pictured in 1911 with team mates

Born into a wealthy Egyptian family, Hassan moved to London in 1911 to study engineering at University College. He soon joined Isthmian League Dulwich Hamlet, and was averaging almost a goal a game until November, which attracted the interest of Fulham. But after just one League game as an amateur, the Cottagers were accused of poaching Hegazi in an underhand manner — and so the gentleman footballer returned to Dulwich. He went on to represent Cambridge University, as well as Egypt in the 1920 and 1924 Olympic Games.

LEYTON ORIENT: Bobby Fisher (1973)

Born 3 August 1956

A veteran of ten seasons at Brisbane Road, right-back Bobby was part of the Orient side that beat First Division Norwich, Chelsea and Middlesbrough on a memorable run to the 1977/78 FA Cup semi-final, where they finally succumbed to Arsenal. Fisher suffered racist abuse at Millwall’s Den in 1974. When team-mate Laurie Cunningham scored a cracking goal, the pair gave a Black Power salute to the home fans – whose response reportedly included a flying carving knife.

MILLWALL: Frank Peterson (1968)

Born Croydon, 3 April 1951

Frank Peterson appearing in Porridge

Hassan Hegazi (see Fulham) played two games for Millwall in the Southern League in 1912, but in League terms the honour of being first Black player belongs to centre-forward Frank Peterson, who debuted aged 17 in a 3-0 defeat at Portsmouth in 1968. Released by the club in 1970, he joined non-league Chelmsford City and eventually attained legendary status. In an odd career twist, Frank appeared as an extra in the 1979 film version of Porridge, starring Ronnie Barker.

QPR: Tommy Best (1949)

Born Milford Haven, 23 December 1920; died Hereford, 16 September 2018

Best was a robust centre-forward whose war service on board a minesweeper led him indirectly to become Ireland’s first Black professional footballer. In 1949 he joined QPR on loan from Cardiff City, where he was also the first Black player. Having scored three times in 13 League outings, he moved on to become a fan favourite at Hereford.

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR: Walter Tull (1909)

Born Folkestone 28 April 1888; died Favreuil, France, 25 March 1918

Walter Tull rose from being a Barnardo's boy to becoming one of Britain's first Black officers, as well as the first Black player at Spurs. His statue, replicating the pose above, stands in Haringey.

Having scored two goals in 10 games for Spurs, despite suffering extreme racist abuse, centre-forward Tull was transferred in 1911 to Southern League Northampton Town, bossed by the soon-to-be-legendary Herbert Chapman. But tragically it was in the First World War that he earned his place in history. At a time when Black soldiers were not normally allowed to rise to an officer’s rank, Second Lieutenant Walter Tull died in France in 1918 leading his troops in an attack on German lines.  

WEST HAM UNITED: Fred Corbett (1899/1900*) then John Charles (1963)

Born Mile End, 3 September 1879; died Brentford, 15 April 1924

With thanks to Steve Marsh at the wonderful West Ham history and memorabilia site, theyflysohigh.co.uk for this image.

Fred’s story is covered in the Brentford section, so our focus moves on to John Charles, a Canning Town local who made his debut aged 18 in 1963. Later that year, Charlo was skipper of West Ham’s Youth Cup-winning side, becoming the first Black footballer to captain a first-class side to a major trophy. Not a lot of people know that he was also the first Black player to represent England, playing five games at Under-18 level. Sadly, John developed cancer and died in 2002, aged just 57.

John Charles

*1899 for Thames Ironworks, which became West Ham United the following year

AFC WIMBLEDON: Sean Marshall, Rashid Yussuff and Christian Jolley (2002/2011)

Founded in 2002 in the wake of Wimbledon FC’s scandalous ‘franchise’ switch to MK, AFC Wimbledon’s first Black player was Sean Marshall, whose career only lasted three games plus four sub appearances. The club’s first League game in 2011 featured Christian Jolley (also on the programme cover), who went on to play for Newport, Forest Green and Grimsby – a record neatly trumped by team-mate ‘Toks’ Yussuff, whose career took in the England Under-18s as well as spells in Malta, Iceland and Poland!

Football's Black Pioneers goes into much greater depth on all of these players, along with the stories of the first Black footballers at every other club in the English League. Discover the player who went on to become the first Black manager in English football. Read the story of the only Black "Busby Babe". And commiserate with the pioneering Black footballer whose career was ended when he was run over by his team mates. It's a book packed with forgotten sporting history, personal struggles and triumphs against the odds. And with an archive image on just about every page, this is definitely one for the trophy cabinet.

Football’s Black Pioneers: The Stories of the First Black Players to Represent the 92 League Clubs, by Bill Hern & David Gleave (Conker Editions £16). Available from ConkerEditions.co.uk and all good bookshops.

Football's Black Pioneers cover