The statue was unveiled outside Home Park on Friday. Image: Argyle TV/YouTube
Jack Leslie should have become England’s first Black footballer almost 100 years ago but was dropped when bosses discovered his race. Now he has finally got the recognition he deserves in the form of a statue outside his club’s stadium.
Leslie’s name and story had for years been overlooked and was gathering dust in the record books of Plymouth Argyle – where he is ninth in the list of the club’s all-time record scorers with 137 goals from 1921-34.
But he should be a household name. In 1925, as the only Black footballer playing in the English league, he was called up to play for England against Ireland but subsequently dropped, purportedly because FA officials came to watch him train and saw he was Black. It took another 53 years for a Black footballer to play for England senior team.
Leslie later remarked: “They must have forgot I was a coloured boy.”
This story was chanced upon by Greg Foxsmith, a lifelong Argyle fan, and friend Matt Tiller, who had an idea to remember Leslie – a statue outside Home Park, the club’s stadium.
“We were staggered to find the story about the England call-up and that it wasn’t more talked about. It wasn’t that we unearthed it, but nobody really did anything about it, it was just a passing reference,” Foxsmith told the Big Issue.
“We thought we should do a positive campaign, it might be a hundred years late, but to put Jack Leslie up on a pedestal and give him his due.”
They set up the Jack Leslie Campaign and went about raising money, with great success. Small individual donations on their crowdfunding campaign added up to over £140,000, making the statue a reality.
“At a time when you get a lot of negativity, with people booing the knee and so on, this is a positive statement. At a time when statues are being pulled down, we’re putting a statue up of a Black footballer. That must be a hugely significant step for equality, for diversity,” Foxsmith said.
Its unveiling on Friday at midday means the first statue at Plymouth Argyle is one of a Black player. Created by Andy Edwards, the bronze statue’s pose was under close wraps until the unveiling. But Foxsmith added that it’s life-size plus a quarter – anything genuinely life-size put on a plinth has a tendency to look small.
Leslie died in 1988 – living long enough to see Viv Anderson become the first Black player to take to the pitch for England senior team in 1978. At that time, Leslie was a “boot boy” for West Ham, with players unaware of his story.
The issue of racism has not faded from football in the intervening years, with Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford, and Jadon Sancho subjected to racist abuse after missing penalties in the Euro 2020 final and former home secretary Priti Patel saying fans had a right to boo England players taking the knee.
Leslie’s daughter Evelyn passed away last year, but his three granddaughters were at the ceremony to pull the rope on the statue.
“The whole family knew the story, but they never thought it would get public recognition like it now has. Their granddad’s legacy is now being recognised,” Foxsmith said.
Alongside the statue, the campaign wants to tell Leslie’s story in a positive way, and look at issues around race then and now. They’re taking it to schools, where it is striking a chord.
“This story really resonates for children, because they get it, particularly the boys. They can think about what it must be like to get a chance to play for England and then lose it because of the colour of your skin. Then you can use that to tell the story now about how racism exists in different ways – the kind of things we’ve seen recently.”
The unveiling is coincidentally taking place during Black History Month, but Foxsmith insisted it is a story relevant at any time.
“We are happy to talk about Jack 12 months of the year,” he said.
“In a way, the story of building the statue has become part of the story. It’s almost like making history in a way. Statues are like that, whether it’s the story of how they were built or how they get pulled down, it becomes history.”