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Jack Leslie v Chelsea

Ahead of the Chelsea v Plymouth Argyle game Greg Foxsmith of the Jack Leslie Campaign tells the story of former Argyle player, Jack Leslie, who should have been the first black player to play for England.

Chelsea have a 4th round FA Cup home tie against Plymouth Argyle (League One) this weekend (Saturday, 12.30 KO, BBC “red button”)

The fixture has created much excitement in Plymouth, and the rather disappointing allocation of 6,000 tickets in the away end sold out in a matter of hours, snapped up by Argyle season ticket holders keen to see their team take on the European Champions!

Of course this is not the first time that the clubs have done battle, albeit it was over 30 years ago (1988/89 season) since the teams faced up in what was then league division 2. The Blues won home and away that time, with a Simod Cup thrashing at Stamford Bridge thrown in for good measure. Chelsea’s record against Argyle is formidable – with 9 wins and 6 draws from 15 encounters. Argyle fans will have to draw strength from their League Cup win at Chelsea back in 1979 for a glimmer of hope.

These results illustrate the disparity between the sides now – in the Blue Corner, the dazzling multi-million array of talent contained within a Premier League team, in the Green Corner a more modestly sourced collection of professionals, loan signings, and some excellent home-grown talent from the academy. Chelsea scouts certainly know about the Argyle academy, having just poached a Plymouth youngster days ahead of the cup clash!

However, the last time Chelsea and Plymouth had encounters in the FA Cup, back in the 1920s and 30s, the gulf was not so wide.

In 1921, there were two replays needed before Chelsea eventually triumphed by the narrowest of margins in a 2-1 win. Later that same year, Plymouth, then a division 3 South team, made 3 signings from Barking FC, one of whom, Londoner Jack Leslie, played for Argyle against Chelsea in their next FA Cup encounter in January 1926. Once again, the encounter was close with Chelsea again coming out on top 2-1.

Just a few months before that, in 1925, Leslie made history by becoming the first black footballer to be selected to play for England, although his selection was later controversially rescinded. Jack’s story became less well known over the years, until in 2020 a campaign was started by a couple of Argyle fans to tell Jack’s story, and fundraise for a statue.

So who was Jack Leslie?

Jack Leslie

Born in Canning Town 1901 to a Jamaican father and white mother, he showed incredible promise with his first club Barking from 1919-1921, and played for a representative London team.

Chelsea may be the team with European experience now, but in 1919 it was Jack Leslie travelling to France to play for London against Paris in France!

Jack’s Barking team competed in the final of the London Senior Cup in May 1920 at West Ham’s Upton Park ground, and won the final the following year at Millwall’s ground.

Jack (now aged 19) left Barking to join Plymouth, by which time he had acquired a London League winner’s medal and was an integral part of the team that had won two West Ham Charity Cups, an Essex Senior and a London Senior Cup.

Jack stayed with Plymouth for 14 seasons, and became club captain. He scored 137 goals in 400 appearances with the Pilgrims. The team finished second for several consecutive seasons (at a time when only one team were promoted) before eventually securing promotion.

It might be Chelsea now who are about to take part in the FIFA Club World Cup, but 100 years ago it was Jack Leslie’s Argyle travelling abroad! In the Summer of 1924 Plymouth went on a tour of Argentina and Uruguay. The team and officials travelled to South America by boat and played nine games beating Argentina twice and Uruguay once. Jack was a regular in the side and scored twice against Uruguay; the first in a 4-0 victory and the second, a late equaliser in a 1-1 draw.

Jack’s prowess at Argyle brought him to the attention of the England selection board, and in 1925 he was selected to play for England. Unlike today, it was not unusual for players outside the “top flight” to get a call-up, and Jack’s selection was widely reported and not unexpected. Shamefully, his name was later withdrawn, because as the only “non-white” player, his face did not fit with what was the perceived image of an English footballer. The full story is here.

It was over 50 years before Viv Anderson became the first black footballer to play for England at full international level in 1974, by which time racism was being overtly expressed at football matches. It was not until 1981 that Paul Canoville became the first black player to play for Chelsea, sadly receiving a negative reception from racist elements amongst supporters.

In 2022 we hope that football can be inclusive. Chelsea, Argyle, and England all have players from diverse backgrounds, playing in front of huge crowds without having to endure the vile racist abuse of previous years. But racism still exits and is manifested in different ways, particularly on social media.

We at the Jack Leslie Campaign are delighted to see that Paul Canoville is being celebrated in his lifetime with a suite named after him. Jack Leslie retired, returned to London and worked for a while in the West Ham boot-room before passing away in 1988. But it is not too late to celebrate his achievements, and acknowledge a historic wrong. We hope the statue (to be unveiled later this year) will be a reminder to us all to learn from the past to build a better future.

We like to build bridges as well as statues.

We welcome support from football clubs and fans - please do check out our campaign website, and if you like please contribute to out crowdfunder campaign, which has been supported by fans of many clubs.

The above piece contributed by the Greg Foxsmith of the Jack Leslie Campaign

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