On the day Plymouth Argyle named their new boardroom after black pioneer Jack Leslie, resident blogger Asif Burhan tells the story of his career and losing out on an England place because of his race.


In 133 years, no Plymouth Argyle footballer has ever played for the England national team but in October 1925, their inside-left Jack Leslie was called into the office of his manager Bob Jack.

“I’ve got great news for you. You’ve been picked for England”.

Speaking to Brian Woolnough in 1978, Leslie recalled, "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".

Born in 1901, the son of a gas fitter's labourer from Jamaica and a tailoress from Islington, John Francis Leslie grew up in Canning Town and began playing for Barking Town in the London League. He scored over 250 goals for the club, helping them win the Essex Senior Cup in 1920 and Premier Division title in 1921. One of three Barking players offered professional terms by Plymouth Argyle, themselves elected to the Football League only the year before, Leslie struggled to break into the first team during his first two seasons. A move to inside-left transformed his fortunes and by the mid-1920s he was a regular in the team.

At the time, selection for the England national team did not rest with one manager, but an International Selection Committee comprised of a group of coaches and trainers selected by the Football Association. Before the advent of television coverage, it is unlikely that any of the selectors had seen Leslie play, but his record spoke for itself. With 134 goals in his 384 league appearances for The Pilgrims, Leslie would become the fourth-highest goalscorer in the club's history.

However, Leslie's dreams of representing his country were soon to be dashed.

“All of a sudden everyone stopped talking about it. Then the papers came out a day or so later and Billy Walker of Aston Villa was in the team, not me. I didn’t ask outright. I could see by their faces it was awkward".

"I did hear 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. No one ever told me officially, but that had to be the reason".

"They must have forgotten I was a coloured boy. They found out I was a darkie and I suppose that was like finding out I was foreign".

On Tuesday 6th October 1925, Leslie was officially named in the press as one of two reserves for the team to play Ireland in Belfast. When Huddersfield Town's left-back Sam Wadsworth dislocated his elbow playing for his club two weeks before the game, the Western Daily Press reported on Monday 12th October 1925 that "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".

In the event, Newcastle United's 35-year-old Francis Hudspeth was drafted in for his first and only international cap. The match ended goalless. Meanwhile that same afternoon, in front of 10,593 fans at Home Park, Leslie scored twice in Plymouth's 7-2 home win over Bournemouth and Boscombe Athletic.

Leslie was one of two black footballers known to be playing in the Football League at the time. The other, Eddie Parris, would become the first black man to play for Wales in 1931. When Parris' side, Bradford Park Avenue were drawn to play Plymouth in the FA Cup in January 1929, the Leeds Mercury preview of the match made no mention of either player in its written preview but nonetheless used photos to identify both players as "coloured cup-tie rivals". In 1930, The Herald had described him as "known throughout England for his skill and complexion".

Leslie would eventually captain Argyle and led them to a 4-1 FA Cup third round victory over Manchester United in 1932. Subsequently drawn away to Herbert Chapman's Arsenal in the fourth round, The Daily Herald reported that 81 train loads of Plymouth supporters made the journey to London. In front of a then record Highbury attendance of 65,386, with thousands more locked out, Leslie scored in a 4-2 defeat to the reigning First Division champions. A few weeks later at a players’ dinner, club president, Mr A. C. Ballard, "congratulated Argyle on having such an inspiring captain as Mr. Jack Leslie" and later in the year Ballad presented Leslie's wife with "a handsome diamond cluster scarf. . . there were less costly presents for all the others".

However, respect for Leslie, was not always forthcoming away from the south-west. In September 1933, in a column titled "Our Readers' Jokes Efforts" the Burnley Express published two anecdotes from fans at Turf Moor commenting on Leslie's colour. One by J. Abott compared playing Plymouth to a game of snooker because "it seemed to depend so much on t' 'black'".

After a spell working as a publican in Cornwall and scouting for Argyle, he returned to East London to work as a boilermaker. In the 1960s, Ron Greenwood offered Leslie the chance to become part of the West Ham backroom staff working as a boot-boy. Over 15 years at Chadwell Heath, he cleaned boots for the likes of Bobby Moore, Harry Redknapp and Trevor Brooking.  At the age of 80, his retirement was featured on ITV's The Big Match programme. He died on an unknown date in 1988.

Today, Plymouth Argyle will honour their only footballer to be called up to play for England by naming the boardroom in their new 5,403-capacity Mayflower Grandstand after Leslie.

A club spokesman told me, “Jack Leslie was a pioneer - for the generations of BAME footballers that now grace the English game.

"It is entirely appropriate that Jack’s name will be forever enshrined at the heart of the club".