Alf paved the way for Saints’ black roll of honour

Author: 
Sarah Jones
Date Published: 
2006-10-09
Source: 
Southern Daily Echo

Alfred CharlesTrailblazer: Saints first black player Alf Charles.

Alf Charles may have made just one appearance for Saints first team but it was enough to secure him a momentous place in the club's history books.

A professional magician turned cricketer turned footballer was not the most obvious career path for a newcomer to the Dell.

But then Charles was never going to be just an ordinary member of Southampton FC.

As the team's first black player, he signed in January 1937 at a time when black faces were almost non-existent on the city's streets.

While all dedicated Saints fans will have heard of the three Wallace brothers - who famously played in a match together in the 1980s - they may be surprised to know the team featured a black player before the Second World War.

The Trinidadian arrived in England in 1932 accompanying the West Indian cricket team and acting as valet to the famous cricketer Learie Constantine.

He started playing club cricket up north and despite being known as a better cricketer than footballer, he was soon wowing the crowds at Stalybridge Celtic after taking up the beautiful game.

The deeply religious man built up an impressive goal-scoring record and was chased by a number of Division One sides but opted to move to Saints.

One of his Dell colleagues would recall years later, the collective awe when a ball hit Charles on the head during training and it cleared the West stand.

His short-lived career at Southampton included five reserve games, in which he scored two goals in his first two months.

However the magic clearly deserted him on the pitch and he returned to Stalybridge exactly one year later.

His story is just one of the many being told in an exhibition on Southampton's black players.

On display during Black History Month, it forms part of the Racism Just Ain't Saintly campaign - a joint initiative between Southampton City Council, Southampton FC, Hampshire FA and other local agencies - designed to keep prejudice out of the game.

By celebrating the contribution that black players have made to the game over many years, organisers hope to inspire young black youngsters searching for positive role models.

For many young boys, and girls, there is no more powerful image than a professional footballer.

While more than 40 black players have played for Saints to date, it took another four decades after Charles's departure before the second arrived at The Dell.

It was not until the first wave of black players broke into the team in the late-1970s - the children of the post-war immigrants who had arrived in their thousands one or two decades before - that the full force of racism was felt at clubs across the country.

"There were so few black people in Southampton in 1937 that Alf Charles would have been regarded as a curiosity," explained Don John, an organiser of Southampton's Black History Month.

"He was a magician who would have fitted in with the exotic element of his presence there.

"That would be very different compared to when 40 years later players like Terry Sealy, the club's second black player, were right in the middle of racism on the terraces.

"I would imagine that Alf Charles's experience was better than Terry Sealy's. In Sealy's time bananas were being thrown on the pitch and there was obvious racist name calling."

For Reuben Agboola, a Saints player from 1980-1985, encountering racial abuse was a commonplace occurence.

"There were always grounds where you would expect to get more verbal abuse than others but I never really dwelled on it too much," he said. "When playing you have to stay focused on that.

"Today it is unacceptable to have 3,000 to 4,000 people making monkey chants. They will get chucked out. The game has tidied up its act in that respect."

Agboola, who works in used car sales in Eastleigh after running the Sporting View bar at Southampton Sports Centre for ten years, added: "Now when you look at some of the teams such as Arsenal they have eight or nine black players, so it's a little bit different there too."

Bob Purkiss, race and diversity adviser to the Professional Football Association and the Premier League, was the first black referee in the Southampton area in the 1980s.

He said: "Racism was so overt then. As a player you had to be twice as good to get half as far." Today, racial chanting has been an offence for more than a decade and the Racism Just Ain't Saintly initiative has been going from strength to strength since 2002.

Mr Purkiss added: "These campaigns have made an incredible difference. They have made clubs take ownership of the issue, taking it away from black people having to fight for themselves.

"Racism Just Ain't Saintly is one of the premier examples of a club reaching out into the community."