Jack Leslie V2

FOOTBALL

JACK LESLIE

The name Jack Leslie may have rung very few bells outside of his adopted hometown of Plymouth just a couple of years ago, but thanks to author Matt Tiller, the story of the first ever black player to be called up for England – only to have his name withdrawn – has since been written back into footballing history. Here, Matt talks exclusively to Pitch about the captivating life of Jack Leslie as detailed in his book The Lion Who Never Roared.

Words: Jade Craddock

When did you first hear about Jack Leslie and what did you make of what you heard? Were you surprised that his story wasn’t more well-known?

Jack’s name is in the Plymouth Argyle record books, but I wasn’t aware of the England story until a few years ago. I knew famous names to don the green shirt in the years just before I began my fan journey, like Paul Mariner, but, to my shame, hadn’t looked further back into the club’s history. It was 2019, I was at a birthday party in London for a friend of my wife’s and he said, ‘You’ve got to meet my dad, he’s an Argyle fan.’ Plymouth supporters always gravitate towards each other when away from the city and he immediately launched into the story of Jack Leslie. I was staggered that I’d never heard this before and immediately thought it can’t be true, or that it must be exaggerated. As soon as I got home, I started googling and found enough information to confirm the story. When I asked my Argyle fan friends if they knew this tale, none of them did. I couldn’t believe it and resolved to spread the word. So, thank you Tony Fitz-Gerald, for telling me the story with such passion and for all the help and support since then. 

 

How would you describe Jack Leslie as a player? What were his strengths, his qualities?

Jack Leslie was just immense. The type of player every fan loves. His stats are impressive enough – 137 goals in 400 games – but he was much more than that. Jack could run with the ball, split the opposition with a pass, shoot from distance and was good in the air too. Not only that, but he was also brave and committed to the cause. So many match reports praise his impact on the game. He was a player who covered ground, put his body on the line and often did the work of two men. Sometimes he had to. It was a time before substitutions were allowed, so when a player was so badly injured, they had to retire, Jack was the one who filled the gaps. I dedicated a chapter in the book to Jack’s character as a person and player and named it – Go! Guts! Goals! – it was his own motto, which says it all. Having read so many match reports, I absolutely fell in love with him as a player, as the writers who watched him clearly did too. The 1920s were the days of the 2-3-5 formation and Jack began on the left-wing where he’d made his name as an amateur. But as he matured and bulked out, his manager, Bob Jack, thought he was worth a try at inside-left. You might equate it to a Number 10 today. It was a position where he could exert more influence on the game while the centre-forward and wingers would hang up front. Can you imagine wide players not tracking back these days? They’d get hammered on social media. Jack’s bravery is summed up in a brilliant headline I found in The People from 1931 ‘PLYMOUTH CAPTAIN SCORES BY A FACE!’ Jack’s cheek stung a bit after, but he would do anything to score. Jack was regularly described as one of, if not the, best inside-lefts in the country and by a historian of Argyle writing in the sixties as one of the three best players in the club’s history. The other two were David Jack, who became a megastar in Jack Leslie’s time, captaining England, and Scotsman Neil Dougall in the fifties. Jack was the only one not to win an international cap. 

 

 

A selection of photos from Jack Leslie's carreer in green at Plymouth.

 

I’m always curious about how past players would translate into the modern game; how would you imagine Jack fitting in? 

He’d have to give up the smokes! Back then, the fug of tobacco would hang heavy in the changing rooms at half-time, but Jack was a model professional for the time, so I am sure he would have very different habits now. When he returned after a long absence with the terrible eye injury – as a result of the lace of the ball going into his eye – that eventually did for his career, he was praised for keeping in shape, so Jack wasn’t afraid of the hard work needed and I’m sure he would be a supreme athlete, as the modern players have to be. And in terms of his attributes and skill, I think he would absolutely fit into the modern game. He had strength and pace as well as vision, intelligence and an eye for goal. I think he’d be a Premiership player earning a fortune. His only downfall would be his honesty. Fans said he was a gentleman who never cheated or fouled. But he wasn’t afraid to make his point with the officials. As captain, he led Argyle in a FA Cup fourth-round tie away to Arsenal and we were on the end of a few very dodgy decisions (not biased!) and the Plymouth players surrounded the referee in protest. I found a very blurry photo on a newspaper microfilm recording that moment, with captain Jack clearly at the centre of it! 

 

Can you tell us about the England call-up and what followed? How was the withdrawal of his name from the squad viewed at the time within the media and general public?

Before researching and writing the book, I’d already done a certain amount of work to verify the story, of course. But it was only when writing the chapters about the events of October 1925 that I began to – understand is not the word – develop a deeper sense of the impact. Jack and Plymouth Argyle had a spectacular start to the season when England selectors met on 5th October to choose the squad to face Ireland in Belfast on 24th. They would choose 13 players – the starting 11 and two reserves to travel. Jack was named as one of the two reserves. His name was printed in newspapers across the land. For Jack, the news came as a surprise from his mentor, Bob Jack, the Plymouth manager. Bob was father of David, who had already played twice for England. Jack turned up for training on Tuesday 6 October and his manager called him in to his office to tell him he’d been picked for England. Jack was ‘knocked sideways’. It was an incredible moment. The local media were ecstatic, as were Argyle fans. This was big news. Being picked as a reserve was the start of a player’s international journey in the twenties. If you made it into the squad, you would win at least one cap soon after. The withdrawal from the squad was, by most publications, swept under the carpet. It clearly was not something they were allowed to comment on. In fact, one local writer who was a fan of Jack and initially cock-a-hoop at his selection, later wrote this, ‘My pen is under a ban in this matter.’ I found other hints from the same journalist at the true reason. Nationally, left-wing paper the Daily Herald was the only one to raise the issue. They called the FA, who said Jack had not been chosen, but also called the Press Association who confirmed that Jack’s name had, in fact, been announced at the selector’s meeting. As for the general public, Plymouth fans were outraged. This was not reported at the time but certainly passed down the generations. When Jack visited the club as a guest of honour in 1965, he received a standing ovation and the match programme described how the fact that he was never capped, ‘is still a sore point with Argyle supporters of the time and still rankles with a lot of them’. I’m lucky to know a 98-year-old Argyle fan who saw Jack play and it still rankles with Charlie, I can tell you. 

 

Racism was obviously a significant barrier in 1925, not only for Jack in football but in all walks of life, how important could his inclusion, his visibility in an England team have been?

It wouldn’t have put a stop to abuse and discrimination, but it would have been mightily impactful. The selection of Viv Anderson was surrounded by comment, questioning and criticism. Much of it, let’s be honest, racist. Articles set out well-worn stereotypes claiming black players were unsuitable to play for their country. There was a significant section of supporters who believed black players were somehow foreign and should never even be considered. Jack’s father was Jamaican, but his mother was a Londoner, he was born in the city and was as patriotic Englishman. Who else would he play for? Like Anderson and other pioneering black players, Jack proved those stereotypes weren’t worth the paper they were written on. But he wasn’t allowed to show that on the biggest stage. Had he been given the chance he deserved, it would have certainly swayed a few hearts and minds. Jack’s story would not have been forgotten if he had won a cap. It would have become a point of reference for England fans and for Plymouth’s Green Army. It is not a diverse city and, while Jack and other black players have been embraced by the majority of fans, they have also faced abuse. Having Jack Leslie as a focal point in both the city’s and nation’s history would undoubtedly have made a difference in the decades to follow.

 

His England dream was tragically over before it began, and whilst he was a hero at Plymouth Argyle, do you think there is any sense that had he been playing in the first, or even second division, at the time, it would have been harder for the selectors to continue to ignore him and to get away with having dismissed his rightful England claims?

Although there was comment in the newspapers on England team selections, it was nothing like the coverage that surrounds such sporting decisions today, so the pressure wasn’t the same, no matter the level a player was at. It’s true, of course, that more first and second division players were picked, but it was far more common for third division players to be considered in those inter-war years. And Plymouth received a surprising amount of attention from the FA and national press. Jack continued to win plaudits from football writers when Plymouth won promotion in 1930 and was touted by them as someone the selectors should definitely consider, so it was raised, but the FA was never put under pressure. Given what happened and the prevailing attitudes, which I explore in the book, I don’t think it would made any difference had Jack played in the top tier. Had he been a higher-profile player in 1925 the objections to the idea of a black player representing England might have come sooner and his name might never have made the team sheet in the first place. I’m an Argyle fan so I’m glad we had Jack Leslie on our team and, yet, I do wish he had been given a chance at a higher level. It wasn’t for lack of interest. Offers came in but Bob Jack refused to sell him. 

 

It is impossible to imagine his disappointment after being rejected by England, but he seems to have focused on his club career and knuckled down, was there a sense of wanting to prove the selectors wrong or was it just a mark of his professionalism?

Jack was alone. At the time, he was the only black player in the Football League. There was no one he could turn to in his profession to help or raise any objection. So, he had no choice but to go out on the pitch and do the business for Plymouth Argyle. He was proud to be a professional player and believed it was a privilege to earn a living from the game. Jack knew he was good enough. I don’t think he felt he had to prove it.   

 

In contrast to his treatment by the England selectors, Bob Jack not only stood by Jack Leslie but chose him to captain Plymouth entirely on merit, how significant do you think this was, not only for Jack as a player but as the first black league captain?

Jack’s appointment as captain of Plymouth Argyle is a testament to both his qualities as a player and as a person. It also shows the absurdity of the racial stereotypes that were so often wheeled out. Jack was a leader and Bob Jack knew it. His appointment didn’t attract surprise or criticism. It’s such a shame that the manager who was integral to Jack’s development and success as a player and also to the England selection itself was not able to look Jack in the eye when he was quietly dropped. I do wonder what was going through Bob’s mind. I am sure he felt for the young lad he had brought from London to Plymouth as a teenager, but just wasn’t able to express those feelings.

 

Whilst it’s impossible to theorise, you must wonder not only how different Jack’s story but also the story of the England team and its black players might have been had Jack made that England appearance in 1925, whether even it set a whole generation of players back?

Acceptance of this remarkable black, English footballer would have been a huge moment in the history of our national game. Of course, the numbers of black players only grew significantly in the sixties onwards, but a role model earlier in the twentieth century could only have helped them and the small number of players who did emerge in the intervening years. There were black players from the early days of the Football League before Jack Leslie and in the decades that followed. Imagine what a positive impact it might have had on the likes of John Charles, who was born in Canning Town just like Jack, and Clyde Best from Bermuda. At least they got to meet Jack in the West Ham United boot room where Jack worked from 1967–82. 

 

It would be another fifty-odd years before England was finally represented by its first black player, a wait that was presumably bittersweet for Jack?

Jack was delighted for Viv Anderson and for the other black players who were emerging at the time, like Laurie Cunningham, Cyrille Regis, Brendon Batson and Luther Blissett. In his own words, he felt ‘there was at last real hope’ for these talented young men. He expressed no bitterness towards either Anderson for his accolade or the FA selectors of 1925 for their decision, which is remarkable. But it would be foolhardy to think it didn’t hurt and that he didn’t carry that for the rest of his adult life. He did. And when he told his story to The Daily Mail in 1978 just after Anderson’s ground-breaking selection, he told it like it was. He deserved a cap; he was good enough and he knew it was only denied because of the colour of his skin. 

 

Almost a century on from Jack Leslie’s England snub and its racist overtones, it’s easy to imagine a lot of progress has been made in football, when it comes to diversity and racism, but you only have to look at a random weekend and you’ll find instances of racist abuse. How disheartening is it for you, as someone who has worked so closely on Jack’s story and with his family, to know that things haven’t completely improved?

It is disheartening to see, but it doesn’t stop us telling Jack’s story. It makes it all the more important. And it must be far more depressing and have a far worse impact on the diverse community in football and the country as a whole. Jack’s family are proud that his story is being used to combat racism. His granddaughters always tell me that he would probably wonder why such a fuss was being made of him, because he was a modest man, but that he would also be proud that the story was helping to change perceptions. Football does have the power to reach people in a way that academic studies or politics cannot. But, yes, it’s appalling that it is still happening. We’re blinkered if we think it’s gone away. 

 

You’ve been integral to spreading Jack’s story and also campaigning for the statue which now stands at Home Park, how important is it that Jack’s story is heard and that he’s given his rightful place in the history of English football?

The fact that we and so many people had no idea about Jack’s story until recently and the way it has been embraced by the football community and beyond shows how powerful it is. It also points to a history of the sport and nation that is often ignored and there are many people working to put that right. It ties into the contribution the diverse community of this country has made throughout history and not just since the Second World War and the arrival of the Empire Windrush, crucial though it is to recognise those stories, of course. People like Jack’s father came here from colonies, Jamaica in his case, settled, married and worked in this country. Their stories are a part of ours, yet they have been ignored. 

 

Your campaigning has obviously taken a lot of effort and work, do you think clubs and football authorities should be doing more to tell important, untold stories such as Jack’s?

Yes. We’ve had many supporters across the football community and there are many, many people doing great work. But I do think football clubs should make more effort to weave these stories into their fabric in a fundamental way. We often reach out to clubs on significant dates or when Argyle are playing away, and the response varies massively. Some have been fantastic, allowing us to bring the story to fans and academies, so young people can learn about Jack and ask questions. But sometimes it is very difficult to find the right person to talk to. It’s something we hope will change and I think the power of Jack’s story can only help unlock others. Every club has a tale to tell that can be fascinating, inspirational, at times difficult, but always instructional.  

 

Jack Leslie received a posthumous England cap and has also been inducted into the National Football Museum Hall of Fame, whilst belated, how important are these honours and what more do you think should be done to honour trailblazers such as Jack?

More than anything, it makes a huge difference to the family. Jack’s daughter, Evelyn, and now her daughters, Lesley, Lyn, and Gill, have carried this story with them and over the years have dealt with abuse themselves and pushback when they have tried to tell their story. And when we first asked the question of the FA, though they supported the campaign, they would not consider the idea of an honorary cap. It took fresh blood and fresh thinking in Debbie Hewitt to turn that around. It has had a massive and positive impact on the family and been welcomed across the football world, but particularly at Plymouth Argyle, of course, where the cap now resides. Recognition of figures like Jack and others such as Walter Tull, Arthur Wharton, Andrew Watson, Frank Soo and pioneers of the women’s game like Lily Parr must continue. Monuments, exhibitions, storytelling in all its many forms can honour these characters and captivate audiences.

 

When you learn of Jack’s story, it’s hard not to be struck by the disappointments and losses that he suffered, the negatives, but what do you feel are the positives of his story?

Jack’s England selection was my initial focal point, and I had no idea what kind of character he was. So, I was mightily relieved to discover that he was an absolute gem. Can you imagine if, while he faced this terrible discrimination, he was a terrible person, and his teammates hated him?! I always reinforce that we should celebrate Jack as a player, an Argyle legend who was one of the best footballers in the country in his day, but we should never forget the injustice of 1925. It’s important that this is at the centre of his story, but it doesn’t define his character. He had such a positive impact within football and on other people’s lives. Jack Leslie’s legacy is one of warmth and love. He was a man who cared deeply for his family, friends and colleagues and they loved spending time with him. Jack was a modest man, but he was also charismatic, entertaining and mischievous.

 

You’ve obviously researched and interviewed those closest to Jack, but if you had the chance to ask Jack one question, what would it be?

I’d have to get straight into it and ask him to describe the day he was told he’d been picked for England. I’ve read his words, but to see his face while telling that story would be profound. One question would never be enough. I’d want to know how he felt, what his teammates said and, more importantly, what anyone said to him when his name disappeared from the teamsheet. Jack said people couldn’t look him in the eye, but I do wonder if those players he was close to, like Sammy Black, ever commiserated with him over a pint. And, through his granddaughters’ memories, I imagine what his wife, Win, might have thought or felt. Jack and Win must have talked about it. What were those conversations? Heartbreaking to think of that young couple celebrating such joyous news and then coping with such a disgraceful letdown. 

 

What do you hope Jack’s legacy now is? What would you like Jack Leslie’s story to teach people?

In the simplest terms, to treat people fairly based on their character, talent and merit and that racism has no place in football or society. The story of Jack’s England selection is one that is straightforward to tell and to understand. For young people, that can be profound. The story of his life as a whole tells us much about our nation’s history, of our relationship with Empire and the connections that bind us to so many other countries. People of all colours have come from all corners of the globe to the United Kingdom in search of a better life for their families and with a genuine desire to serve the country in times of war and peace.

 

And, finally, it’s impossible to rewrite history and give Jack Leslie that deserved England appearance, but if you could give him his debut, how would you want it to play out – where, when, the opposition, the teammates?

It’s remarkable to think that in the summer before the England affair Jack had played for Plymouth Argyle twice against Uruguay who won the first World Cup in 1930, scoring in a victory and a draw. Had he been allowed to continue on his England journey, I’ve no doubt he’d have won several caps. Back then, opportunities were rare, with no exotic South American opposition, just the Home Internationals and a few European friendlies. But it would have provided some classic sporting symmetry had Jack made his debut in a victory against France at the Stade Olympique in Paris in May 1927. Jack was on the losing side at the same ground as a teenage amateur in 1919, having been selected to represent the London League on a tour of France. In that England team of 1927 would have been the great centre-forward Dixie Dean. Dean won 16 caps, which was a great achievement in the twenties and thirties. Jack and Dixie came close to playing together when Everton made Plymouth Argyle a big-money offer, but it was rebuffed. He’d also have been reunited with former Pilgrim, Jack Hill, who captained his country in Paris. Hill supplied the pass that led to Jack Leslie’s first goal for Plymouth Argyle. Imagine if he’d done the same in an England shirt. What a story! How poignant it is to think that Jack saw players he knew and admired fulfil their ambitions while he knew it would never happen for him, despite his talent.
 

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