Written by:
Shafik Meghji

The lion who never roared

Read time:
7 minutes

The lion who never roared

In 1925, Plymouth Argyle’s Jack Leslie became the first Black footballer to be selected for England, only to be swiftly dropped because of the colour of his skin. Although he still had an illustrious career, this shameful incident was largely forgotten until a group of supporters launched a campaign that led to a statue of Leslie at the Argyle stadium and the award of an honorary cap from the FA in 2023. Matt Tiller, co-founder of the Jack Leslie Campaign and author of The Lion Who Never Roared, which tells Jack’s story, speaks to the Runnymede Trust’s Shafik Meghji.

When did you first hear about Jack Leslie?

Jack Leslie is in Plymouth Argyle’s record books – his name pops up on the leading goalscorer list. But the first time I heard about the England story was at a party in 2019 when a guy said you’ve got to meet my Dad, who started telling me the story: I was blown away. As an Argyle fan of not far off 40 years, how did I not know this? I started talking to friends and they felt exactly the same. It was a mate, Greg, a campaigning solicitor, who said we’ve got to do something. 

Lots of other Argyle fans – mostly older fans – did know the story, and it had occasionally cropped up in the media, but it never got the attention it deserved. But the events of 2020 – the murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter protests, the Colston statue being toppled in Bristol – resulted in people suddenly seeing the Jack Leslie Campaign website we’d set up. We were getting all of this attention because there was so much divisiveness and negativity – it was a febrile time. 

Although the story itself is shameful, the idea of righting that historical wrong is a positive thing and people embraced that: let’s put up a statue to someone who deserves it while others who didn’t deserve their recognition are being toppled. 

Tell us a bit about Leslie’s career.

He was born in 1901 and learnt his football trade as a teenager during the First World War, playing youth football while also learning to be a boilermaker in London’s East End. It must have been a tough apprenticeship in his working life and on the pitch. 

But he was clearly a phenomenal player and sportsman in general – he won the London schools’ swimming championship. Jack played for one of the best youth teams in London and after the war got signed up by Barking, a top amateur club. He was getting plaudits left, right and centre as a teenager and Plymouth Argyle – who had a very canny manager – signed him up in 1921. Jack became an Argyle legend: he played for us for 13 years, scoring 137 goals across 400 appearances. 

But what he’s known for now is being the first Black player to be selected for England. In 1925, he was called into the manager’s office and told, ‘Jack, you’ve been picked for England.' Jack would have known what a massive deal this was. But within a couple of weeks, before the game, his name was erased from the team sheet. 

He’d been picked for England, his name was in the papers across the country, and then that opportunity was snatched away. He hadn’t even peaked at that stage in his career. A couple of years later he was regularly described as one of the best inside-lefts in the country and tipped to play for England, but of course that door had already slammed shut. And it was, without a doubt, because of the colour of his skin. 

‘Jack was called up for England, didn’t get the chance, and then as an older man he was cleaning the boots of Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters’

After Leslie retired, he worked in the boot room at West Ham…

It’s dangerous to overplay it, but there is quite a symmetry – Jack was called up for England, didn’t get the chance, and then as an older man he was cleaning the boots of Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters, who won the World Cup. I’m looking at a photo of him now – he’s in the boot room at West Ham and there’s a kind of smile on his face, a proud old man who’s lived a hell of a life. But – I might be projecting – you can sort of see the sadness behind the eyes. 

But the fact is he loved that job. It gave him a lease of life and he loved being around football and working at West Ham. Teammates of his from Plymouth were sweeping the terraces at Home Park, so it wasn’t only Jack who was doing those sorts of jobs. The fact that he was there for 15 years until he was 82: he didn’t have to, he was retired, but it was a great job to get him out of the house and keep him going.

What there a particular match that sums him up as a player?

There was an amazing cup tie: Argyle in 1932 had beaten Manchester United and Jack was captain. The fact that he’d gone through all of this and was appointed captain of Argyle – probably the first Black captain of a Football League side – shows how important he was as a player. 

He got the captaincy after we’d been promoted and were struggling in a higher tier and he helped save us from relegation. The next season we had a nice cup victory against Manchester United and then a great away draw against Arsenal. I love this game because – I won’t tell you everything about it because I write about it in the book – he obviously put in a captain’s performance that day. Arsenal got a couple of lucky decisions – I think the first goal was offside, and Jack had hit the bar – but it was a glorious defeat. The reports in the national press afterwards showed what an influential player he was. 

After that offside decision happened, the Argyle players surrounded the ref and I bet Jack was there because he hated injustice. He never said anything about the England selection – I think he felt that he couldn’t do anything about it – but he would certainly fight for his team. 

He then led Argyle to their highest league finish to date, which they’ve only equally once since. 

‘Jack would have wondered what all the fuss is about because he was pretty humble’

The book has a quote from Ronnie Mauge – who played for Plymouth in the 1990s – who said ‘we look to the past to correct the future’. What is Jack’s legacy in the game?

I think he has significance in Plymouth and football as a whole. We often tend to focus on the Black players who emerged in the 1960s and 1970s like Viv Anderson – who we should never forget, of course – but our country has a diverse history that goes way back. 

Although for much of his time Jack was the only Black player in the Football League, others came through subsequently. There was a significant Black population, doing significant things, throughout the 20th century. It’s important to remember their contribution and also the challenges and prejudices they faced. 

Stories like Jack’s are important to show that that happened, give people today role models and educate people, particularly given we still see young people putting disgraceful racist messages [about players] on social media. The only way that stops is by teaching people. That’s why Jack’s story and stories like his are so crucial. 

It’s brilliant to hear from Jack’s granddaughters: Jack would have wondered what all the fuss is about because he was pretty humble, but they always say he would be proud that his story was being used in that way. 

The Lion Who Never Roared by Matt Tiller is out now.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Runnymede Trust.

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