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Jack Leslie campaign: “Time has long passed – he deserves recognition”

Earlier this year we told you about the Jack Leslie campaign – a movement to get a pioneering black player recognised with a new statue outside Plymouth Argyle’s Home Park.

Initially, the crowdfunding target to get the statue built was £100,000 but that target was surpassed in no time at all. For Black History Month Matt Tiller and Greg Foxsmith, co-founders of the campaign, spoke to us about the success of their initiative and what the future holds…

“To exceed our target and hit £136,000 in six weeks of crowdfunding was pretty amazing,” Matt said. “The campaign really resonated with not just football supporters, not just Argyle fans, but the wider public nationally and even internationally.”

The campaign to have Jack commemorated comes at an important time as Britain’s imperial past continues to be re-examined in the mainstream discourse following a summer of protests – including the toppling of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol.

“Lots of people came to it for different reasons,” Greg says. “But one of the biggest reasons it did so well is because people saw it as an unambiguously positive campaign at a time when everything else seems divisive.

“Everyone’s arguing about Brexit, COVID restrictions and the Black Lives Matter movement: people who support it, people against – but we didn’t really encounter any outright hostility or people pushing back against it saying it shouldn’t happen.”

Despite making more than 400 appearances for the Pilgrims and scoring more than 100 goals, Jack’s story remains relatively buried in the club’s history and the wider history of English football.

As life-long Argyle fans themselves Greg and Matt were astonished to discover Jack’s story only very recently and are now determined, as black histories come to the fore, to have his legacy recognised.

Matt said: “The story was out there but it hadn’t been picked up and told, told more widely and told properly.

“Why were Greg and I, who’ve been Argyle fans and going since the 1980s, not made aware of this legendary team of the twenties and thirties of whom Jack became captain – a pioneering black footballer?

“The England story aside, he should have been known and celebrated more in Plymouth. This is a character that deserves to have his story told as an Argyle legend. So far he hasn’t got the attention he so clearly deserves.

“That is true of so many stories of black history – we’re talking about this in Black History Month and both Greg and I feel that these stories should be told – they certainly haven’t been told enough in years past.”

Jack Leslie portrait © Creative Commons, Wikipedia

Jack’s Argyle team toured South America in 1924 beating Argentina and Uruguay. He would also help them win promotion in 1930 – captaining the team in his final years.

As his reputation as a leading goalscorer grew in the 1920s an England call-up beckoned and he should have been the first black player to represent the Three Lions. Cruelly, though, Jack’s initial selection was rescinded and though commentators at the time hinted at an undercurrent of racism – the ins and outs of it remain a mystery to this day.

Jack’s own telling of the story, alongside the evidence in newspaper articles is the biggest piece of corroborating evidence – Leslie later said FA selectors came to have a look at him “not at me football but at me face”.

Jack was never picked for England again.

“He and his striking partner Sammy Black were famous across the UK and had a record that was incredible,” Matt says.

“Here was this player that was told he was going to be playing for England, was named in the press, and then he was snuffed out.

“His name disappeared. The FA denied that he’d ever been picked but the Press Association were adamant that he had.”

Addressing that injustice of 1925 is one of the many driving forces behind the campaign to have Jack commemorated at Home Park. “One of the nice aspects of this is that it will be the first football statue at Home Park,” Greg said.

“Jack’s statue will be the first of a black person, or any person of colour, in the city, even the whole county. It’s really setting a new precedent.”

The campaign will be asking sculptors to submit designs for the statue next month, with the aim of unveiling the statue at Home Park at the start of the 2021-22 season.

“We’ll be issuing our brief at the start of November,” Matt said. “We’ll be asking artists to submit their designs and their reasons why they want to produce the statue of Jack Leslie.

“Whoever’s going to do this has to be passionate about the story and working with us, and the Jack Leslie family, to ensure that this is a great celebration of the man, the legend.”

Matt and Greg hope to be able to take a longlist of designs to Jack’s family before consulting with Plymouth Argyle on the shortlist of between three and five final designs.

Meanwhile our Fans for Diversity campaign, which is run in partnership with Kick It Out, has provided a grant to the Jack Leslie campaign to develop education resources and sessions.

Matt and Greg have been working alongside the Argyle Community Trust and other local organisations designing a programme for young people to be rolled out across schools in Plymouth and the south west early next year, which the Fans for Diversity grant will assist with.

Greg said: “There have been busy school assemblies during Black History Month but a lot of that educational work will carry on throughout the year.

“What happened 100 years ago was wrong, and though things have changed there are still issues to be challenged and you can use Jack’s story as a gateway into that discussion – and young people really buy into it. They get it.”

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Funding partners

  • The Football Association
  • Premier Leage Fans Fund

Partners

  • Gamble Aware
  • Co-operatives UK
  • FSE
  • Kick It Out
  • Level Playing Field
  • Living Wage Foundation
  • SD Europe