Devon’s football fraternity have united to back the Jack Leslie campaign which is fundraising to build a statue of the former Plymouth Argyle forward at their Home Park ground, writes Gareth Davies.
Leslie should have been England’s first black player due to his outstanding form shown whilst being an Argyle player and he was even called up to face Ireland in 1925. However, his name never made it onto any England team sheet and it is understood that this was purely because of his skin colour.
Much has changed in football and wider society in general since Leslie thrilled the Green Army with his dazzling displays but sadly, discrimination due to race has still to be eradicated.
A crowdfunding appeal to raise £100,000 for a permanent statue of Leslie was launched two weeks ago and donations have so far topped £70,000 with the Plymouth Argyle, Exeter City and Torquay United Supporters’ Trust’s all throwing their weight behind the appeal.
On Friday, The Independent spoke exclusively to one of the campaign founders Greg Foxsmith, along with Argyle chairman Simon Hallett and Exeter Supporters’ Trust chairman Nick Hawker about the fundraising efforts.
Foxsmith began by highlighting how the three clubs uniting has positively affected the campaign.
He said: “This was a significant boost in two ways because firstly, it was nice to get three clubs backing our campaign. The knock-on effect was that fans put any rivalry to one side and decided to contribute by recognising that the Jack Leslie story isn’t just a Plymouth Argyle story. It is a story of race and discrimination in football and the fact it was a black footballer that could have played for England.
“That would have been equally true if he had played at Exeter City, Torquay United, even Manchester United. The story is bigger than just one club and I think it is brilliant that other clubs and their supporters have recognised that too.”
Foxsmith also revealed that a friendly match in Leslie’s name could also go- ahead next year to commemorate his transfer from first club Barking to Argyle – exactly 100 years after he swapped London for the West Country.
“Jack Leslie transferred from Barking to Plymouth in 1921,” he added.
“As part of the agreement when Jack and two other players moved to Plymouth from Barking, a friendly match took place.
“Barking are very much behind this campaign and see Jack as one of their own because he was born in Canning Town. They are also fundraising and I understand they will be contacting Argyle to arrange a friendly for next year which will commemorate the centenary of that previous match.”
Hallett, meanwhile, reiterated Argyle’s support for the campaign which is fan led. However, the American based majority shareholder of the Green’s also feels that more must be done to combat racism.
“We are strongly supportive of the campaign,” said Hallett. “There has always been a general feeling that we should honour Jack Leslie and the symbol that he is about racism in football and society at large.
“It is very important for me and the rest of the board at Argyle that this campaign is being driven by fans. We really want it to be more than the club saying ‘we strong oppose racism and we will do everything we can to throw it out’.
“It’s really important that this campaign is independent of the club, although supported by the club, but ultimately fan driven. That thrills me more because it is something we could have done, but is being driven by fans. This is just the beginning, but let’s not pretend this is going to end of racism in football. We have to hammer home the message at every opportunity, but back it up by banning people who are racist whenever we can.
“We have to speak out against it whenever we can. It’s not sufficient anymore for people to say ‘I’m not racist’ we have to take action and be anti-racist. I have come to the view that unless we can be positively anti-racist, then we’re guilty of supporting institutionalised racism.”
Hawker went on to echo the sentiments of Hallett and said that fan-led campaigns like this can be a flag-bearer for efforts to eradicate football of racism once and for all.
He added: “It is really important to me in the role I play at Exeter, that the message is carried that Simon and I are fierce rivals on the pitch, but friends off it.
“(Racism) isn’t a football problem, it’s a worldwide problem that is not restricted to football. There is a problem within football and what we need to demonstrate is that we are really serious about tackling it.
“We need to encourage other organisations and other parts of society to tackle it with the same level of determination and that is a really important message for us.”