British football is full of stories. Some we know well, others we recall occasionally, whilst some have been forgotten about altogether.
In a 2009 TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (you may have seen ‘The danger of a single story’ resurfacing on your timelines in recent weeks – if not, look up ye olde Google), the author argued that “it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and person”.
Garth Crooks has a story. And, on first joining Tottenham Hotspur in the summer of 1980, he could be forgiven for thinking that a new chapter, a unique turning point in his own tale, was about to be written. Crooks, after all, was being lauded as Spurs’ first player of colour in the club’s nearly hundred-year history.
It wasn’t to be.
Crooks himself made the discovery. One day after training, whilst perusing the Spurs boardroom, Crooks came across a collection of old team photographs. He recalled in a BBC documentary how one particular image grabbed his attention. There, in the bottom row of the 1909 squad, sat a young mixed-race man; arms folded, legs crossed and hair parted neatly in the middle. The type underneath spelt out his name: ‘W. Tull.’
Crooks took his findings to the club’s historian. The historian scratched his head. No one knew who Tull was.
Fast-forward to 2016. I was working as a History teacher at a school in East London. It was a sunny afternoon, the kids had long gone home, and a group of colleagues sat in an end-of-term daze discussing future lesson plans. We racked our brains and desperately longed to achieve that most Holy Grail of bringing the past ‘alive’ to our students.
That’s when I first heard his name: Walter Tull. Local lad (Tull, I was told, had moved to an area neighbouring the school as a young boy), professional footballer, national hero. I too scratched my head. Tull ticked all the boxes of the type we would normally taught as one of those ‘great figures’ from history. Why didn’t I know who he was?
I went away and did some more digging. It turned out Tull had a story worth knowing.
It began in 1888. Britain basked in imperial and economic dominance; an Empire so vast that the ‘sun never set’ on its colonies and an Industrial Revolution that brought unprecedented spikes in urban population and production levels. Tull grew up in comparatively quieter surroundings on the Kentish coast.
Folkestone, although a port-town with international shipping lines, was a predominately white environment. Here, Tull was raised by a black Barbadian father (whose own father had been a slave) and a white English mother. It seems that his early years were very happy ones.
And then tragedy struck. Both parents died by the time Walter was nine, and the six Tull siblings were abruptly split up. Walter was sent, along with his older brother, Edward, to an orphanage in London’s Bethnal Green. The East End must have felt like a different world altogether. Just a few years later, Walter’s grief was added to when Edward was adopted and taken to live with a family in Glasgow.
Left all alone, Walter busied himself in sport. A photograph from the time shows he was part of the Methodist Children’s Home football team.
It must have been a good team. At the age of 20, he was signed by Clapton FC in a move dubbed the ‘catch of the season’ by The Football Star.
Tull soon turned heads. He caught the attention of Spurs barely a few months after joining Clapton. Spurs were a club going somewhere. Literally. In preparation for their first season playing in the First Division, the squad was planning that novel and once most exotic of ideas in early twentieth-century football: a pre-season tour.
In the summer of 1909, Tull joined the Spurs contingent and travelled to South America. The journey took three weeks by train and boat. Once there, he made a near-instant mark by scoring in the club’s first game in Argentina, with onlookers including the country’s President and other government ministers. The crowd sang Tull’s praises. The Buenos Aires Herald reported that he had ‘installed himself as a favourite’.
Tull also proved popular among his new teammates. A fancy dress competition beckoned on the return journey home, and Tull and another player somehow sneaked a Brazilian parrot on board to add to their costumes. The pair bagged third place. The poor parrot, on the other hand, was presumably left to adapt to the harsh North London climate alone.
Back in England, Tull was thrust into the limelight. Football was rapidly becoming a popular spectator sport that drew thousands of fans through the turnstiles every week. Tull was at the epicentre of a newly professionalised game. He was also one of its very few non-white faces. Newspapers christened him ‘darkie’ Tull.
Tull’s sporting prowess filled match reports from the season 1909-10. ‘Tull at times seemed inclined to play the whole team by himself’, wrote one correspondent who watched Spurs’ game against Croydon. ‘His mastery of the ball was astonishing’. Facing Manchester United, he was described as ‘very good indeed’.
Yet scorning supporters often overshadowed games. In October 1909, in a game away to Bristol City, The Football Star reported how Tull had to contend with ‘sustained, vociferous and ferocious racial abuse’ from a section of home fans. Their language was derided as ‘lower than Billingsgate’. Tull nonetheless shone on the pitch. His skill and composure made him the ‘butt of the ignorant partisan’.
Gradually, the jeers became more of a problem. Tull’s teammates began to grumble. There was a feeling that crowd hostility, although directed at Tull, was having an adverse effect on the rest of the squad. Tull’s form began to drop around the same time. Phil Vasili, Tull’s biographer, believes this was partly caused by the lack of support he received from the club.
This compounded his sense of isolation on the pitch. Directors saw Tull as a liability. He slipped to the bench and played out the rest of his Spurs career in the reserves.
In 1911, he left the club and joined Northampton Town. Here Tull thrived. He scored nine goals in his first twelve games, and went on to feature a total of 111 times for his new team.
And then, all of a sudden, war came calling.
Tull wasted no time in enlisting. He was the first Northampton player to do so. He passed the medical with flying colours and was assigned to the 1st Football Battalion, a co-initiative by the Football Association and War Office to encourage fans and players alike to join up. Tull was promoted to Lance Sergeant whilst still in training.
The unit set sail for France in November 1915. Tull soon saw the full horrors of war. He fought in the battles of the Somme and Passchendaele; both terribly bloody offences which incurred disastrous losses for Allied forces.
Following this, he was granted temporary leave for ‘acute mania’ (or, in today’s terms, PTSD). Tull soon returned to the Front and, in 1917, so impressed that he was recommended for officer training.
This posed an issue for military officials. A hierarchy of race was written deep into the structures of the British army at the time.
The 1914 Manual of Military Law stated that individuals from ‘savage tribes’ and ‘barbarous races’ should not participate in wars between ‘civilised states’. The officer application process required candidates to state whether they were of ‘pure European descent’. All previous applicants had answered in the affirmative.
Yet Tull had won many supporters from his time in the trenches. His battalion described him as a strong and capable leader.
And so, on 30th May 1917, the grandson of a slave became Britain’s first army officer of colour.
But this wasn’t the end of his accolades.
Later, in January 1918, Tull was recommended for the Military Cross. This was the second-highest decoration an officer could receive. Under heavy fire, Tull had led his men safely across the fast-flowing Piave River and stalled a German advance. Not one British troop was harmed.
The war would end towards the close of that year. Cruelly, Tull never saw it. On 25th March 1918, he was shot and killed by a German sniper.
Just four years prior, Tull had dazzled fans on the football pitch. Now, like so many of his generation, his body lay unretrieved on a muddied no man’s land.
A posthumous Military Cross never came. Nor, as Crooks’ testimony bears witness, did Tull’s place in British footballing honours.
Tull’s story deserves to be told. But it must be told well. A couple of years ago, a black student I taught asked why she only seemed to learn about people of colour as ‘victims’ in history. She had a point. Textbooks can quickly jump from slavery to segregation and all too easily portray black and minority ethnic individuals as passive figures, unable to act or think beyond contexts of structural oppression. This was never the case. Nor was it with Tull.
The systemic prejudices he faced were great and largely unchallenged. And yet Tull achieved so much, and set precedents in not one, but two fields: a mixed-race professional in England’s top domestic league, and a senior ranking member of the nation’s armed forces. His is a story of agency.
But it’s not just an inspiring tale. Tull’s experiences also reveal a lot about the roots of our game.
When Crooks joined Spurs in 1980, a number of black and mixed-race players were seen to be ‘breaking’ onto the British football scene: Viv Anderson, Laurie Cunningham, Cyril Regis. Coincidentally, this month marks twenty-seven years since Paul Ince became England’s first black captain. Yet diversity has always been woven into the fabric of our national sport.
Tull played in the professionalised English League shortly after it was first established. Before him, Ghanian goalkeeper Arthur Wharton featured for teams including Preston North End and Stockport County in a career spanning 1885-1902. And, eleven years after its formation as a national side, Andrew Watson became the world’s first black internationalist when he turned out for Scotland in 1881. There have always been players (and fans) of colour in British football.
Yet Tull’s story exposes that our game, from the offset, had a problem with this diversity. It seems an obvious point, but one that is perhaps all the more crucial to make after recent claims that racism has never been a ‘British issue’.
More chillingly, it prompts us to recognise that the legacy of this abuse still exists in modern football. We know it’s there. We’ve heard it in the stands.
A Home Office study showed the number of reported hate crimes in professional football games rose by 66% last season. Out of 323 reported crimes, 230 were related to racism.
Players and club staff have recalled racial slurs, offensive gestures, online trolling, microaggressions and, often, an overriding sense that not enough is being done to address underlying issues. It touches every division from grassroots to elite level. Imrul Gazi (manager of Sporting Bengal United in the Essex League), Shay Logan (Aberdeen defender) and Renee Hector (former player in Spurs’ women’s side) are just a handful of individuals who have ‘gone public’ with their experiences, along with many high profile examples in the Premier League. Black and minority ethnic fans have shared similar tales. Current media publicity surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement has given a platform for more testimonies to come to light.
So much has changed, and yet so little is different.
When we dig into the different voices upon which British football is built, we are compelled to acknowledge and defend a diverse, complex history. There is no one single narrative of our game.
Story-telling is important. Let’s tell as many as we can.