William Gibb Clarke

Football's Pioneers: Willie Clarke

Professor Matt Taylor - from De Montfort University’s International Centre for Sports History & Culture - profiles Willie Clarke, the first black professional footballer to score in the English Football League while playing for Aston Villa, in December 1901.
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Although he is still relatively little known, Clarke was the most successful black footballer in England before the First World War, amassing more Football League appearances (169 in total) than Arthur Wharton, Walter Tull and Fred Corbett put together.

On Christmas Day in 1901, he also became the first non-white player to score in the Football League, when he netted for Aston Villa in a 3-2 win at Everton. 

Clarke was born in Mauchline, Ayrshire on 3 March, 1878. His mother, Jemima, was from Kilmarnock while his father, Alexander, was originally from British Guiana (now Guyana), having been sent to Scotland to complete his education.

Clarke played junior football in Glasgow and was selected for the Scottish Junior FA in an international against Ireland in 1897. He then joined the professional ranks with Third Lanark, Arthurlie and East Stirlingshire before moving south to join Southern League British Rovers in August 1900. 

A good season at Bristol led him to be scouted by First Division side Aston Villa, who were rebuilding a squad that had won back-to-back championships in 1898/99 and 1899/00. Clarke performed well at Villa Park, particularly in his second season (1902/03), in a campaign that saw Villa narrowly pipped to the title by Sheffield Wednesday and reach an FA Cup Semi-Final. 

Another exciting episode in Clarke’s career saw him join Bradford City, a new football club that had recently changed codes from rugby league. Clarke was instrumental in helping City gain promotion, along with Leicester Fosse, to the Football League’s First Division in 1907/08.

He also scored Bradford’s first goal in the top division in a 4-1 home victory over Bury. But his season was blighted by injury and Clarke was soon on the move again, to Second Division Lincoln City. He finished his career back in the Southern League, at Croydon Common.

Retiring from football in 1912, Clarke stayed in Croydon and then moved to Tunbridge Wells, where he worked as an upholsterer. 

Clarke was well regarded wherever he played. Strong and quick, he operated mainly as an outside-right who was capable of weighing in with a few goals each season. The Bristol Mercury thought he was ‘likely to make a big name for himself,’ while the Leeds Mercury described him as Bradford’s ‘brilliant outside right’. 

Clarke’s ancestry was rarely mentioned in the press, and he does not seem to have discussed it much with his family, which may be one of the reasons his story is not as well-known as it ought to be. 

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