You Can't Take Carlisle From the Boy

You Can't Take Carlisle From the Boy

Walter Tull

Apologies if you are already aware of Walter Tull or the campaign in his memory, currently gathering momentum. If not, this is one of those 'more than a footballer' stories. Apologies if I seem to be banging on, but - in my opinion at least - this matters.

Walter Tull was born just over 110 years ago. The son of a carpenter from Barbados and a woman from Folkestone, he was orphaned by the age of nine, and a noted footballer a few years later. He signed for Spurs in 1909 and became the target of racist abuse worse than anything most of us now reading this have ever seen or heard. Despite his obvious talent, Spurs didn't pick him too often, largely because of the likely crowd reaction.

In October 1911 Walter moved to Northampton Town, a club and a town who took more kindly to him. He scored nine times in 110 appearances, and would have gone on to many more had the First World War not started. At the end of the last century Northampton Town and the local council recognised his achievements by erecting a memorial to their former hero and naming one of the roads around the new Sixfields Stadium Walter Tull Way.

Walter joined the 17th (1st Football) Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, and went to France. His leadership qualities got him promoted to sergeant and served impressively until trench fever saw him invalided home. Despite regulations forbidding; "any negro or person of colour" being an officer, Tull was commissioned in May 1917. He became the first black officer in the British Army, drawing admiration from his superiors and respect from his men.

He was killed in action on 25th March 1918. Despite heavy fire several of his men made desperate efforts to retrieve him from No Man's Land. He was awarded the British War and Victory Medal and recommended for a Military Cross. The Military Cross was never awarded, largely because of Walter's colour, now there is a campaign to award it. There is also an early day motion (EDM 1851) in the House of Commons, seeking to force a debate and decision on Walter's award.

If you are a regular football fan I'm guessing at some time you've encountered racism in the game. The younger you are, the less likely you are to have known it at its worst. I'm old enough to have heard large sections of a crowd erupt into ape noises when a black man got the ball, and heard some choice insults thrown. Thankfully, the worst of this disease now seems absent from the British game, though it would be stupid to assume it has gone completely. It was worse for Walter Tull and a few of the first black players. So much worse in fact, they had to worry about racism from their own supporters as well as the support of the opposition.

Walter Tull has no direct descendents, he died childless. A campaign is gathering strength to award him his Military Cross. This is not really for the sake of his surviving relatives, it is more to recognise Walter Tull for his historic achievement of being the first black officer in the British army and the bravery that got him nominated for the honour during his lifetime. I would argue that the award, and his story, should matter to football fans as well, because knowledge of Walter Tull, and the closure to his story offered by the award of his Military Cross, would serve as a vital way of pointing out the evils of racism, inside and outside football.

What Walter Tull would have made of the present fuss, is anyone's guess. Though I think it likely he would have welcomed the way in which the Blue Army, and most other football supporters in the land, get behind our players regardless of colour.

Just supposing you wanted to do anything about this there are two obvious ways of helping along the award to Walter Tull. The current minister dealing with war veteran issues is Kevan Jones, who has no direct e-mail link on his web site. You could write, including your contact details, to:

Kevan Jones MP
House of Commons

And say something like:

I am aware of the life and career of Walter Tull and of the Early Day Motion (EDM 1851) seeking to award a posthumous Military Cross to recognise his bravery, his role as the first black officer in the British Army and his achievements as a professional footballer. I urge you in your capacity as minister responsible for war veterans to give this matter your attention.

The member of parliament behind the early day motion is Brian Binley. His e-mail is:

Brian Binley is also organising a petition in support of Walter Tull, You could e-mail your name and address to him and ask that they be added to the petition. You could - also - check out Walter Tull online where you'll find everything from a Facebook group to some educational resources to use in schools.

I'll probably leave the next column until after the closure of the transfer window. January should be an interesting month at Brunton Park.

Go well

Neil Nixon