Saturday, August 24, 2013

Lindy Delapenha - Portsmouth Football Club's First Black Player

Lloyd Lindbergh Delapenha was a trail-blazer. He was the first Jamaican to play top-flight football in England, the first black player to appear in a Championship winning team, and the first black footballer to play for Portsmouth FC. These facts alone make the story of Lindy, as he was affectionately known, an important one. Yet his time on the south coast is scantly recorded and rarely remembered. It is an omission that needs to be rectified, and to do that I need your help.
 
Born in Kingston in 1927 Lindy grew up excelling at a whole number of sports, representing his school in, amongst other things, football, cricket, athletics and hockey. Later he would join the Physical Training Corps before being stationed in Egypt with the Royal Fusiliers towards the end of the Second World War. It was whilst playing football during this time in the army that he was spotted by an English scout and promptly offered a trial at Arsenal. Unsuccessful Lindy stayed in the UK keen to pursue his dream of playing professional football. In April 1948 he signed for Portsmouth Football Club.
 
Delapenha was an exciting forward, capable of playing up front as a central striker, as an inside right or out on the wing. Harold Shepperson, who coached Lindy later in his career, remembers him as someone who "possessed a lethal right foot in keeping with his very fine athletic physique... I can still remember his style of play with fierce shots from 25 to 30 yards outside the box, which would crash into the back of the net." 
 
After a summer turning out for various local representative cricket teams, Lindy found himself in Pompey Reserves. Unlike today when so many new-signings can find themselves catapulted immediately into first team action, young players of the time could expect a stint in the second XI. Still only 22, Delapenha took to his task with gusto and his season began in style. A brace against Bristol City was followed by another two goals against Charlton Athletic in the second game. The Evening News carried a report at the time describing how, “Mid-way through the half Delapenha got a third goal for Pompey with a brilliant shot that knocked Marshall, Charlton’s goalkeeper, over as he attempted to catch the ball.” It continued by noting that “Delapenha was the outstanding forward. His ball control and penetrative ability stood out.”
 
Despite his undoubted qualities Delapenha managed very few games for Portsmouth. Lindy played just two league games for Pompey in the Championship winning side of 1948/49, and a further five games in the !949/50 season when they retained their title. His only goal for the club came in a third round FA Cup tie against Norwich City at Fratton Park in 1950. At a time when substitutes were not allowed Lindy was competing for a place in the starting eleven against men who were in the process of becoming Pompey legends. Players such as Peter Harris, Ike Clarke and Duggie Reid were exceptionally talented footballers, at the top of their game who very rarely missed matches because of injury. Delapenha had the great misfortune to be playing for a club during the most successful period in its history. As the historian and life long Blues fan Jim Riordan remembers:
“After the war was over, and the regular season resumed, the glory years for Portsmouth FC began. They were high times to be a fan. We were to become one of the greatest teams – if not the greatest – in the world. Pompey were full of exciting players and we won the First Division two years running, from 1948 to 1950. I can see them now in their royal blue shirts, baggy white shorts and red socks: Ernie Butler (in green jumper) in goal, Phil Rookes and Harry Ferrier at full-back, Reg Flewin centre-half, Jimmy Dickinson and Jimmy Schoular at wing-half, Peter Harris on the right wing, Jack Froggatt in the left, Dougie Reid and Len Phillips at inside-forward, and Ike Clarke centre-forward. Heroes all.” 
With limited opportunity to break into a team that had just won back-to-back league titles, Lindy moved on in the summer of 1950, transferred to Middlesbrough. In the North-East, and enjoying a regular run in the first-team, Delapenha blossomed into a Boro legend. He made 270 appearances for the club in all competitions, scoring a total of 93 goals. Only the phenomenal rise of a prolific, young local striker, going by the name of Brian Clough, prevented more impressive statistics. Towards the end of his playing days Delapenha would turn out for Mansfield Town and Burton Albion, before eventually retiring to his native Jamaica and pursuing a highly successful career as a respected broadcaster and journalist.
 
Although his time at Portsmouth was short, and despite failing to leave a real footballing impression, Lindy's time at the club is important. Other black players such as Arthur Wharton, Walter Tull and Alfred Charles, had come before, often battling racism as much as their footballing opponents. As a black player at a high-profile and successful club in post-war Britain, Delapenha was a pioneer.
 
When Portsmouth won the FA Cup in 2008, sixty years after Lindy had made his first appearance for the club, black players accounted for eight of the starting eleven. For anti-racists it was a reason to cheer, while bigotry briefly fell silent. But for the majority of the thousands of fans who lined the streets of Southsea to cheer the team aboard their open-top bus it didn't matter one jot. Each and every member of the Pompey team was a hero, regardless of the colour of their skin. The history and struggles of black footballers in Britain, including Delapenha himself, played an important role in making this possible.
 
That is why Lindy Delapenha matters. And that is why his time at Portsmouth needs to be recorded. The reports of his life, and the limited 'facts' known about his time at Pompey, vary immensely according to which book, article or newspaper report you happen to be reading. There will still be a few people who remember watching Lindy turn out for Pompey in his two seasons at Fratton Park; some may still remember living near him. There will be other people who heard stories from their parents about the first black player in the history of PFC. Maybe there are diaries and letters, hidden away in boxes and attics that make mention of him, perhaps even photos capturing him in his prime. If anyone can help piece together the life of Lindy Delaphena then I urge them to please get in touch.