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Alf Charles was the Saints’ first black player

Of all the “one-match-wonders” who have qualified for inclusion in this website, Alf Charles has probably generated the biggest word-count elsewhere – at least until Aly Dia had his 53 minutes of fame in 1996. The reason is simple: Alf Charles was the Saints’ first black player.

Alf was a sportsman of some note in West Indies for, not only was he an excellent cricketer he was also good enough to represent Trinidad at football when the inter-island competitions were played. Unfortunately his footballing career in the Caribbean was to come to a shuddering halt. His club, Everton, repeatedly won the league-and-cup double during his time with them, during which he was affectionately known as “King Charles”.

He was capable of playing in any outfield position although he was especially at home at centre-half. In September 1933, a clash between Alf and a Casuals opponent triggered an on-pitch battle, in which spectators became involved. Alf was sent off, along with his brother, Frank, and two opponents. When the two brothers each received a three-year ban, Everton withdrew from the League and football across Trinidad inevitably felt the shock. Banned from playing in his native country, Alf made for England, effectively sponsored, according to the Trinidad Mirror, by his friend, Learie Constantine, who not only introduced him to his cricket team, Nelson CC (see scrapbook section) with whom he played for two seasons and met “with considerable success both as a batsman and bowler” but also brought “Mr. Charles’s prowess as a footballer to the notice of English clubs.” The Mirror added a character reference: Charles was a “non-smoker and total abstainer”.

So, two months after the fracas, Alf boarded the CS Coronado, destination Lancashire. After failing to make the first team at Turf Moor, he bided his time in non-league football – until January 1937 when recommended by a Lancashire scout, he signed for Southampton. He made his debut the following day – at inside-left – but that would prove to be his only appearance in the Football League (see scrapbook section for match report). He had a powerful presence – a Dell contemporary, Bill Moore, has recalled how a ball once hit Alf on the head and ricocheted over the West Stand. Moore also vouched for the way in which this “modest and religious man” lived up to the Mirror’s certificate of good character – and, indeed, to his second name of “Pious”. None of which would get him another start in the first team: after a few games for the Reserves, an injury put paid to his League career.

He returned to playing non-league football in the north-west until cartilage trouble forced him out of the game. He could still play cricket, though, even turning out for a West Indies XI v England XI at Lord’s in 1944. After a full season for Lowerhouse in the Lancashire League in 1949, his appearances ceased abruptly in June 1950, just before his 41st birthday. He died in 1977, in Burnley, the town that had granted him footballing asylum 44 years before.

lf Charles’ legacy extends beyond the football field. His story is a testament to the power of perseverance and breaking barriers, and he has been commemorated for his contributions to both Southampton Football Club and the broader struggle for racial equality in football.

In recognition of his pioneering role as the club’s first black player, a plaque was unveiled in the Cultural Quarter in Guildhall Square, joining the ranks of existing plaques for other notable figures such as Joe Harriott, Craig David, and The Windrush Generation. The event was organised by Don John, who highlighted the importance of acknowledging the diverse history of Southampton. Club ambassador and former Saints left-back Franny Benali, who helped unveil the plaque at sports pub The Painted Wagon, referred to Charles as a “trailblazer,” and emphasised the importance of recognising his contribution to the club. As Benali noted, Charles was a trendsetter, paving the way for many others to follow in his footsteps.

Given the ongoing struggles with racism in football, Charles’ story serves as a beacon of hope, especially for black players navigating in predominantly white environments. His success despite the racial challenges of his time serves as an inspiration to aspiring footballers, particularly those from minority backgrounds, demonstrating that they too can achieve their dreams and overcome the barriers they face.

At the plaque unveiling, Hampshire Football Association premiered a new animation featuring Charles as a caped superhero, symbolising his stand against racism. This resonates with the broader fight against racism in football, casting Charles not only as a trailblazer on the pitch but also as a hero in the struggle for racial equality.

Further to the plaque in Guildhall Square, another plaque was installed at St Mary’s Stadium last year, further solidifying Charles’ legacy at the club where he made history. Born on July 11, 1909, in Trinidad, Charles would become one of the earliest black players in English professional football when he signed for Saints in January 1937. The following day, he played in a 2-2 draw at Bradford City in the Second Division. In his only first-team appearance with the club on 9th January 1937, he replaced Billy Boyd and played at inside-left, even providing an assist for the opening goal of the game, scored by James Dunne.

Despite his career being cut short by injury after only five reserve games with Saints, in which he scored two goals, his impact is still felt today, decades after his passing in 1977, in Burnley. Through the plaques and the memories he left behind, Alf Charles’ legacy as a pioneer for black players in English football and a champion against racism continues to live on.


NEWSQUEST JEZ GALE (first published 8th June 2016)