October is Black History Month and, to celebrate, we are going into further depth on the story of arguably one of the most significant black pioneers English football has seen, William Gibb ‘Willie’ Clarke (#32).
A special thanks must go to Football's Black Pioneers author Bill Hern, for his assistance with this detailed account. Following the release of his book, Clarke’s family reached out to provide further information on the life of this key figure in the early years of Bradford City AFC.
The first black professional player in Scotland, Clarke would go on to not only become the scorer of the Bantams’ first-ever goal in the first division - in September 1908 - but also the first black player to score in the EFL, when playing for Aston Villa seven years previous.
He was born on 3rd March 1878 in Maunchline, East Ayrshire, and raised in a West Indian household by mother Jemima and father Alexander, who himself was born in Georgetown, Demerara, British Guiana.
Willie represented a number of clubs north of the border, gaining international recognition with Scotland Juniors. It was here where he also took up his profession away from the game, as an upholsterer.
Moving south aged 22, Clarke became Bristol Rovers’ first black footballer when joining the club in 1900, before a similar feat at top-flight giants Villa one year later.
Only the third black footballer to appear in the EFL, he became the first to score in the English league when netting against Everton on Christmas Day 1901, as the Birmingham-based outfit recorded a 3-2 victory.
His move to City came for a fee of £200 in 1905, where he became the club’s first black player when making his debut against Leeds City on September 2. He would play a key role in the build-up to the only goal of the match.
When moving to West Yorkshire, Clarke did so with his first wife, Ada, and their two young daughters. Tragedy struck in October 1906 when, aged just 24, Ada sadly died of heart failure. Willie’s sister Elizabeth moved in with the family at their Shipley residence, to help care for their daughters.
The Paraders’ second-division title-winning campaign in 1907/08 saw Clarke become the first black player to win an EFL medal. The following season, he scored City’s first-ever top-flight goal, in a 4-1 victory over Bury at Valley Parade on 26th September 1908 - the first of two goals he scored that day.
In total, he notched 16 goals in 92 appearances in claret and amber, playing a vital role in the early years of Bradford City AFC. Only two of 31 players who had predated him at the club had appeared on more occasions.
After four years in BD8, Willie moved to second-tier Lincoln City on New Year’s Eve 1909, where he would spend the next two years of his career, despite his two daughters remaining in the care of his sister Bessie in Yorkshire.
His debut came in a 0-0 draw against Gainsborough Trinity the following day, before Clarke’s next move came to Southern League side Croydon Common. City waived the £100 fee they were entitled to from the transfer.
After retiring from football in May 1912, Clarke stayed in South London where he met his second wife Annie ‘Nancy’ Emeline. They married in South Beddington, on 25th October 1914, before the birth of their first child, Richard, in September 1915.
Shortly before marriage, in August 1914, Clarke voluntarily enlisted to fight in The Great War, which had commenced two weeks previous. While serving with the Middlesex Regiment and later the Royal Engineers, he was awarded the 1914 Star, British Medal and Victory Medal.
Willie was reunited with his wife Nancy upon his return from the war, in 1918. Over the next 10 years, they birthed Raymond, Douglas, Donald, Bernard and June. The family moved to Tunbridge Wells, Kent, where Clarke returned to his original profession as an upholsterer.
William Gibb Clarke died in January 1949, aged 70, and was survived by Nancy, who passed away 20 years later. They are buried together in Tunbridge Wells Cemetery.
Not only was Clarke a key figure in the early years of Bradford City AFC, he also proved a pioneer for black people in wider sport.
Further details on his story - and those of many other black players among the first to forge a career in the game - can be found in the book Football's Black Pioneers, by Bill Hern and David Gleave.
Photo, top: William Gibb 'Willie' Clarke in later life, sat alongside his second wife, Nancy.