The following article is a preview of a longer article coming soon by Bill Hern of Football’s Black Pioneers fame.
Bill and David Gleave’s fantastic book, tells the story of the first black player at every single league club and the tales are fascinating. So much so, and inspiring us to be able to look forward to the day a similar book on Asians is published, we spoke to Bill on Episode 13 of our podcast to pick his brains. And one of the things that fell out was the story of the first ever Asian to play football professionally, way back in 1898. Ladies and gentleman, I present to you, Mr John Cother:
Arthur Wharton is famous as the first ever black professional footballer. He was born in what is now Ghana, both his parents were of mixed heritage.
The identity of the first ever professional footballer of Indian heritage is much less well known yet he played for Watford only three years after Wharton made his First Division debut with Sheffield United in 1895. Indeed, records show that Jack was playing professionally for Watford St Marys as early as October 1897.
That man was John Cother – known as Jack or, less respectfully, Darkie. Jack’s father was Indian, born in Bombay. What is more, Jack’s brother Edwin very soon followed him into the professional ranks.
Thus, Jack and Edwin Cother were almost certainly the second and third non-white professional footballers in England.
John senior married a white lady and at the time of the 1891 census the family of four were living at 14, Ballards Buildings in Watford. Even though younger brother Edwin was only 14 years old both he and Jack were working as general labourers. Living conditions in Ballards Buildings were horrific. In short, life was tough for the Cother family.
Jack and Edward signed for Watford, then in the Southern League. Jack was the first to make his debut on 14th September 1898 in a 15-0 home win against Wycombe Wanderers. Ten days later Edwin made his bow, a 1-0 home victory over Chesham in the FA Cup.
Jack went on to have far the more impressive career making over 130 appearances for Watford. He was a tough tackling full-back who even managed to contribute three goals during his six-year career with the club.
Edwin played only eight games in the 1898/99 season.
The brothers were often in trouble with the law, primarily for drinking and gambling offences. Without wishing to excuse their behaviour, they had a very tough upbringing and this may have had an effect on them for the rest of their lives. Jack even spent time with his three-year-old son in the Watford Workhouse in 1911.
Both Edwin and Jack enlisted to fight in World War 1. Edwin was amongst the first of the volunteers and served in France before being medically discharged in January 1918. The fact that he was promoted to Lance Corporal suggests military life had a positive impact on his life and behaviour.
Jack worked as a labourer for Watford Council and sold programmes outside of Vicarage Road. He died on 2nd December 1946 aged approximately 73 – his precise date of birth is unknown. He is buried in Vicarage Road Cemetery.
Edwin also fell on hard times. He worked as a labourer and lived in modest surroundings in a boarding house as his wife had died. Tragedy struck in February 1943 when his youngest son was killed in action in North Africa during World War 2 – he was only 20-years-old.
Due to his behaviour Edwin had long been estranged from his family when he died in St Albans in 1961. He was buried in a pauper’s grave.
More needs to be done to carry out further research into the life of the Cother brothers and ensure that the memory and achievements of the first Indian heritage professional footballers are commemorated in a similar manner to those of Arthur Wharton.
Pics courtesy of https://www.ourwatfordhistory.org.uk/content/our-history/diverse-watford/football/the-cother-brothers