Stags' fan and former columnist of our official match programme, 'The Stag', pays tribute to winger Lindy Delaphena, who died last week aged 89.
This article was first published in our official match programme The Stag in October 2010.
The name Lindy Delapenha probably means little or nothing to the current generation of Stags' fans. That’s hardly surprising, as Lindy left Mansfield Town as long ago as July 1961, a timespan of almost 50 years.
But, of all the many fine players to grace the hallowed north Nottinghamshire turf, Lindy should be reserved a very special, probably unique, place.
For Delapenha was a true trail-blazer, a footballer who overcame post-war prejudices and narrow-minded terrace bigotry to become a hero to many thousands at home and overseas.
Born in the West Indies, Lloyd Lindbergh Delapenha was the first Jamaican to play professional football in England, and the first black player to turn out for the Stags. And what a player he was.
Lindy, a winger/inside forward, joined Mansfield Town in June 1958 following an astonishing eight-year career with Middlesbrough, where he had netted 93 league and FA Cup goals in 270 appearances.
The budding Jamaican star had first come to attention as a phenomenal schoolboy athlete, served with the British armed forces in the Middle East following World War Two and was spotted by an English football scout whilst playing for the British Army.
This gained him a trial with Arsenal. He failed to make the grade at Highbury but signed for Portsmouth in April 1948 as the first Jamaican to play in England. He won a league championship medal with Pompey in 1948 and left for Middlesbrough in April 1950.
After eight years at Ayresome Park, he arrived at Field Mill (now called One Call Stadium), where he scored 27 goals in 115 appearances over three seasons from 1958 to 1961.
A feature on Lindy in the Jamaica Observer in November 2004 recalls his huge impact for the Stags.
“He left Middlesbrough after a string of severe injuries, to join Third Division team Mansfield Town. Mansfield would come to worship Delapenha.
“He spent four years there in which he delighted the crowds with something they had rarely seen.”
He retired from league football in 1960, played non-league football for Hereford United, Burton Albion and Heanor Town and eventually returned to his Caribbean homeland, where he was to enjoy a long and distinguished career with the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation.
Those are the bare facts and statistics of Lindy’s football career in England. But they don’t tell the whole story, nor do they reflect the achievements and legacy of this man.
Nearly 50 years on from Lindy’s career with the Stags, it’s easy to forget just how class-ridden and riddled with racism British society could be in those days. And how brave Delapenha had to be to overcome those barriers and achieve the success he undoubtedly did.
He was plying his trade at a time when black faces were virtually unknown on England’s football fields. And, whilst Lindy went home to Jamaica a celebrity of enhanced stature, others were not so fortunate.
At about the same time that Lindy was leaving Field Mill, a hugely talented black South African called Albert Johanneson was making his debut for Leeds United. In nine years, up to 1970, he made 200 appearances for Don Revie’s star-studded side, scoring 68 goals.
He was the first black footballer to play in the FA Cup Final, against Liverpool in 1965, and on his day was capable of brilliance. But there’s a tragic side to this story.
Another ultimately tragic figure, George Best, quite possibly the finest ever footballer to emerge from the United Kingdom, put it, to coin a phrase, best.
He said of Johanneson: “Albert was quite a brave man to actually go on the pitch in the first place, wasn’t he? And he went out and did it. He had a lot of skill.
“A nice man as well....which is, I suppose, the more important thing, isn’t it? More important than anything.”
Best was interviewed about Albert following the South African’s tragically early death in 1995. By the 1970s, the South African was alone in Leeds, his wife and children gone, and his drinking spiralling out of control. He was found dead in a rundown tower block flat, a penniless alcoholic and pitiful shell of a once proud athlete.
It may not be fair to compare the demise of Albert Johanneson to the success of Lindy Delapenha. Albert had been, by all accounts, a gentle, shy soul, who had struggled to cope with 1960s-style racial abuse. Lindy was clearly made of sterner stuff.
But, differing strengths of character aside, what can’t be denied is that both were very early pioneers in a trend which was to eventually transform our national game, and expose those so called fans who threw bananas from the terraces at black players as the neanderthals they undoubtedly were.
If it hadn’t been for those first few brave souls like Albert and Lindy – and there was also Charlie Williams at Doncaster Rovers who later became a highly successful self-mocking stand-up comedian – would Viv Anderson have become the first black player to represent England in the 1970s?
Even more recently, would the sublime Thierry Henry – a man once described by former Spain manager Luis Aragones to his players as a black **** – have bothered to bring his world-class skills to England? Those are just two examples, from hundreds, if not thousands, of footballing skill overcoming racial prejudice to shine.
Nobody can possibly deny the pleasures that the likes of Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Patrice Evra or home-grown talents like, say, Andy Cole or Jermain Defoe, have brought to the English game.
And without the bravery of pioneers like Lindy Delapenha at Mansfield Town and Albert Johanneson at Leeds United all those years ago, those pleasures may not have been possible.