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Rabbi Howell – Romani footballing pioneer

This article was first published in February 2014 on the IBWM online journal:

Much has been said and written, and rightly so, to improve recognition of Arthur Wharton, the first black footballer. Arthur played most of his football in the lower leagues but played only a handful of games at the top level of English football, for Preston North End in 1886/7 and then for Sheffield United in 1895; although he also achieved success as an athlete. He was buried in an unmarked grave when he died in 1930. In 1997 a headstone was erected to recognise his pioneering role in the game, and he has been inducted into the National Football Museum Hall of Fame etc.

Rabbi Howell was a much more significant figure in footballing terms, and yet he has been largely ignored and forgotten. He was the first Romani footballer and the first Romani international, playing his first game for England in March 1895 and scoring in a 9-0 defeat over Ireland. He played for his country again in 1899 and arguably should have been selected more often – he was clearly and consistently one of the best half-backs in the game for many years and if selection had been based purely on merit would undoubtedly have played more. This was an era when fewer international games were played: England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland playing each other once a year. Also, many in the hierarchy of the game still had a sentimental attitude towards ‘gentlemen players,’ such as the amateurs of the Corinthians, and selection often seemed tilted in their favour. Rab was anything but a ‘gentleman player.’

There was a clear master-servant relationship in Victorian football – the players were expected to doff their caps and do their club committee’s bidding. Rab didn’t always conform – he was regularly up in front of the Sheffield United committee for undefined disciplinary matters and in 1901 appears to have been the ringleader in a player revolt on the pitch when playing in a minor game for Liverpool: he was suspended for a month.

So what do we know about Rabbi Howell? The historical record is limited. It is believed he was illiterate, at least in the earlier part of his life, so left no diaries or letters that we know of. We are left with genealogical information, match reports and one short interview he gave in an 1897 match programme.

He was born on 26th October 1867 in Dore, now a posh suburb of Sheffield and his birth certificate suggests he was born in a tent as there were no houses at the address given. His father’s occupation is recorded as ‘besom maker.’ It is not possible to trace Rab’s family any further back than the 1861 census when they were living in Ulceby in North Lincolnshire and his father was then called an ‘agricultural labourer.’

He started playing local league football as an amateur, whilst earning a living as a miner, for Ecclesfield, a village to the north of Sheffield where his family lived. He had a brief spell in another local league team: Rotherham Swifts before signing a professional contract with Sheffield United in their first season, 1889/90. He continued to play for United and was a mainstay of the team right through to a couple of weeks before they won the English First Division in 1898.

At 5'5½" (1.66 m), he was one of the “legendary midget half-backs” alongside Ernest Needham, 5'5" (1.65m), and Tommy Morren, 5'5½." They were regarded as the best half-back line of their day and their goals conceded record was unmatched.

Why Rab left Sheffield Untied was a bit of a mystery – in effect he was sacked just days before they achieved the ultimate glory. A few weeks before he had scored two own-goals in a possibly pivotal defeat to their nearest rivals, away at Sunderland; and so the rumour seems to have grown up that there was match-fixing. This doesn’t fit the facts – the match reports cite bad luck in what was a very difficult and turbulent game – United’s shed of a dressing room had collapsed with them in it due to supporters climbing on top for a vantage point, and fans were stood, throughout the game, tight up against the touchline and regularly encroached upon the pitch. It should have been abandoned. Also it is inconceivable that Ernest Needham – a most upright individual and sometime England captain – would have eulogised Rab as he did in his 1900 book Association Football had there been any suspicion. The real reason appears to be that he left his wife and family of young children, including a newborn, for another woman who he took with him to Liverpool. Adultery would have been a huge scandal in 1898, especially for a club like Sheffield United, built along strict Methodist Christian lines. That it was hushed up was not surprising: other rumours filling the vacuum.

He played his first match in a Liverpool shirt in a friendly against Grimsby, on the day that the United secured the championship.He played a key role in Liverpool’s half-back line in 1898/99, providing the steadying experience alongside the young Alex Raisbeck, a future Liverpool star. That season Liverpool were pipped to the top spot by Aston Villa in a last day of the season, winner takes all, clash between the two teams. Liverpool also got to the FA cup semi-final, but were beaten in the fourth replay by Rab’s old Sheffield United team (no penalty shoot-outs or extra-time in those days!). That season he was also only the third Liverpool player to win an England cap when he played in the international against Scotland in April. He was a first team regular the following season, but played only a fringe role in Liverpool’s first Championship win in 1900/01. He was by this time 33 years old.

He was then transferred to Preston North End where he played for two and a bit seasons before breaking his leg in a tackle during a league game against Burnley. The crack as his tibia fractured was heard all around the ground. A collection amongst the spectators raised £24 15s 6d for him (around two months wages). A benefit match was played for him in October 1904 between Preston and Liverpool, Sheffield United having declined saying they could not “accede their way to the request.” He had played at the top level until the age of 36, an incredible achievement, especially in those days before sports nutrition, sports medicine and all the support a modern player gets, and given how much more ‘robust’ play was back then.

Rab then went on to run a fruit and vegetable business in Preston. He died in July 1937. He is buried in an unmarked grave in Preston.

It is uncomfortable to deliberate on why Rabbi Howell is not better known, and to wonder to what extent that is because of his ethnicity. Yes, he was a bit of a rebel, but Arthur Wharton was not exactly a saint. Anti-Romani prejudice remains strong throughout Europe – around English grounds you still hear calls of “gyppo” when a player of a certain appearance (beard, long hair etc) plays for the opposition and few regard it as anything like the use of the ‘n’ word. It still seems to be a prejudice that carries little taboo.

We need a headstone for Rab. No one who has played for their country should be buried in an unmarked grave. We need to recognise him as a pioneer: the first Professional Romani footballer. Ricardo Andrade Quaresma, Christo Stoičkov, Gheorghe Hagi, Andrea Pirlo, Dani Güiza, Freddy Eastwood and Eric Cantona walk in Rab’s footsteps.

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