As part of Black History Month, Dr Tosh Warwick details the career of our first ever black player Lindy Delapenha, who was a pioneer for Jamaican footballers in England...
Lloyd Lindbergh Delapenha was born in Kingston, Jamaica on 20th May 1927. Nicknamed ‘Lindy’, he would go on to be the first Jamaican to play professional football in England’s top-flight and was Boro’s first black footballer as well as one of the club’s greatest ever players.
Lindy's sporting prowess was evident from an early age and he excelled in sports at school, playing football, cricket, hockey and tennis and winning a number of competitions.
Ambitions to pursue a career in football saw a teenage Delapenha follow the advice of his sportsmaster at Munro College where he had excelled in track and field event, as he set about joining the Army as a pathway to playing football in England.
Leaving behind his family and friends in Jamaica as he boarded the Lady Nelson for a tearful journey to England alongside Prisoners of War returning from Japan, Delapenha arrived at Southampton and set about joining the Forces where he was assigned to the Royal Fusiliers. His time in the Army included stays in the UK, Egypt and Greece but the experience was a miserable one with early starts, cold weather. He did however participate in several sports whilst in the Army including football and it was whilst playing for his battalion that he was spotted by a scout for Portsmouth and he subsequently signed for the Fratton Park outfit.
Despite limited appearances for Pompey in the 1948/1949 and 1949/1950 seasons, he nevertheless played a part in the club’s two title-winning sides and with it became the first black player to win the First Division. One of his more notable performances for Portsmouth in a 5-1 win over Boro at Ayresome Park and the performance clearly impressed Middlesbrough manager David Jack enough for him to sign the Jamaican for £6,000 in April 1950.
When Delapenha made his debut in a final day win at Fulham on 6th May 1950, he made history as the first black player to represent Middlesbrough in professional football. The following season he scored what proved to be the winning goal in a September 1950 2-1 win over Arsenal - the side that had turned him down following a trial during his early days in England.
The Kingston-born forward’s athleticism and strength honed in his younger years proved great assets as he shone in the Boro side. He had a hard shot and his penalties were renowned amongst the Boro faithful. On one occasion in a friendly against Sunderland under the newly installed Ayresome floodlights, the Jamaican had a penalty ruled out after the officials mistakenly awarded a goal kick after the strike had escaped the net such was the ferocity of the shot.
Despite Teessiders taking the Delapenha to their hearts, the appreciation was not universal and he sometimes faced racial abuse from the terraces during his career. In an interview on the eve of his 89th birthday, Lindy recalled laughing in the face of the abusers and dismissed any impact on his performances.
The outside right topped Boro’s goalscoring charts in the 1951/52, 1953/54 and 1955/56 seasons and sits 11th in the list of the club’s all-time top goalscorers with 93 goals in 270 appearances.
Beyond playing for Middlesbrough, during his time at Ayresome he made a number of appearances for Jamaica and coached and captained the side that faced an English FA touring team in the West Indies in 1955. During his visit he was offered a player-coach role but opted for a return to Teesside rather than remaining in Jamaica.
His sporting prowess extended beyond football and in 1953 the Hartlepool-based Northern Daily Mail reported that Horden Cricket Club had signed a ‘forceful batsman’ as a professional - it was none other than Boro’s Delapenha who had impressed with Middlesbrough in the North Yorkshire and South Durham League. Later the popular Boro star appeared on stage at Middlesbrough’s Empire in a head-tennis exhibition with his friend and teammate Brian Clough.
After a number of injuries Delapenha eventually left Boro for Mansfield Town where he played over 100 matches before later spells in non-league football. Delapenha returned to Jamaica in the 1960s where he initially took up the role of Physical Training Officer for the Sugar Manufacturers Association before becoming a key figure in the Jamaican Broadcasting Corporation, including as breakfast presenter where he met some of the world’s leading sporting personalities. In 1974, Delapenha was inducted into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame at a ceremony held in New York.
Delapenha died aged 89 on 26th January 2017, leaving behind a pioneering legacy not only on Teesside but for all black footballers in England.
With thanks to Harry Greenmon for pictures provided for this article