Reaching the Heights - The Delapenha Legacy

The Delapenha Legacy

In these days of BLM (Black Lives Matter) and footballers “taking the knee” it is interesting to reflect on the legacy left by the first black player to play for my favourite team, Middlesbrough FC. His name was Lloyd Lindbergh Delapenha, known as “Lindy” when he played for Middlesbrough from 1950 to 1958. He was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1927.

As a teenager he wanted to play football as a career, so he joined the army in England as a first step to fulfilling that ambition. He came to England onboard the “Lady Nelson”, alongside prisoners of war returning from Japan. Arriving at Southampton he was assigned to the Royal Fusiliers, and whilst playing for his battalion he was spotted by a Portsmouth scout and subsequently signed for the Fratton Park Club. He played for them when they won the First Division Championship in 1948-49, and 1949-50 seasons, becoming the first black player to win a First Division Championship medal. He didn’t play regularly, Portsmouth had a very good team at the time, but one of his appearances was against Middlesbrough at Ayresome Park. Portsmouth won 5-1. Middlesbrough manager, David Jack, was impressed and signed him for £6,000 in April 1950.

Delapenha became one of Boro’s all-time greats, scoring 93 goals in 270 appearances as a winger and inside-forward. He topped Boro’s goalscoring charts in 1951-52, 53-54 and 54 -55 seasons, sitting 11th in the list of all-time top goal-scorers. He also played many times for Jamaica at international level.

He was strong, quick and athletic, with a ferocious shot. Only 5 feet 7 inches tall, he was Boro’s penalty-taker for a number of years, missing only one spot-kick I can recall. In a friendly under floodlights against Sunderland. The ball rebounded off the terrace wall behind the goal and Stan Anderson picked it up and paced it for a goal-kick. The referee complied, awarding a goal-kick on the assumption that Delapenha’s penalty had gone wide of the goal. Such was the power of his shot that it had gone straight though the net – a hole was found in the net and demonstrated to the crowd at the conclusion of the match.

Delapenha was an all-round sportsman, playing cricket as a professional for Horden Cricket Club in the North Yorkshire and South Durham league. He had previously played at the same level for Middlesbrough CC.

I remember one day, as a boy of about 8, I was out with my Dad in Albert Park after a Saturday football match at Ayresome Park. Who should I see but Lindy Delapenha out for an after match walk. I wanted to say hello to him and my Dad reminded me to call him Mr Delapenha, which I did. I told him I thought he had played well that day. He acknowledged with thanks and we said goodbye. It was so exciting. I had never met a professional footballer in person before.

Despite Teessiders taking him to their hearts, the appreciation of Llyod Delapenha was not shared by all. He faced racial abuse from the terraces many times during his career. In an interview just before his 89th birthday, he recalled laughing in the face of his abusers and he dismissed any impact such abuse had had on his performances.

He once appeared on stage at the Middlesbrough Empire in a head-tennis exhibition with his friend and team-mate, Brian Clough. In his first 4 years at Boro he played alongside another Boro all-time great, one Wilf Mannion.

After a series of injuries, Delapenha left Boro for Mansfield Town in 1958 and played 100 times for them, returning to Jamaica in the 1960’s as a physical Training Officer at the Sugar Manufacturers Association. Later he became a key figure in the Jamaican Broadcasting Corporation. He was inducted into the Black Athletics Hall of Fame in 1974 at a ceremony held in New York.

Delapenha left a pioneering legacy for black footballers on Teesside and in England. He died on 27th January 2017, aged 89.

What impressed me about Lloyd Delapenha was first, his ability – he was one of Middlesbrough’s all-time greats, then his humility and his strength in dealing with the racial abuse he received. He didn’t let it affect him, nor what he was doing. I love how Middlesbrough supporters accepted him and took him to their hearts. What a good example in these days of discrimination and intolerance.

[I acknowledge information gained from an article written on by Dr Tosh Warwick and entitled “The Legacy of Lindy Delapenha”, as part of Black History Month, 12 Oct 2021]

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Reaching the Heights