Tommy Best: The Unsung Hero of Early Black Football Pioneers in Wales…

On an ordinary October afternoon, history was quietly in the making at the Hawthorns. West Bromwich Albion secured a victory over a Cardiff City side finding their footing in the Second Division. While late newspaper reports scarcely mentioned the Bluebirds’ new signing, who was known for his powerful shots, there was a significant aspect to this player – Tommy Best was black.

In a remarkable turn of events on October 30, 1948, Tommy Best became the first black player to wear a Cardiff shirt. What sets his story apart is his unique journey, which began in Milford Haven, a city far removed from the cultural diversity of Cardiff.

Best’s story unfolded against a backdrop of racial homogeneity, with more than 99% of Milford Haven’s population being white during his time. Born in December 1920 to a Barbadian steam ship engineer and a Welsh mother, Tommy initially played local football. World War II presented an unexpected opportunity, redirecting his life from the Navy to a groundbreaking football career.

While serving on the minesweeper HMS Gloman in Belfast, a twist of fate occurred. A Dublin side, Drumcondra, was short of a player for an inter-city cup tie against Belfast Celtic. Encouraged by his chief petty officer, Tommy Best joined the match and scored. This unexpected opportunity kick-started his professional football career and earned him the nickname “Darkie Best,” which he embraced and viewed as a sign of acceptance.

Tommy Best later played in Australia, but his distaste for the treatment of Aboriginal people led him to return home and play for Milford. A trial at Chester in 1947 marked another milestone, as he became the first black player to feature in a league game for the club.

Best’s impressive performance with 14 goals in 30 games attracted attention from Leeds, Blackburn, and Blackpool, but he chose Cardiff due to the lure of returning to Wales and doubling his wages. Notably, his skin color wasn’t mentioned until after his first appearance for Cardiff’s reserves, where he was recognized as a Welshman who excelled in football.

Despite facing racial slurs and stereotypes in the press, Best remained resilient. He had a remarkable second season at Cardiff, scoring a flurry of goals and earning praise from fans and journalists alike.

His time with Cardiff was filled with highlights, but a dream to play for the Welsh national team eluded him. Despite his impressive performances, Best believed his skin color might have played a role in being overlooked.

Tommy Best lived a long life, passing away at the age of 97 in 2018. He lived with dementia but remained proud of his footballing career. His remarkable journey as an early black football pioneer, like many of his contemporaries, deserves greater recognition and appreciation.

Tommy Best’s daughter, Jenny, recalls how even in his later years, he enthusiastically shared stories of his career with anyone who would listen. His legacy endures as an unsung hero in the annals of black football pioneers, a symbol of resilience, and a testament to his love for the game.

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