Thursday, June 18, 2015

Lindy Delapenha’s Time at Portsmouth Football Club

There is some confusion as to how many times Lindy Delapenha, Portsmouth Football Club’s first black player, turned out for the Blues.

In a series of articles listing the 20 greatest Jamaican athletes of the twentieth century the Jamaica Gleaner tells us that during his career at Fratton Park “Lindy only played four matches in the first year and all of 24 in his second year with the club.” [i] Alternatively, another source tells us that he played only seven games for Pompey in his two seasons with the club.[ii] Meanwhile, Mike Neasom, one time Sports Editor at The News, in an otherwise meticulously researched book, claims that Delapenha made eight league appearances for Portsmouth and one more in the cup.[iii]

If the details are somewhat shaky these works are at least correct in their chronology, which is more than can be said of Ellis Cashmore’s book Black Sportsmen. “He [Delapenha] played soccer for Middlesbrough,” writes Cashmore, “in the immediate post-war years and, in 1950, moved to Portsmouth where he played professionally until 1958, after which he drifted away from the club never to contact the club again.”[iv]

For the record, Lindy Delapenha played eight first team games for Pompey, seven in the league and one in the cup. And it was in that solitary FA Cup appearance that the Jamaican scored his one and only goal for the club.

Arrival
As I’ve detailed elsewhere, Lindy Delapenha arrived in Portsmouth in April 1948 in somewhat circuitous fashion. He had originally disembarked in the UK in 1946 but, following an unsuccessful trial with Tom Whittaker’s Arsenal, enlisted in the Physical Training Corps and was stationed in Egypt for the next two years. While there Delapenha was spotted by a scout who gave him a letter of recommendation, suggesting he try his luck at either Chelsea or Portsmouth on his return to England. Delapenha explains:
“When I was demobbed in 1948 I had nowhere to live but I had a friend who lived not far from Portsmouth who said I could stay with him. That’s why I went to see the Portsmouth manager, Bob Jackson. I gave him the letter. He said he’d give me a trial to see what I was worth. We went to Bristol Rovers with the reserves. He signed me at half time. He said he’d seen enough.”[v]
1948-49
Delapenha made a positive start to his Pompey career, albeit in the second XI. The match reports in the Portsmouth Evening News for his first two outings both appeared under the identical headline “Delapenha Impresses”.[vi] In the second of these games, which saw Pompey Reserves beat Coventry Reserves 5-0 with Delapenha scoring twice, the local paper recorded: “As he walked off the field … Delapenha the 20-year old Jamaican inside right was given a big ovation by the crowd”.[vii]

Despite these encouraging performances for the reserves it would be November 1948 before Delapenha got his chance in the first team. It was with some sense of anticipation that the Portsmouth Evening News announced “Delapenha Gets His First League Game”[viii] The next day, in front of the 44,000 fans crammed into Fratton Park, Delapenha made his debut in a match that saw Pompey and Blackpool play out a 1-1 draw.

Lindy’s performance drew appreciative noises from the local press: “Delapenha was a success on his first appearance in the League side. He had the crowd with him all the time and ought to do well if he keeps cool”.[ix] He kept his place for the next game, a top of the table clash against Derby County. Unfortunately this time his performance was somewhat underwhelming. At the end of the first half Delapenha ran ahead of a square ball played across the opposition’s penalty box. As he missed the chance to net his first senior goal, Derby picked up possession and within a minute had scored at the other end. Portsmouth lost the match 1-0 and Delapenha found himself in the reserves once more. Following the reverse at the Baseball Ground Portsmouth rediscovered their form. They went unbeaten for the rest of the calendar year, winning four games and drawing two, notching up 16 goals in the process. Ultimately their irrepressible strike force would power them to the Division 1 Championship. And Delapenha did not play another game that season.

1949-50

It was nearly a year before Delapenha would play for the first team again and only then because injury had ruled out Pompey regular Duggie Reid. Delapenha made the very most of his opportunity, turning in a dynamic, eye-catching performance as the Blues trounced Middlesbrough 5-1 at Ayresome Park. Sadly it was not to last. Delapenha retained his place in the team but just “[t]wo days later, at Aston Villa, he would suffer serious ankle-ligament damage in a challenge with Villa’s wing-half, Amos Moss.”[x] Years later Delapenha still remembered the horror of that injury:

"It would be hard to describe what my ankle looked like within two hours. It was blue, purple, pink, grey, green – everything. It was three times its normal size. Because of that injury I lost my place in the side, I would have had it for quite a while cos I was playing well, had scored a couple of goals. And you know football clubs, if you’re look as if you’re going to be a problem they won’t keep you all that long, unless you’re a Wilf Mannion or a Stanley Matthews or someone like that”[xi]
By the end of the year a fit-again Delapenha enjoyed a small run in the team, once more at the expense of the injured Reid. He featured in two of Portsmouth’s matches in over the festive period, first the 1-0 victory against Charlton at Fratton Park, and the return fixture against Middlesbrough that ended in a draw.

Delapenha’s first team opportunity continued into the New Year. His third consecutive start came against Norwich City and also brought him his first and only goal for the club. Portsmouth were hot favourites for an FA Cup tie that saw them drawn against a team two divisions beneath them. It was Delapanha who bundled the ball home to score a highly contentious opening goal for a lacklustre Pompey.Yet Norwich were not overawed by the occasion or their opponents and equalised early in the second half to ensure a draw and a replay at Carrow Road with the league champions. 

It should have been a time of celebration for Delapenha, even if the collective performance had been bitterly disappointing. Instead the match report featured in the Portsmouth Evening News the following Monday fails to mention Delapenha's goal-scoring exploits. Rather it lambasts the Pompey team, labelling them as “[u]seless” and cursing their “pattern-weaving”, noting only that the Blues were “credited with a goal that ought not to have been allowed”.[xii]

By mid-January 1950 Delapenha had been relegated to the reserves and did not even merit a mention in the report of the team’s defeat by Millwall Reserves. Duggie Reid, however, reclaiming his place in the first team, had rediscovered his form. Following the 4-0 thrashing of Huddersfield, The Ranger wrote, “I do not remember him playing better than in the last three matches”.[xiii] Delapenha made just one more appearance for the Blues, away to Fulham in April.

Failure?

The question remains as to why Delapenha failed to make more of an impact at Portsmouth. Certainly he suffered terrible luck with injuries, but this is only part of the story. More important is the unfortunate fact that Delapenha's arrival on the south coast coincided with the club assembling their greatest ever side, a team that won back-to-back league titles.

Delapenha was an exciting forward, capable of playing up front as a central striker, as an inside right or out on the wing, but his preferred position was outside-right. This put him in direct competition with Peter Harris, soon to be an England international,[xiv] and a player so gifted that he was regarded as the “[n]atural successor to Stanley Matthews.”[xv]


Harris was a local lad, and a one-club player, making 479 league appearances and scoring 193 goals in the 14 seasons between 1946 and 1960. In the two seasons Delapenha spent at Portsmouth, Peter Harris enjoyed a magnificent run of form. In 1948/49, at the age of just 23, he played 45 games in league and cup, scoring 22 goals. The following season, he again played in 45 games, this time scoring 17 goals.[xvi]

Delapenha could quite have easily slotted into the team in other positions. But here, also, he found himself as understudy to players in rich veins of form. There was little chance, for instance, of dislodging Ike Clarke who scored 31 goals for Pompey between 1948 and 1950.

All five of Lindy’s games in his second season had been in place of Duggie Reid. Yet the Scotman, who had initially struggled to win the support of the Fratton End fans, was firmly established in the Pompey team during those Championship winning years. In all competitions ‘Thunerboots’ scored 17 goals in 29 appearances during the 1948/49 season. The following year he netted 16 times in 27 games.

But mere statistics fail to do either man justice. It was Clarke who scored the decisive goal in the 2-1 victory over Bolton which secured Portsmouth’s first ever League triumph; it was Reid who, a year later, scored a hat-trick against Aston Villa on the last day of the season ensuring that the Blues clinched the Division 1 title on goal difference. These were two of the most iconic Portsmouth players of their time.

Moving On
Ideally it seems that, given the opportunity, Delapenha would have remained in Portsmouth for years to come. But both the player and his manager understood that the lack of first team opportunities were a problem.
“I would have stayed at Portsmouth for a long time because Bob Jackson was very impressed … The second year I was really getting into the game because, you know, Portsmouth were set. They had won the championship the previous year and they had players that were established. They had people like Duggie Reid, Peter Harris and it was hard getting into that side.”
So impressed had the Boro manager David Jack been by Delapenha’s performance against his team at Ayesome Park the previous September that he made enquiries about the forward’s availability:So impressed had the Boro manager David Jack been by Delapenha’s performance against his team at Ayesome Park the previous September that he made enquiries about the forward’s availability:
“Middlesbrough’s manager, David Jack, approached Bob Jackson and asked what had happened to the lad who’d played so well against his team. Jackson explained and Jack made an offer. Jackson agreed to sell on the informal condition that Delapenha be guaranteed first-team football. The deal was completed in April 1950.”[xvii]

The move was completed, almost two years to the day from when Delapenha had signed for Pompey. It was a wise move. He formed a formidable partnership with a young Brian Clough, and scored 93 goals in 270 appearances during the eight seasons he played for the Teessiders. By sheer coincidence Delapenha’s first game for his new club, the opening fixture of the 1950/51 season, was played at Fratton Park. Portsmouth drew 1-1 with Middlesbrough. Lindy didn’t score.

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[i] “Delapenha: First Non-White to Play English Division 1 Football”, Jamaica Gleaner, October 24 1999 [Online].
http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/19991024/sports/s2.html. Accessed 20/8/2013
[ii] Philip MacDougall (2007) Settlers, Visitors and Asylum Seeker: Diversity in Portsmouth Since the Late 18th Century, Portsmouth City Council: Portsmouth, p15
[iii] Mike Neasom, Mick Cooper & Doug Robinson (1984) Pompey: The History of Portsmouth Football Club, Milestone Publications: Horndean, p.248
[iv] Ernest Cashmore (1982) Black Sportsmen, Routledge and Kegan Paul: London, p27
[v] Quoted in Nick Harris (2003) England, Their England: The Definitive Story of Foreign Footballers in the English Game Since 1888, Pitch Publishing: Hove, p60
[vi] Portsmouth Evening News, “Delapenha Impresses”, Monday April 5th, 1948, p3
[vii] Portsmouth Evening News, “Delapenha Impresses”, Monday April 12th, 1948, p3
[viii] Portsmouth Evening News, “Delapenha Gets His First League Game”, Friday 12th November, 1948, p3
[ix] Portsmouth Evening News, “Pompey Attack Still Wants More Snap”, Monday 15th November, 1948, p3
[x] Nick Harris (2003) England, Their England: The Definitive Story of Foreign Footballers in the English Game Since 1888, Pitch Publishing: Hove, p61
[xi] http://inside-left.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/the-lindy-delapenha-interview.html
[xii] Portsmouth Evening News, “More Thrust Needed At Norwich”, Monday January 9th 1950, p8
[xiii] Portsmouth Evening News, “Constant Shooting Brings Success”, Monday January 25th 1950, p8
[xiv] Harris made his England debut for England v Ireland on 21 September 1949 at Goodison Park
[xv] Portsmouth Evening News, “Pompey Match Winner”, Wednesday 9th February, 1948, p9
[xvi]
http://pompeyrama.com/pompey-fc-players-209-Peter-Harris.html accessed 19/8/2013
[xvii] Nick Harris (2003) England, Their England: The Definitive Story of Foreign Footballers in the English Game Since 1888, Pitch Publishing: Hove, p61