Next summer, as the Fifa Women’s World Cup gets ready to kick off in France, it is likely that in England we will spend time reminiscing about and celebrating a host of British female football heroes that have paved the way for Phil Neville’s Lionesses.
In documentaries and column inches there will undoubtedly be mention of the pioneering Dick Kerr Ladies FC and the FA’s 50-year ban, as well as interviews with the game’s modern stars. However, someone that will probably be absent from these celebrations is the little-known Emma Clarke, Britain’s first black female footballer.
At a time when the diversity and equality are high on the agenda of the domestic women’s game, Clarke’s absence from the history books is even more pertinent.
Born into a working-class family in Liverpool in 1875, historians believe that Clarke played football on her local streets from an early age. At 20, she made her debut for the British Ladies at a game that drew around 11,000 spectators to Crouch End in London.
For her talents, Clarke was awarded a slice of the gate receipts as well as food and lodgings. She was an impressive player, described in the press as “the fleet-footed dark girl”.
Her football career continued into the late 19th Century and took her to stadiums across the country.
The last reference historians have of her playing is in Biggleswade in 1903. In a 3-1 win against a male select side Clarke scored and likely ruffled a few feathers.
But following her exit from the game, Clarke was, and has been, forgotten and is said to have vanished off the census in 1901. It is still unknown when she died.
The reportedly gifted player was not interviewed and records of her existence are hard to come by. It was not until Scottish historian and artist Stuart Gibbs stumbled upon mention of her that her story could begin to be brought back to life.
Clarke has suffered a fate of many other black British figures, forgotten by history and erased from public consciousnesses.
But this week Clarke’s history was recognised and showcased at an event supported by the Fare Network, an anti-discrimination organisation, and hosted by the Royal Society of Arts in London. Alongside co-curators Anna Kessel and Michelle Moore, journalists, politicians, historians and activists gathered to celebrate Clarke.
Clarke’s connection to 21st Century black Britain and modern football cannot be underestimated and those reflecting on her life on Tuesday certainly did not ignore this link.
Performances from young girls from schools across London brought Clarke’s story to life. In poems and words, a new generation of black women were exploring the powerful link between past and present.
There have been many other black female football pioneers after Clarke, women that have also had to fight for the right to play and suffer to get to the top. Hope Powell, Rachel Yankey and Eniola Aluko are just three of many that have blazed a trail and fought for justice so those that come after them do not have to endure the same injustices. Although we do not know a lot of detail about Clarke’s experiences, it is hard to believe that she would not have faced discrimination.
In recognising Clarke, Eartha Pond, a councillor and former professional footballer, described her as a “total black girl magic”.
Emma Clarke’s magic might only being recognised now, but her legacy lives on.
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