I had been at Tottenham Hotspur for a few seasons and experienced a good deal of success. But when, for the first time, I experienced a long-term injury, requiring weeks of treatment and tortuous rehab, I found myself wandering around the club, often in deep reflection, waiting for the pain of the next physio session. On one such afternoon I came across a photo of a Spurs team from 1910. It wasn't the date that caught my attention at first but the black lad who sat crossed-legged, posing in the traditional pre-season photo.
I was fascinated – and a bit put out too, because I thought I held the distinction of being Spurs' first black player – and wondered who the hell was Walter Tull? Captivated and irritated at the same time I decided to try and find out more. Surely this young whippersnapper couldn't have possibly played for the first team.
I asked around the club but no one had a clue what I was wittering on about. The club statistician told me he had never heard of a Walter Tull but would look in his records. Then, after weeks of research, he sent me some cuttings in the post.
I was mesmerised by what I began to read. This man was no ordinary footballer; he was special. Not only had he played for the Tottenham's first XI, he had scored goals. So why had no one heard of him? I desperately tried to visualise myself playing for Spurs at that time. Racism seemed to confront him in many games he played. The reports of it made my career look like a walk in the park. But somehow he never let it bother him.
The difficulty I had with the story was that I couldn't work out why, in 1910, Spurs let him go after only a handful of games. He was clearly one of their best players, so why did he end up at Northampton Town? Were the Tottenham directors more concerned about the image of the club than their rising star? The club couldn't lose; having got rid of what may well have been seen as a problem, they restored the club's image and got a pretty penny in the bargain. Good business on the face of it.
But within a couple of years of joining Northampton, then managed by the great Herbert Chapman, young Tull enrolled in the army to fight for his country in the first world war. What took place in the years to follow was nothing short of remarkable. Tull quickly rose to the rank of sergeant in the Middlesex regiment, fighting in the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and became the first black combat officer in the British army, despite a military rule excluding "negroes" from exercising actual command. Tull was stationed in Italy in 1917/18 and his military leadership received a citation for "gallantry and coolness", having led his company of 26 men on an incursion into enemy territory, returning them safely.
Tull returned to the horrors of war in northern France in 1918, and was killed in action on 25 March, 95 years ago today, near the village of Favreuil in the Pas-de-Calais region. His body was never recovered, and he is remembered at the Arras memorial for those who have no known grave, having fought in six major battles of the first world war.
In learning of his heroism in battle, I was left speechless. Why did I not know about this man? Why had his history and accomplishments been hidden? How I could have used those moments of glory as a child to stand proud among my classmates. For his acts of bravery, Tull was recommended for the Military Cross. Sadly, he never received it.
In the last few years a growing chorus of campaigners have demanded the government and the military hierarchy make amends. Those include Tull's biographer Phil Vasili, the playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah and the bestselling novelist Michael Morpurgo whose latest novel, A Medal for Leroy, is a tribute to Walter Tull. A petition has been launched calling for the Military Cross to be posthumously awarded.
Just days ago, the prime minister intervened to honour veterans of Bomber Command and the Arctic convoy, whose efforts and bravery some 70 years ago were finally recognised with military honours.
In life, I've always believed in the maxim that "those who know better, do better" and on that basis we must ask the military establishment and our prime minister to hand Walter Tull the Military Cross for which he was originally recommended. It's the least we can do.