Titus Okere

Titus Okere,

Once captain of Lagos Railways FC,

Made history in 1953,

When he signed for the Railwaymen

Of Swindon Town FC,

Leaving what was still a colony,

Of the British Empire,

To plough a lonely furrow down the wing,

As the first Nigerian to sign up

For a football club in the continent of Europe.

Titus had already made a name for himself

In the dour days of austerity back in 1949

And, of course, in the wake of Windrush,

When he starred on the left wing,

For what was, in effect, the Nigerian team;

But in those colonial post-war days,

The team was named the ‘UK Tourists’;

Titus also scored against Sierra Leone,

In what was, in effect, an international fixture.

After leaving Swindon in 1953,

Titus lived in the county of Kent,

No doubt, wistfully recalling his early life:

His birth in March 1929 in Ngor Okpala,

His education at the Okrika Grammar School,

His teenage athletic and football skills,

His captaincy of Lagos Railways,

The cups and trophies won by him and them,

His captaincy of the Nigerian team against the Gold Coast,

In those far off days of King George the Sixth,

And a bomb-site Britain still with its Empire …

I was just one year old when Titus joined Swindon Town,

Signing as a professional early in the year of 1953,

Before moving elsewhere in Wiltshire,

To Chippenham United,

In the summer of that Coronation year.

And what do we know of Titus Okere in Swindon?

We’re told he, ‘Struggled with the British winter’,

And found those heavy studded football boots

More of a leathered hindrance than a help

The only recollection that appeared

When I appealed for recollections:

‘I watched him play for STFC in 1953,

A fast and tricky left winger …

as I vaguely remember it.

I was only twelve’.

But Titus was the first Black professional

At Swindon Town F.C., a trailblazer

Who should be remembered publicly,

Even if he didn’t make the first team,

Just appearing twice for the reserves,

And in Gloucestershire Northern Senior League,

Before playing elsewhere in Wiltshire football,

Making, again, a unique contribution

To the history of ‘the Beautiful Game’

Both nationally and in the county.

Journalists such as Edgar Kail once of Dulwich Hamlet FC,

(The last amateur footballer to play for England,

Memorialised with a blue plaque)

Thought so much of Titus that it was imagined that

Titus’ skill and speed could open doors

Into almost any European football team,

But barefoot in 1949 was different

To heavy boots in 1953 …

But how did Titus end up at Swindon Town?

Here the legacy of the GWR comes into play …

How right and proper and fitting it feels,

That Titus, a clerk on the Nigerian Railways,

And captain of the railway football team,

Should meet a coach who hailed from Swindon

(Who in a case of seemingly improbable

Nominative determinism,

Bore the so-apt name of Leo Robins) …

The coach sent a letter to Louis Page,

Swindon Town’s manager,

When time and circumstance permitted

(Leo was on railway work in Nigeria as well),

Discussions followed at board room level,

A letter followed from the manager …

And Titus left the sunshine of Nigeria

For the frost and rime of winter

And a keen Wiltshire wind blowing from the east.

The journalist, Dennis Hart, was keen, too,

To cover the tale of Titus’ odyssey,

How ‘I certainly miss the’ sun of Nigeria,

‘But I’ve already made lots of friends here.

The players and the staff … have done everything

to make me feel at home, and so too, my landlady, Mrs Wakeley.’

Alas, it didn’t work out the way we hoped it would,

As we gaze back through the looking glass,

But there’s more to life than football,

And Titus returned to railway work again,

A loyal servant at Parcel Force,

Until retirement in the autumn of his days.

And this year, in the summer of 2023,

Titus left this life but left us memories,

And Swindon Town remembered Titus too,

As Francis Okere (Titus’ grand-daughter) said from Kent,

After the service at the Bluebell Hill crematorium:

‘It was a lovely service.

Swindon Town paid tribute to him and sent him a tie.’

This is the textual tribute from STFC:

‘Although he only made a few first-team appearances for Swindon Town, he was held in the highest regard by supporters and colleagues of the club alike. He had come to the club’s attention when he toured England with the Nigerian international team. An outside left, he was nicknamed “the golden boy” – – because of his ability to create chances out of nothing. The credit for signing him for Swindon must go to Mr Louis Page, the manager. He was obviously keen to sign him as in January, two Board Meetings received reports on whether or not he would arrive by January 20th before he managed to get to this country and sign on in February …’

But a heavy pitch, cumbersome boots,

Loneliness – the directors would not think

Of paying for Mrs Okere to come over

Until Titus became a first team regular –

All conspired against Titus at Swindon;

But surely the time has come for Swindon Town

To acknowledge further the importance of Titus:

Their first Black professional player:

Perhaps with a plaque at the STFC Museum?

Post-Script

‘’I recall a game against Walsall that we lost 5-0, and so it went on. Boys, like everyone else, like to be associated with winners and I was drawn into a crowd that cycled up to Blunsdon each week for the new thrills and wins at Speedway.

Football wasn’t entirely forgotten for there was ‘The Adver’ and ‘Pink’ to keep us informed so we were aware that ‘Town’ had signed the Nigerian Titus Okere. I didn’t see him play for I was into Speedway at that time – did he ever get a first team outing?

We were all aware of his nickname, ‘Nutty Slack’, given to him by the crowd which included a great many railwaymen. In those days, war-time rationing was still in place and if you worked ‘Inside’, one of the perks was coal. Coal of very poor quality made up of small nuggets of dust and bits of slate amongst it, the infamous Nutty Slack. Of course, railwaymen’s humour picked up on this and Titus became “Nutty Slack”. There was no malice in it, that’s just how it was in those days.’

‘Golden Boy’ …

‘Sunny disposition’ …

‘Nutty Slack’ …

‘That’s just how it was in those days’ …