A HEADSTONE has been unveiled for a former Preston North End star who was England’s first Romani professional footballer.
Rabbi Howell, known as Rab, thought to be the first and only Romani to play for England, was buried in an unmarked grave in the city’s old cemetery after he died almost 80 years ago.
A campaign was launched for a memorial to the footballer by author Steven Kay who wrote a book about his life, and the special headstone has now been revealed.
Rab played for the Lilywhites between 1901 and 1903, and also played for Sheffield United and Liverpool.
Nick Pomfret, Rab’s great-grandson and a Preston councillor, said: “I was a bit flabbergasted at the popularity – he was a football star even in the 1890s.”
He said he was “absolutely thrilled” that a headstone had been made for Rab.
He said: “Generations of the family have gone by and they must not have been able to afford to put a headstone on his grave, and Steven Kay came along with the campaign – nobody who played for England should be buried in an unmarked grave.
“When I think back to my grandad Leo when I was a child, if he was here today it would be a proud moment for him to finally see his father’s headstone in place.”
A campaign team has worked to raise almost £700, with local suppliers helping with work.
It was kick-started in May last year with a pledge of £250 from Football Unites, Racism Divides.
Peter Kelly, a fellow councillor in Preston, stepped in to help with the campaign and described Rab as a “pioneer”.
He said: “The city is proud of its football heritage and it should be proud also of its pioneers of that heritage.
“Football has a great ability to be a leveller in these situations, to recognise someone for their skill and their ability to carry on.
“It just seemed the right thing to do.”
Rab retired from football when he was 36, after badly breaking his leg during a match playing for North End.
He then lived in Paradise Street and ran a greengrocer’s.
Author Steven Kay met Nick Pomfret while researching his book, The Evergreen in Red and White, and together they discovered where Rab was buried and that he didn’t have a headstone.
Steven said: “That was something we needed to put right.
“No one who played for England should be buried in an unmarked grave.
“Rab had largely been forgotten and I am thrilled to see his pioneering role now recognised.
“He was a great little player and should be remembered.”
Steven said many professional footballers had followed in his footsteps, and said: “Raising his profile may help underline that Romani people have a long history in Britain and have been contributing to our culture since the Middle Ages. Anti–Romani prejudice remains strong throughout Europe – around English grounds it still seems to be a prejudice that carries little taboo.
“Instead we should be proud of our diverse heritage.”
He added: “I am grateful to everyone who has shown interest. I would also like to thank Rawcliffe’s of Chorley who have made the headstone, it is fitting, as they have a history as old as football itself — they have been superb.
“Also, Preston Council, and Conlon Construction for their contributions.”
At his speech at Rab’s graveside yesterday, he added: “Hope you like the stone, Rab.”
A PNE spokesman said: “The unveiling of Rab’s headstone finally completes the tribute to a man who played for both Preston and England.
“Given that he played for us and the fact that his family grave is so close to Deepdale, it was only right that we attended to pay our respects and mark the occasion with the laying of a wreath.”
Michael Conlon, chairman at Conlon Construction, said: “When told of this former PNE and England player lying in an unmarked grave we were happy to help rectify matters”.