Pioneering Sheffield United star honoured with headstone - 80 years after death

Rabbi Howell of Sheffield United

Rabbi Howell of Sheffield United

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A headstone has been unveiled for a former Sheffield United star who was England’s first Romani professional footballer.

Born in a gypsy encampment in Dore, Rabbi Howell was a key player for the Blades when they won the First Division in 1898.

The headstone is unveiled in Preston

The headstone is unveiled in Preston

But he was buried in an unmarked grave in Preston, Lancashire, after dying in 1937.

A campaign for a memorial to Howell, thought to be the first and only Romani to play for England, was launched by author Steven Kay, who wrote a book about the footballer’s time at Sheffield United called The Evergreen in Red and White.

The special headstone was revealed by members of Howell’s family in Preston on Friday.

Howell, who was known as Rab, also played for Preston North End and Liverpool during his career, mainly as a defender.

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.

Rab retired from football when he was 36, after badly breaking his leg during a match playing for North End, going on to run a greengrocer’s store.

Steven Kay said: “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.”

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