The tragedy of Albert Johanneson, the pioneer who paved the way for black footballers at the top

The tragedy of Albert Johanneson, the pioneer who paved the way for black footballers at the top

ONE AFTERNOON IN LEEDS CITY CENTRE in the early 1990s, George Best thought he recognised someone shuffling past the window of the restaurant where he was waiting for lunch. The figure was scruffily dressed and his face was puffy and bloated, but Best was correct; although disguised by physical decline and grubby attire, there was no doubting who the man was. There were very few footballers who Best had admired during his playing days, yet this was one of them.

He held him in high esteem not just for his footballing talent but for his outstanding bravery on the football pitch. The Northern Irishman had witnessed first hand the verbal abuse and physical intimidation that this player had had to endure throughout his footballing career. Having long battled with alcohol himself, Best recognised a kindred spirit who had fallen from grace.

He immediately went outside to speak to the man. He was now in the presence of Albert Johanneson, the legendary ‘Black Flash’ from Don Revie’s Leeds United side that had climbed from the depths of the Second Division to become a 1960s powerhouse.

Best had been accused by some over the years of being a self-centred egotist, but not on this occasion. He realised that Johanneson needed someone to talk to. Knowing that his celebrity still opened doors for him, Best immediately took his friend over to the nearby upmarket hotel where he was lodging and requested a dining table for himself and his friend. Some of the attending staff looked askance at having to serve a rather scruffy and dishevelled vagrant as opposed to the yuppies they normally fawned upon.

A discreet word from Best to the hotel manager ensured that Johanneson was accorded due respect. According to witnesses, the two of them stayed talking and reliving football matches until midnight. Undoubtedly the drink flowed, but who would deny such a pleasure to a man who had brought a smile to the face of so many fans? Johanneson was truly humbled by Best’s actions, as indeed he was when anybody recognised him.

There are many versions of the life of Albert Louis Johanneson in circulation, and several myths have established themselves in popular culture. As the Manic Street Preachers once proclaimed: “This is my truth, now tell me yours.” Some claim that he was born in Soweto; he wasn’t. Others assert that nobody knew the whereabouts of his wife and daughters at the time of his death; again, not the case. There are accounts of his life that state his former family home was in a ghetto area of Leeds, when in fact it was in the leafy suburbs of West Lea.

For many, his performance in the 1965 FA Cup final was the sole reason for the team losing, which ignores the fact that the whole Leeds team froze on the day. The most offensive myth was that he had no bottle and was easily intimidated, yet Norman Hunter, who knew a thing or two about intimidation, leapt to his defence. “He was a braver man than many people gave him credit for and he had the scars on his legs to prove it.” As his daughter Alicia said when interviewed: “Over the years I have become increasingly sick and tired of reading what I know to be untruths about my father.”

Johanneson was the first ever black South African to play regularly in the top division of English football. He was the first black footballer to play in an FA Cup final, and he was the first to play for an English league side in the final of a major European cup competition, the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup. As a winger, he scored 48 goals for Leeds in 172 appearances, a remarkable return for somebody who wasn’t a striker and would these days surely attract bids of over £30 million.

It is fair to say that Revie’s side of the mid-1960s were judged by many in the media to have possessed a drab and uninspiring playing style. However, it is certainly true that with his flamboyance and dazzling skills, Johanneson added a necessary element of glamour to a hard-working, Stakhanovite team.

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To the generation of British-born black players who broke through into the English league in the 1980s, Johanneson was an icon. Phil Vasili, when researching his ground-breaking book Crossing over the White Line, was impressed by the number who cited Johanneson as the footballer who they most admired. They remembered him for his array of skills and most importantly because “they were showcased along the Shaftesbury Avenue of football, the First Division”.

Brian Deane, the ex-Leeds and Sheffield United forward was fulsome in his praise of Johanneson and his influence: “As young, football-crazy lads growing up in Chapeltown, Leeds, in the early 70s, Albert Johanneson was a name we were all familiar with. He had been an inspiration for the next generation of footballing talent in the city.”

Johanneson was an incredibly gifted and skilful footballer who deserves our admiration for the substantial hurdles he had to overcome to succeed in the English professional game. He also deserves our empathy and understanding for the combination of circumstances that left him destitute and alone towards the end of his life.

The winger was born in the township of Germiston on the outskirts of Johannesburg in March 1940. However, his gravestone in Leeds indicates that he was born in 1942. Such a difference of detail is not unusual in the biographies of non-whites who to leave the apartheid regime of South Africa.

Basil D’Oliveira, the famous cricketer who was classified as a ‘Cape Coloured’, wrote to many cricket clubs in England to request a trial but those letters hid a certain truth. He was actually older than he claimed to be, as he feared his age may have deterred them from signing him. Perhaps Johanneson took the same approach and lied to Leeds about his age. We may never know.

Coincidentally, Johanneson had played for a team called the Coloured XI in a football competition in South Africa which had been organised for players in non-white teams to showcase their skills. The contest had been devised by the South African Soccer Federation in 1952, the year after the pioneering, anti-apartheid football body itself that had been formed. This was known as the Kajee Cup, named in honour of a Natal Indian Congress politician called A.I. Kajee. The other two teams were the Black XI and the Indian XI, with Johanneson representing the same team that D’Oliveira had played football for in 1956.

In the 1950s, a number of South African players had been actively recruited by English clubs keen to utilise their undoubted skills. Players such as Bill Perry for Blackpool, Eddie Firmani and John Hewie for Charlton, and several others quickly established themselves in the Football League. Apart from hailing from South Africa, they had something else in common – they were all white. Charlton manager Jimmy Seed recruited over 13 white players from South Africa in that decade, feeling that they could be trusted to fit into the changing room culture at his club. By implication, a black player couldn’t.

Given their often unfair reputation in later decades for having a racist element to their support base, it is somewhat surprising to consider that Leeds were one of the first clubs in England to offer an opportunity to black South African footballers. Gerry Francis became only the second black South African after Stephen Mokone to play for an English club. He made his debut in 1959, but his time at Leeds could not really be considered a success. However, he had managed to raise the status of black South African players in the minds of club officials at Leeds.

Therefore, when a certain Don Revie received a glowing report from South African school teacher and club scout Barney Gaffney recommending a young winger, he was more than ready to offer this prospect a trial. Also, as Leeds’s finances were in a precarious state, the cost of an airfare was still cheaper than a transfer fee. So it was that Johanneson arrived at Elland Road in January 1961 to become Revie’s first signing for his new incarnation of Leeds.

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Whilst growing up in Germiston, his main sporting talents had been showcased in the field of athletics. Some accounts of his early life speculate that he may not have played football until the age of 18. Ironically, the young Albert had grown up as a Manchester United supporter. “I was a great United fan,” he said himself. “I didn’t think of any other side.” It is fair to say that he had never heard of Leeds until Francis signed for them.

However, when the offer of a trial came, he grabbed the opportunity. It certainly helped that Francis was already there as the two players were friends. In fact, during his first few years they both lodged and shared a room in a house where a certain Mr and Mrs Winely were tasked with their care. In an interview with Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly, Albert referred to his hosts, with a hint of pure Yorkshire, as “grand people”.

After impressing Revie with his skills in training, he was offered a contract and a first team debut in April 1961. This was due to be against Scunthorpe at Elland Road, however, the match was in doubt due to some unexpected snowfall. Albert, never having seen snow before, was secretly hoping the game would be called off – and he got his wish.

He made his debut against Swansea Town a few days later where he justified his selection by providing a pinpoint cross for Jack Charlton, playing as an emergency centre-forward, to score a header. Later that month, both he and Francis played for Leeds against Stoke, becoming the first two black players to appear together in an English league match.

Johanneson’s first full season for Leeds was in 1961/62 with the team still well adrift of being the side Revie was trying to build, but he played an instrumental part in helping them avoid relegation from the Second Division. Thanks to his brilliant display in a vital away game at Newcastle, Leeds gained the necessary points to ensure survival in a 3-0 victory.

Over the next two seasons, as Revie’s team started to take shape, Johanneson’s dazzling displays on the wing were starting to enthral the Elland Road faithful. After one particularly impressive performance against Chelsea, in which he scored twice, most of the crowd stayed behind to cheer Johanneson off the pitch. For a player who was prone to dark periods of self-doubt, like many wingers of the time, this was a huge confidence boost.

Promotion was achieved at the end of the 1963/64 season with Johanneson the leading scorer with 15 goals in 41 games, over a fifth of the total scored by Leeds that season. The crowd took Johanneson to their hearts and often chanted that “he was better than Eusébio”, the famous Portuguese forward who was soon to light up the World Cup.

For someone who had grown up under the apartheid regime in South Africa, the cultural shock experienced by Johanneson must have been immense. He had been only eight years old when the National Party came to power in 1948. For a black teenager, growing up in the 1950s was a deeply traumatic period where a culture of black subservience to white superiority became embedded in South African society. When reflecting on his life, he painfully recalled being spat on by the South African police and being beaten with wooden batons when he crossed their path. These horrific experiences stayed with him for the rest of his life.

His experiences had led him to be totally distrustful and suspicious of the authorities in South Africa. Both he and Francis regularly sent a portion of their wages home to support their families, but often they had no indication that the funds had made it through to the intended recipients. Documents show that in September 1961, they had to ask Revie to personally write to the schoolteacher who had recommended them to ascertain that the families had received the money.

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Very few professional footballers would have travelled so far from their comfort zones as Johanneson. Within a few days of arriving in England, he had to adjust to the sight of seeing white waiters serving black customers in a café and white people undertaking menial jobs. The concept of using the same toilet facilities as a white person was alien to him. He found it difficult to adjust to being treated as an equal by the local white populace.

As a young man in Leeds, where the now disgraced Jimmy Savile had introduced the new concept of discotheques, he found himself able to access upmarket bars and clubs and to enjoy the company of what had previously been considered forbidden fruit: white women. Nevertheless, he still experienced a level of racial prejudice from sectors of the British population which he found unnerving and deeply unsettling. Even when he arrived at Heathrow for his trial with Leeds, as he walked through the terminal, he accidentally bumped into a stranger who responded by shouting: “Get out of my way nigger.”

Many commentators on Johanneson’s life seem to gloss over how traumatic it must have been for a young man of 20 fresh from the townships of Johannesburg to adjust to life in West Yorkshire. Johanneson himself opined in 1962: “I felt I would never get used to this new life. Many times I wished I had stayed at home.” For someone who had grown up under the apartheid regime, playing in a team with white footballers was a culture shock.

Johanneson was astounded when he realised that he would be sharing a communal bath with white players. His teammates, sensing his apprehension, responded by sensitively stripping him of his clothes and throwing him naked into the bath. He was also deeply troubled by the idea of a white apprentice being detailed to clean his boots. His fellow players were unnerved by his habit of calling the autograph hunters who gathered on match days ‘Sir’.

Since the inception of the Premier League, many players from warmer climes have found it extremely problematic to adjust to English weather conditions. The ex-Manchester City striker, Nolito, famously stated that the reason for leaving the club to join Sevilla was due to the fact that “the weather is so bad, my daughter’s face has changed colour”. For Johanneson, who left South Africa mid-summer to experience the joy of mid-winter in Yorkshire living in the dark, grimy terraced streets of Beeston, this transition must have seemed insurmountable at times.

As Johanneson himself recalled in an interview in Buchan’s Football Monthly in 1962: “All the time I was trying to get used to heavy pitches, matches in sludge and rain.” Even worse, after complaining about the cold, he was taken off during a training session and was convinced that the club had decided to send him back to South Africa, where the best he could hope for would be to continue his training as a shoe cobbler.

Nevertheless, Johanneson’s first three seasons in English football were an undoubted success and justified Revie’s faith in him. His fellow teammates recognised what a unique talent they had in their ranks. Now the 1964/65 season was to provide Johanneson with his opportunity to test himself against the footballing elite.

Leeds made an impressive start to their life in the top division with Johanneson scoring their first goal in an impressive 2-1 away win over Aston Villa. Leeds made a determined and unexpected challenge to the natural order and only lost the chance to win the league on goal average by 0.18 of a goal to Manchester United. For the first time ever in the club’s history they also reached the FA Cup final, losing in extra time to the previous season’s champions Liverpool.

Johanneson, whilst not as prolific as he had been in the Second Division, continued to make a vital contribution. He managed to score nine goals in the league, including the decisive goals in two consecutive 1-0 victories in early December. As the team progressed to Wembley, he scored in three different rounds of the cup. Such was the threat that he posed with his pace and strength, that following the example set by many footballing hardmen, Manchester United detailed Nobby Stiles to take him out with a dreadful tackle in the early minutes of the semi-final, which severely restricted his mobility and forced him out of the replay.

Many accounts of the 1965 final highlight the apparent fact that Johanneson failed to perform and was a key factor in Leeds’ defeat. As ever, the truth is more debatable. The winger had suffered an injury playing against Birmingham five days before the final and was arguably not at peak fitness. Also, Leeds as a team just did not showcase their talents on the day. Captain Bobby Collins said he felt awful on the day, Billy Bremner seemed to be chasing shadows, and other such as Alan Peacock and Jim Storrie struggled. It was a woeful final. The whole Leeds team seemed to freeze on the big occasion, not just Johanneson. Despite belatedly coming to life in extra time, Leeds lost 2-1.

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Nevertheless, prior to kick-off, the eyes of the football world were focused on the Leeds winger. He was a trailblazer for a generation, the first black footballer ever to feature in an FA Cup final at Wembley. For a man who had suffered from chronic bouts of loss of self-confidence, the pressure must have seemed unbearable, and at a time when he needed his teammates to operate at their highest level, they were unable to assist him.

Johanneson was also arguably the first player to be subjected to orchestrated racism from the terraces of football stadia. He was regularly booed, jeered and subjected to monkey and Zulu chants at away grounds, while also facing abuse and intimidation from opposing full-backs.

Sadly he was the victim of increased political and societal concerns over the impact of immigration fermented by the likes of Conservative MP Enoch Powell. When a 1947 touring team from Nigeria had drawn record crowds to several grounds to watch the “bare footed” players – another myth – they were greeted not with racism but exotic curiosity.

Black footballers in the 1940s and 50s such as Charlie Williams at Doncaster and Lindy Delapenha at Middlesbrough never encountered the level of crowd hostility that Johanneson faced. However, as the United Kingdom acquired its first wave of large immigrant communities, they were increasingly perceived as a threat to the British way of life. Johanneson, and later Clyde Best of West Ham, were to suffer the consequences. As George Best opined, Johanneson had to be a brave man just to step out onto the pitch.

The 1964/65 season was the pinnacle of Johanneson’s achievements at Leeds. After that, he suffered from a variety of injuries from which he never fully recovered, and the searing pace and acceleration which had been his main assets started to decline. Several of his friends often make reference to an unresolved and debilitating Achilles tendon injury, which was never properly treated, as a reason for his apparent decline in performance.

He also now faced a three-way competition for his place in the side as Revie went out and bought the England winger Mike O’Grady from nearby Huddersfield whilst giving more first team opportunities to the upcoming young tyro, Eddie Gray. Over the next five seasons, he made only 42 first team appearances.

However, a number of those appearances still showed that he could make a contribution to the team. In the semi-final of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup against Real Zaragoza, Johanneson scored a crucial goal in a 2-1 away victory. But by the time Leeds had won their first ever championship in 1969, Johanneson had become a peripheral figure and was no longer part of Revie’s plans.

At the end of the 1969/70 season, he was released by Leeds after being told by Revie, “You are finished here, you’re washed up, look at you. I’ve got plans and you don’t figure in them.” From a footballing perspective it was the correct decision, but from a human perspective it showed a callous disregard for a player who was already drinking excessively to blank out the despair caused by his constant battle with injury.

Johanneson, just like his friend Francis, moved to York City at the start of the 1970/71 season and made an immediate impact in a team that was promoted to Division Three. Finally, after more than a decade in English football, it was all over as injury forced Johanneson to retire from the game. Without football as his focus, he slipped into a spiral of decline, an experience not totally unfamiliar to several high-profile footballers of that era.

With no purpose and time on his hands, Johanneson turned to drink to cope with the pressure. “His method of escape was one familiar to many black South African youths of the townships,” Vasili highlighted. Albert’s Jamaican-born wife Norma could no longer cope with his descent into alcoholism and took herself off to the United States in the early 1970s with their two daughters, Alicia and Yvonne.

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After his family departed, he undertook a variety of menial jobs such as working in a Chinese takeaway, but often he could be seen on the streets of Leeds begging for money. According to Anthony Clavane in his book Promised Land, Albert gave one of his neighbours all his trophies and medals because “he was afraid he would end up pawning them for beer money”.

Eddie Gray recalls how, during his time as Leeds manager, Johanneson would turn up at the training ground asking for some money to buy a pair of football boots. “I would give him all the equipment he needed, but I always knew that he really wanted it so that he could sell it and use the money to buy drink.”

Gray also recounts how on one occasion he and his wife Linda gave Johanneson a lift in their car to Leeds City centre. During the journey, the South African spoke of all the things that had gone wrong in his life. Gray, who had heard this story so many times, remained impassive. His wife Linda, hearing this for the first time, “had tears streaming down her face like a waterfall”.

During his playing career at Leeds, Johanneson had been looked after on the pitch by Bremner, Charlton, Collins, Giles, and Hunter. His teammates had made sure that if any opposition player tried to intimidate or abuse the winger, they could expect immediate retribution, carrying out to the letter the Leeds motto of “side before self every time”. Even after he retired, many of his former Leeds colleagues invited him to team reunions and tried to make him join the Leeds Former Players Association for support.

Sadly, Johanneson was as elusive as ever.”We tried to help him,” said Peter Lorimer. “We wanted to get him to join the [former players’] association but it was no good. Albert would just go missing.” There is a famous photograph of Don Revie, in a wheelchair, making his last appearance at Elland Road in the spring of 1988, with a host of his former charges gathered around him. Although invited, Johanneson is missing.

Best’s random encounter with the former star brought Johanneson briefly back to the attention of the national media. Some outlets were broadly sympathetic asking how this fate could have befallen him. Unsurprisingly, some of the tabloid press dealt with his plight in a less than sympathetic manner. The Sun ran a sleazy expose of him with the headline: ‘He’s boozed up and broke’.

In September 1995, the awful news emerged of the death of Johanneson. According to which date of birth you accept, he was either 53 or 55, but in either case a relatively young age. His body had remained undiscovered for several days in a tiny council flat in a tower block. So destitute had he become that a single seashell was listed amongst his possessions. The cause of death was cited as a bout of meningitis. He was buried at Lawnswood Cemetery in Leeds. Sadly, his grave fell into a state of neglect, leading the Yorkshire Post to run the headline: “Pauper’s Grave for Soccer Hero Albert.” Leeds chairman Leslie Silver paid for a headstone and plaque to be reinstated.

When reflecting upon the life of Albert Johanneson, there are a number of different paths his career could have taken. His fellow South African, Basil D’Oliveira, because of his skills, was fast-tracked to become a British Citizen so that he was able to represent England at cricket. Was this ever an option for Albert? Would he have ever been considered to play football for an England national team that was crying out for someone of his abilities? It was also Albert’s misfortune to play for Leeds at a time when they were dismissed and despised by the London-based press. Perhaps his life would have turned out differently if he had played for the media darlings of Manchester United.

Watch a recent film of Best’s life and one could despair at the focus on his problems with alcohol at the expense of the celebration the joy he brought to millions as footballer. It is the same with Albert Johanneson. You can chose to remember the tragic individual who resorted to drink to deal with his increasing social isolation or the brilliant footballer with the smiling face whose skills lit up Elland Road as he tormented a succession of full-backs. I know which I choose.

Albert’s headstone is inscribed with the words: “I rise, I rise” from an Maya Angelou poem which his daughters chose because they felt it showed “from whence our father came and what he achieved in his short footballing career”. The lines from the poem are a fitting tribute to a man who escaped from the shackles of the apartheid regime in South Africa to become a pioneering and inspirational figure in the fight against institutional racism in football, and blazed a trail for the first generation of British-born black footballers.

By Paul Mc Parlan  

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