Silverware is often an inducement for greatness, but a lack thereof should never tarnish a player’s claim for the same status. One such player, whose romantic enchantment with the ball at their feet, irrespective of their medals haul, is often the reason why zealots the world over fall for the beautiful game and serves to prove that a stocked trophy cabinet is not always a reliable signature of a timeless footballer. With that comes an introduction to Peter Ndlovu: Zimbabwe’s export to English football who, akin to his compatriot, Bruce Grobbelaar, was predictably unpredictable any time he had the Mitre Ultimax in his possession in the Premiership.
Ndlovu was originally coveted whilst playing for his native Highlanders FC by then-Coventry City manager John Sillett. When he was sacked, in November 1990, his replacement, Terry Butcher, heeded his recommendation and later signed the Zimbabwean ahead of the 1991/92 Division One season, which was to be the final campaign before the inauguration of the Premiership the following August.
Indeed, he became the first African player to feature in the newly-formed league, after a solid debut campaign. Didier Drogba, Yaya Toure and Samuel Eto’o, amongst others, have all since followed, but Ndlovu, who was born in the teeming, bustling city of Bulawayo, was unmistakably the first when he turned out for the Sky Blues under the management of Bobby Gould against Tottenham on 19 August 1992.
Ndlovu’s spell in English football coincided with a time in which racism in the sport was rife. In the years leading up to his arrival from across the Atlantic Ocean, Paul Canoville was booed by his own fans whilst warming up for his Chelsea debut and Cyrille Regis received a bullet through his letterbox after earning his first England call-up. The history books of English football, of course, date back further than 1992. Ghanaian goalkeeper-cum-winger Arthur Wharton was the first professional African footballer in the world, when he signed for Darlington in 1885, and he was by no means given an easy ride.
Ndlovu proved, though, that African players were skilled enough to compete in the early chapters of the Premiership, amidst dreams of an opulent, lavish domicile for England’s elite looking to leave the abominable scenes in football away from the confines of pitch far behind whilst improving the standards on it.
The doltish barbs aimed at black footballers in English football have not often questioned their ability but, instead, their standing in society. Specifically to Africa, it is preposterous that arrivals from a continent which was introduced to football, the belle of the coterie of sports, by travelling Europeans in the 1800s could be rejected, mocked and bullied by the travellers’ descendants years later. Ndlovu, then, is a key figure in closing in on eliminating the vapid, age-old prejudices of the simpletons on the terraces up and down the country.
He had already scored the second of his side’s two goals in a famous 2-1 win at Highbury against Arsenal, and a wonderful solo effort against West Midlands rivals Aston Villa in late-1991, but his aforementioned appearance against Spurs came at the beginning of a covenant of worldwide, elaborate coverage of the reformed English top-flight.
Coventry were one of the most exciting teams in the early epochs of the Premiership. Indeed, they began the competition with consecutive wins against Middlesbrough, Spurs and Wimbledon. Ndlovu, who was partnered in attack by Micky Quinn, scored his first goal of the season in a 2-1 win against Sheffield Wednesday in September 1992. By autumn, Gould’s side had briefly topped the league; they would lose only five matches before Christmas. In a barren run of form, though, they slipped down the table, yet Ndlovu scored in draws against Norwich City, Everton, and Leeds United, to maintain a safe distance from the relegation zone.
A mid-season revival made European qualification a genuine possibility, but the sale of forward Robert Rosario to Nottingham Forest preceded a poor run of results. Ndlovu scored his seventh goal of the season on the final day, at Elland Road to help secure a 3-3 draw, which saw Gould’s side finish in an underwhelming 15th.
The following year, Gould began by using an intrepid formation to try to maintain a push for European qualification that would, he hoped, see his side mount a challenge that lasted longer than 1992/93’s incursion. On the opening day, he set up without traditional full-backs away to Arsenal to press them high up the pitch and crowd the centre of the midfield and wide areas. It worked: Ndlovu enjoyed a free role behind Quinn, who scored a hat-trick in a memorable 3-0 win, which made the previous season’s sojourn in first place look anything but serendipitous.
It was ironic that Ndlovu had starred against Arsenal in such an august victory – which saw George Graham cancel his Arsenal side’s lap of honour to parade their FA Cup and League Cup trophies from the previous season in front of the newly-refurbished North Bank – after the Gunners had made an approach to sign him from Coventry only weeks before. They were, reportedly, willing to offer Gould’s side a British-record fee for his services.
Coventry remained undefeated after their first eight league games, but came unstuck against Leeds, losing 2-0. After a 5-1 defeat to Queens Park Rangers in October 1993, in which Ndlovu scored a consolation goal, Gould resigned and was replaced by his assistant, Phil Neal. Reports suggested that Gould’s decision was influenced by the possible imminent transfer of Ndlovu, which he thought showed a lack of zeal for European football on Coventry’s part.
But Ndlovu stayed at Highfield Road as Coventry became synonymous with quick starts and equally alacritous falls; they finished in 11th. The campaign was headlined by narrow wins against Tottenham and Chelsea, in which Ndlovu scored both winning goals. He ended the season with 11 strikes, making him the club’s top scorer.
The mid-table serenity of 11th spot, though, became a distant reverie in 1994/95. Despite the signing of striker Dion Dublin from Manchester United, Ndlovu and co. struggled to pull away from the four-team-strong relegation zone: they won consecutive Premiership matches only twice before February 1995, which saw Neal sacked and replaced by Ron Atkinson. By this point, Ndlovu had scored only two goals, with Dublin tasked as the side’s main goalscorer. However, he enjoyed a change in fortunes under Atkinson, scoring ten times after the turn of 1995, as the haven of mid-table was reached amidst new-found sangfroid and equanimity by what was a frantic, fast-paced side, just as likely to win comfortably as they were to be humiliated under Gould and Neal.
His good form was embellished by a hat-trick at Anfield, in a venerable 3-2 win against Liverpool in March 1995, he tapped in Dublin’s shot-turned cross and scored a wonderful solo goal low to David James’ left in front of The Kop, either side of a well-taken penalty. In doing so, he became the first visiting player to notch a league treble at Anfield in 30 years.
Despite the signings of Derby defender Paul Williams and Benfica’s Brazilian midfielder Isaías Marques Soares, Atkinson’s side struggled in the Premiership in 1995/96. After a 3-0 loss to Newcastle on the opening day of the season, they were bottom of the table. They rose as high as tenth place, but spent 17 of the 38 game weeks in the relegation zone before eventually securing 16th spot; saved at the expense of Manchester City, along with Southampton, only by goal difference.
Ndlovu’s impact on the side had waned: he finished the season with five goals, as a subsidiary to top-scorer Dublin. He did, though, score in an eminent 5-0 victory against the league’s defending champions Blackburn in December 1995 to end a run of 14 games without a victory. In 1996/97, Coventry again struggled. In November 1996, Atkinson stepped down as manager to be replaced by Gordon Strachan, and Ndlovu saw his first-team opportunities limited under the Scot, mostly due of the form of Dublin and new signing Darren Huckerby. He did not score a Premiership goal and moved to First Division side Birmingham in the close season.
He appeared regularly under Trevor Francis and was pivotal in two campaigns which ended in consecutive play-off semi-final defeats, against Watford and Barnsley. He spent time on loan at Huddersfield, before transferring to Sheffield United for 2001/02. There, he again suffered Division One playoff heartbreak a season later, in a 3-0 final subjugation by Wolves. He left Bramall Lane, and England altogether, in 2004, as he moved to Mamelodi Sundowns of South Africa’s Premier Soccer League. Before retiring in 2011, he also enjoyed spells with Thanda Royal Zulu, Highfield United, and Black Mambas.
Whilst he was salient on his return to African football, over a decade after he had made the 12,800km journey from Bulawayo to Coventry, his thaumaturge on the English game as the cardinal African player of the Premiership era is as seminal as his finishing was adroit. If the Premiership was to become a societal powerhouse, it needed a core of valorous imports to set a precedent for years to come. He made a generation of African stars of European football realise making a career in their betrothed was not beyond peradventure in a new, overabundant, puissant force.
By Ryan Plant @ryanplant1998