Albert Johanneson was racially abused during his childhood and left South Africa in 1961 but the shy and skilful Leeds United winger struggled in England too and was left traumatised by events at the 1965 FA Cup final
Albert Johanneson at Wembley a couple of days before the Cup Final.
Albert Johanneson at Wembley a couple of days before the 1965 FA Cup Final. Photograph: ANL/Rex Shutterstock
Thursday 28 May 2015 10.01 BST Last modified on Monday 4 April 2016 14.01 BST
Share on LinkedIn Share on Google+
Save for later
The players are in the Wembley tunnel. Liverpool are on the right, Leeds are on the left. Among the players in white is Albert Johanneson, a South African who is about to make history. He is to become the first black player to play in the FA Cup final.
Except, he wants to be back in the dressing room, away from the abuse. His confidence is drained, his body is shaking. He spends much of the time before the game in the toilet vomiting and suffering from diarrhoea. He asks Don Revie if he can be dropped. The Leeds manager refuses. Waiting to go out on to the turf, he is approached by someone who says: “You’ve got no chance looking like you do. Our fans will murder you.”
This was not what Johanneson had expected when he first came to England in January 1961. Before his arrival, he saw the country as a place where he could live out a dream, where he could earn enough money to provide for his family, where he could escape the racism of apartheid South Africa. That last one was key. Johanneson’s youth in Germiston was characterised by racism and violence. There was one event he remembered vividly. One day, aged no more than six, he was playing with his friends on a street corner. A car stopped near him and a white boy of the same age leaned out and spat in Johanneson’s face. Johanneson did not move. The boy giggled and did it again. Then the driver of the car reached out and whipped Johanneson across his neck with a cane. His friends ran when the man got out of his car.
Johanneson could not. He was on the ground in pain. The man kicked him and drove off. Understandably scarred by incidents like this, Johanneson was of a nervous disposition. He was the retiring type, far more bashful than boisterous.
As a child, football did not interest him. In the suffocating climate of a South Africa (he was born in 1942 and was six years old when the country introduced apartheid), he liked the freedom that running afforded him. He was talented and would beat friends with ease. In his teenage years, a friend told him he could go even faster should he improve his technique.
Johanneson took his advice and started practising with old tennis balls. He would spend hours each day controlling them, kicking them, flicking them and running along rocky roads with the ball at his feet. After a while he became so good the locals would come watch him and bet on whether or not he could perform particular tricks.
One day when he was practising, Johanneson was approached by a man from a local team. They were a player short and asked did he fancy getting involved. Johanneson had not played football in a long time and was reluctant at first – memories of being kicked around the pitch by a roughhouse full-back came rushing back – but he eventually agreed.
With no boots, he played bare-footed. He set up one goal, scored another and left the pitch in the arms of his team-mates. Athletics was forgotten about and football became his teenage passion. From this local team, he moved to play for Germiston Coloured Schools and from there he joined Germiston Caledonian Society Amateur Football Club.
It was there he was scouted by a local school teacher named Barney Gaffney. It was Gaffney who informed Johanneson that people from Newcastle were coming to watch him and it was Gaffney who would organise a three-month trial for him with Leeds United in January 1961.
Johanneson’s introduction to Leeds was tough. There was a layer of cold, soft snow on the ground and plenty of tough, ugly tackles laid on him in training. Nonetheless, once he settled, his skills and speed impressed all around him, including Revie. On 5 April 1961, he became the newly-appointed manager’s first signing for the club and in the drab world of England’s Second Division football, he would light up a city more concerned with rugby league and a football side built on pragmatism.
The Leeds players watch on as Johanneson performs some tricks.
Facebook Twitter Pinterest
The Leeds players watch on as Johanneson performs some tricks. Photograph: Evening Standard/Getty Images
“I had heard of him but never seen him play,” said Johnny Giles, who joined Leeds two years after Johanneson. “He played on the left wing, very quick, good control, good goalscorer. He was outstanding.” Billy Bremner was similarly enthusiastic about Johanneson’s talents. “When he joined Leeds the rest of the team stood open-mouthed, drooling over his trickery. He was a bloody excellent player and had so much pace and strength, he was a great athlete.”
Jock Stein, the great Celtic manager, agreed with Giles and Bremner about Johanneson’s ability but believed that the South African “had no balls” and that “he wasn’t tough enough”. The scars across Johanneson’s legs would suggest otherwise and Giles had little doubt about his resilience. “If he got a kick, he [would get up and] would go again” – and George Best did too. “In those days, Albert was quite a brave man to go on the pitch in the first place, wasn’t he?”
That bravery was exhibited in his debut against Swansea three days after signing his contract. He first heard racist abuse coming from the opposite dressing room and then from the stands. The fans made monkey noises and jumped up and down. Johanneson didn’t score but he did make a mockery of the full-backs, time after time using his quick feet and deft touch to leave them stuck in the mud and looking foolish after they had rushed in to try clatter him. He also set up several chances for Jack Charlton one of which was a perfectly weighted cross that led to a goal as Leeds drew 2-2. After the match, Johanneson, a man forever uncertain of his place, was unsure if he could bath with his white team-mates. They stripped him, picked him up and threw him in.
There was no escaping the abuse around the away grounds but the supporters at Elland Road worshipped Johanneson. “Albert was a hero to the Leeds fans,” Giles says, “they loved him.” Paul Eubank, who watched Johanneson from the terraces and has worked to preserve his memory, agrees.
“My dad used to take me to Elland Road in the 1960s so I saw Albert play and I never saw someone with such skill before. So, apart from my father, Albert instantly became my hero. When I was playing football as a kid in the streets, I never wanted to be Bobby Charlton or George Best or Denis Law, I always wanted to be Albert.”
Albert Johanneson of Leeds United, with fans at the Hendon’s ground in London during a training session before the FA Cup final against Liverpool in 1965.
Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Albert Johanneson of Leeds United, with fans at the Hendon’s ground in London during a training session before the FA Cup final against Liverpool in 1965. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images
In that first season of 1960-61, Johanneson played his part as Leeds avoided relegation but for much of the following term, he was replaced by John Hawksby. He scored his first goal for the club in January 1962 in an FA Cup match but only featured once before a crucial mid-April match against Walsall.
By that stage of the season, Leeds were, once more, contenders for the drop into Division Three and every point was vital. At Fellows Park, Johanneson scored as Leeds came away with an important 1-1 draw. Two weeks later, Leeds were playing away to a mid-table Newcastle United. Johanneson stole the show, scoring once and setting up another as Leeds won 3-0. Leeds would survive relegation by a mere three points.
In 1962-63 Revie’s side finished fifth, four points short of an automatic promotion place, as Johanneson became a more regular and more important fixture in the Leeds side. In one match, according to Ian Guild in the Yorkshire Post, he was so good he was applauded by his team-mates on his way to the dressing room. However, it was during the following season that Johanneson played his best football for the club. Once again his skills and style were to the fore but now he also added goals to his repertoire and he finished the season as the club’s joint top scorer in the league with 15 goals. Thanks in no small part to Johanneson’s efforts, Leeds won the league and promotion to the top flight.
Leeds’ first season back in the top division saw them finish second in the league (on goal difference) and reach that 1965 FA Cup final. This was a major event for the club and the city. Leeds had never reached the final before and the headline on the souvenir edition of the Yorkshire Evening Post read, in big, block, capital letters: “Wembley at last!”
Johanneson, like the rest of the Leeds players, spent the week signing autographs and being showered with free meals, drinks and compliments. A far cry from the time some restaurant owners would ask him to sit elsewhere in case he put the customers off their food. It should have been the biggest moment in his career but, instead, the racist abuse he suffered before the game left him a nervous wreck.
Liverpool's Roger Hunt is denied by Leeds United's Bobby Collins
Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Liverpool’s Roger Hunt is denied by Leeds United’s Bobby Collins during the 1965 final. Photograph: PA Photos
Those pre-match Wembley words were aimed to put one of Leeds’ danger men off his game and they worked. The abuse would get no better outside. “When we walked out,” Johanneson told Paul Harrison, who has written a book about Johanneson called The Black Flash as well as a play about his life, “all I could hear was a cacophony of Zulu-like noises coming from the terraces. It was dreadful, I could barely hear myself think for those screams. I wanted to run back down the tunnel.
The famous turf itself made things worse. In Revie’s words, it was a “shit pitch for fancy football.” He advised his winger to use his pace “run like the wind and don’t let the jungle bunny chanting get to you”. But, of course, it did, as did Liverpool’s tackling. Johanneson was chopped down early in the game and hit with a few sly punches. He disappeared from view and in the words of Giles, “did not contribute”. “He had a very, very bad match,” adds Giles.
Indeed, the only mention he received in Eric Todd’s match report for the Observer was in the team box. Liverpool won in extra-time and Revie approached Johanneson after the game. “Albert,” he said, “you let yourself and your family down today, you went hiding.”
Many observers see that match as the turning point in Johanneson’s career but Giles believes that match merely confirmed what he had already suspected.
“Albert was brilliant in the second division,” he says, “and when we got promotion at Swansea, I remember going back on the train and there was a group of us in the carriage. Leeds were a young team ... many had never played in the first division. I’d played in the first division and Albert asked me, ‘what’s the first division like?’ I said: ‘it’s great, you go Old Trafford and Anfield and there are the big crowds’. But Albert sort of shook his head. And I remember thinking: ‘that’s not good’. I think in his head, it was too much for him ... he didn’t play well in the first division at all.” And he did not play much for Leeds in his four years at the club after that final.
There would be the odd game here and there against the smaller sides and the odd sparkle of his old talent – he scored a hat-trick against DWS Amsterdam in the Fairs Cup as well as one against Spora Luxembourg – but injuries and a taste for alcohol took over. As did Eddie Gray.
Hours before a game against Burnley, Johanneson had been drinking heavily. At one point in that match, the footage shows Johanneson lying on the turf in the opposition box. The play goes on around him. From his prone position, he watches as Gray picks up the ball wide on the left and dances his way through the Burnley defence before scoring one of the most memorable goals in Leeds’ history. Johanneson remembers looking at Gray and realising that at that very moment his career at Elland Road was over. He was right. He would never play for Leeds again.
The grave of Johanneson.
Facebook Twitter Pinterest
The grave of Johanneson. Photograph: Gary Calton
Johanneson’s marriage dissolved along with his career. He moved to the fourth division and York City in 1970 but two years later, overweight and over drinking, they let him go. He moved back to South Africa for a season but was soon back to Leeds, where he worked some odd jobs including washing dishes in a Chinese restaurant.
When he was broke he would approach people with a telegram that informed him of his father’s death. He would show it under the pretext of raising cash for a flight home. It was a ruse. His father had died years before that. People tried to get him clean but Johanneson ended up in a squalid flat drinking cider, eating sausages and watching Hawaii Five-O on a black and white TV. He would die in that flat, his body undiscovered for days.
Johanneson’s gravestone is engraved with some words from a Maya Angelou poem. “I rise I rise, I rise,” it says. The words provide a fitting tribute to a man who rose from the South African dust to blaze a trail and begin football’s long journey against racism.