Albert Johanneson: The First Black Man to Star in an FA Cup Final
Albert Johanneson was a pioneer of the 1960s and will go down as a history maker for being the first black man to play in an FA Cup Final. Richard Greenwood writes about this forgotten hero who drives inspiration for generations to come.
“Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide…
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
In a north Leeds cemetery, an epitaph reads above. These words are from civil rights activist Maya Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise’ and they are engraved on the gravestone of one of the most important men to ever grace the beautiful game – Albert Johanneson.
When Manchester United takes on Crystal Palace this weekend in the FA Cup Final, there could be as many as 18 different nationalities represented from outside of Great Britain and Ireland However, in the 1965 final, there was just one player who did not belong to the vast ethnic group of the United Kingdom and its neighbours like Ireland, Wales and Scotland; when he walked onto the hallowed Wembley turf, he was greeted to a hateful chorus of racial abuse. Zulu chants echoed around the terraces, the Liverpool players lining up in the tunnel next to him spat out remarks which today would land you in a cell. In the build-up, one journalist even referred to him as a ‘sambo’.
This Saturday Robbie Savage will talk about Yannick Bolasie with as much vigour as he will about Wayne Rooney. The fans will be singing about Tony Martial and Eric the King with the same zeal. All will be equal before the beautiful game, and they’ll owe that to a large extent to the man affectionately called The Black Flash.
The Birth of a Legend
Albert Johanneson was born in poverty and apartheid stricken Germiston, a small city at the edge of Johannesburg. The 1940s was a hostile period in South Africa. At the age of six, Albert faced segregation. There was no interaction or integration. As such, the black population of the country was virtually anonymous.
It wasn’t until his teenage years when football provided Albert with an escape route. School teacher Barney Gaffney followed his career from the early days and saw something in him. It was Gaffney who gave Johanneson an opportunity to play in England.
He quickly became a name clubs were looking at. Newcastle United was interested, but in January of 1961 the left winger made his way to Leeds for a trial.
He signed for the club in April and would go on to make almost 200 appearances for the Whites.
Apartheid on the Pitch
In The Black Flash: The Albert Johanneson Story, Albert recalls speaking to the great Sir Stanley Matthews who told him, “You are a smashing footballer Albert, but you face a real challenge if you are to be regarded as being equal to your white colleagues.
“There are people in football, administrators, managers and players who won’t like the thought of a black player coming over here and showing off better skills.” He goes on to add, “Your greatest challenge is not to prove your skill and ability, but to deal with and ignore what is said to you by football people and football fans, and how you will be treated.”
Each week Albert had to rise to that challenge. For the most part he was told to toughen up, it was his problem. If he was called a “black bastard”, Leeds manager Don Revie would order his number 11 to call the opponent a “white bastard”.
He spent a decade at Elland Road and every week he was subjected to abuse, not just from fans but players too. As Matthews had predicted, the footballing world didn’t appreciate the sight of someone better than them, least of all a “man raised in filthy rat-infested slums” as one journalist described. At Lincoln City players labelled him a “nigger boy” and a “blackie”, elsewhere it was “Zulu warrior”. Even Don Revie, the Leeds manager failed to acknowledge him just walking down the street.
Where he did find love was on the terraces of Elland Road. The Leeds fans loved him. They acknowledged him, walked over in the street to him, enthused. As he was ‘blessed with skill’, Kids were desperate to have a kick around with him on the pavements of Beeston.
Paul Eubank, a fan who had watched Albert from the stands recalled, “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.”
An FA Cup Landmark
By 1965 Albert had become a regular in the Leeds line-up. The team was starting to mould into the great Don Revie side we remember, reaching the FA Cup Final for the first time in their history.
Albert was going to make history too. The first black player to reach the FA Cup Final, but while Billy Bremner, Jackie Charlton, and Johnny Giles were fuelled with excitement, the number 11 was far from that, vomiting in the toilet, sick at the thought of 100,000 suffocating him with slurs and monkey chants.
The South African walked out onto the pitch and hid for 90 minutes. He looked subdued and failed to lift the Leeds fans with his mazy runs, speed, and skill.
George Best, a huge fan of Albert’s, later said, “Albert was quite a brave man to actually go on the pitch in the first place.”
A brave man he was. While that performance may have not been his finest, it set a precedent. It was beamed onto televisions across the nation. Anyone could do it. If Albert could, why couldn’t a young Jamaican boy living in Brixton or a Nigerian teenager lodging in Liverpool?
It changed football forever. His story makes him a real unsung hero of the FA Cup and indeed the sport in general. Still few media outlets recognize him. But for the many fans, and those black players who sat watching their TV screens that day it filled them with hope.
Lord Herman Ouseley, Chairman of Kick It Out said, “Albert Johanneson was a pioneer of the 1960s and will go down as a history maker for being the first black man to play in an FA Cup Final.”
“He was one of the very first black players who I drew inspiration from during that period of unbelievable stress and struggle, he should be commended for playing for such a long time for Leeds United through such vile abuse from thousands of people each week.”
His Sad Demise
Unfortunately, Albert’s career never recovered from that history-making day at Wembley. He went into decline and by 1970 he was playing at York City. The years of abuse caught up with him. He had turned to alcohol through much of his career to deal with his struggle.
He started treatment in the early 1990s to help battle his alcoholism and spent much of his later life as a recluse. He could never accept, the people of Leeds loved him. His name was a legend but the damage had already been done to the man.
He died in 1995 of meningitis and heart failure in a small flat, his body undiscovered for a number of days.
Paul Harrison, author of The Black Flash: The Albert Johanneson Story wrote this, and it is perhaps not only the perfect extract, but also shows how different things are today. Organisations such as Kick It Out and Football Unites Racism Divides do sterling work, and most players and fans are educated enough to know every player who walks onto a pitch is equal, not in talent, but as people.
“The ambassadorial status that has attached itself to him since his death is warranted, he was a trailblazer and despite what many suggest, he was brave and strong.”
“What he lacked was professional support from individuals and organisations that should have done more.” He added, “It is obvious that Albert was failed not only by society but by the profession he fought so hard to achieve within professional football.”