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The Brilliance And Sadness Of The Black Flash

Published 6 years ago
By Forbes Africa

In May, 90,000 people were at Wembley Stadium, in London, for the FA Cup final between Arsenal and Aston Villa. A special guest was Yvonne Johanneson whose father played, against the tide, in the final half a century before.

“My [younger] sister Alicia and I were too young to see him playing, but we certainly remember him training at home and really enjoying the physical fitness that his career afforded him. He also loved to play football with the boys in the neighborhood whenever he had a chance,” Yvonne says.

On May 1, 1965, at Wembley, Albert Johanneson made history, but the African winger was sick as hell. The rain belted down. To the intimidating chants of 100,000 supporters, 22 footballers limbered up in the tunnel. This was the FA Cup final between Leeds United and Liverpool. This was also a small piece of history as Johanneson became the first African in an FA Cup final.

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Minutes before the game, Johanneson had been throwing up in the toilet and struggling with diarrhoea. Because of his condition, he asked Don Revie, his manager, to drop him. Revie refused; he thought Johanneson was being too soft and never forgave him.

In the tunnel, an opponent turned to Johanneson.

“You have got no chance looking like that. Our fans will murder you,” he said.

The final was goalless until three minutes into extra time. Roger Hunt broke the deadlock to give Liverpool the lead. Captain Billy Bremner equalized for Leeds. Liverpool scrambled the winning goal on 111 minutes, with a diving header from Ian St John. This ended Liverpool’s 75-year wait for a trophy. Johanneson had a poor game but it was remarkable that he was even there.

Before his English career, Johanneson grew up with racism and violence in South Africa. He remembered an incident when he was six years old playing football with friends in the street in Germiston. According to the history of Leeds United, a car stopped and a white boy of his age jumped out and spat in his face. Johanneson didn’t move while his tormentor laughed. The boy spat again. Then the driver, his father, also jumped out with a cane and whipped Johanneson across his neck. Johanneson’s friends ran away, leaving him bleeding on the ground.

These same mean streets also brought Johanneson luck. Barney Gaffney, a Germiston school teacher scouting for Leeds United, spotted the young Johanneson. The 20-year-old went to England for a three-month trial in late 1960. This changed his life. He was signed and made his debut in April the following year.

This was England in the 1960s – the days when boarding houses displayed signs in the window that read: ‘No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs’. There were virtually no black players in the English Premier League. Gerry Francis, also from Johannesburg and a Leeds player, was one of the few. It is believed Francis was one of the reasons Johanneson chose to go into the tough world for outsiders.

“My dad was even reluctant for my mother to attend the matches, which she initially found odd; but now we have a better understanding of why that could have been. It appears obvious that he wanted to protect her from hearing racial slurs being hurled at him. As you know, he left apartheid South Africa, only to be greeted with the same level of racism and discrimination when he arrived in England,” says Yvonne.

Yvonne says her father bottled everything up. She says one of the things she admired him for was not speaking badly about anyone; he made friends easily.

Johanneson also made a remarkable debut, on the wing, in a home 2-2 draw with Swansea on April 8, 1961. He created one of Jack Charlton’s two goals with a pinpoint cross. As his teammates ran towards him to celebrate, Johanneson froze. Back home, in South Africa, it meant trouble if a black man saw white men running towards him.

It was his deft and silky skills, plus devastating speed, that earned his nickname: The Black Flash. In the 1963/64 season, Johanneson was the top scorer for Leeds United with 15 goals, as the club won the second division title.

“He showed all the flair and loose-limbed speed for the game… High of action, he moved with supple grace, his feet scarcely touching the ground as if it were hot coal,” says Jack Charlton, a World Cup-winning center half and recipient of many of Johanneson’s crosses, in the club’s archive.

The shy and unconfident Johanneson was even daunted by the team bath. He was not sure whether he could bathe with his white teammates. The Leeds players saw this and stripped him naked and hurled him into the bath, good naturedly, to show him he was one of them. Johanneson was also puzzled when a white apprentice cleaned his boots. It would have never happened in South Africa.

The Times described him, rather patronizingly, as the colorful, popular, Johanneson from Johannesburg, whose gazelle-like speed down the wing draws the crowds to the terraces; an exciting player in the mould of the dusky Brazilians.

It helped make Johanneson a target for rough defenders. In an FA Cup semifinal, against Manchester United, he limped off before half time, thanks to a crunching tackle from midfield hard man Nobby Stiles. He lost his first team place and was never the same player again.

“Albert had no confidence. He could play, he was bloody quick… But it was as if Albert couldn’t believe it was happening to him, as if he thought a black man wasn’t entitled to be famous,” Bremner, the late Scottish international, says in the Leeds United archives.

“On his day he could skin any fullback, but he lacked the consistency and it was unfortunate that Albert was around at the same time as Eddie Gray. He was one of Don Revie’s most promising signings but when Eddie got a grip of his place on the wing, something had to give and Albert found himself in the reserves.”

“Albert was a jovial character around the dressing room, you know, and obviously he had a lot of talent. When I first came to the football club I played as a midfielder and Albert played as a winger. Eventually I took over from Albert because the manager at the time, Don Revie, felt we had a lot of good midfield players and he wanted me to try and play outside left. Albert had terrific pace and could dribble by people, could score a goal. I think Don was a little concerned that he couldn’t take it in the Premier League, the bigger league, because when Albert started playing we were in the second division,” says Gray.

“I never played with an African player and funnily enough it was very rare for a black South African player to come and play in England then… Albert was a pioneer. I feel he was the first black player from South Africa to make a name for himself and he did very well for Leeds United, he was a colorful lad and he was joyous and loved to play football.”

In his nine years at Leeds, Johanneson scored 76 goals in 200 appearances, with a couple of hat-tricks. In 1970, he was on the transfer list, as well as in the reserves, and was snapped up by a fourth division York City. At his new team, Johanneson managed 26 league games, with three goals, as York clinched promotion. He set up many of the 26 goals for leading goal-scorer Paul Aimson. In the 1971/72 season, Johanneson was offered a free transfer, but there were no takers. He retired as his injury problems grew.

Brendon Batson, the FA consultant and Arsenal’s first black player, says Johanneson helped pave the way for the scores of successful black players in the English game today.

“For a young black aspiring player seeing him playing in Wembley was fantastic. So his impact in terms of history became significant; more black players started coming to the fore. I think clubs started to see black players could make a contribution even though the stereotypical views would be expressed at that particular time,”

he says.

Sadly, Johanneson’s later life saw steep decline.

“It is not a secret that my dad suffered from alcoholism which affected his marriage. When the situation became too difficult for my mother, we returned with her to Jamaica in 1975. My mother and her sister subsequently moved to the United States in the 1980s and I joined her with my family in the late 1990s,” says Yvonne.

Johanneson remained in England with scant contact with his family. But Yvonne was to see her father again when she was a postgraduate student in France in 1984. Johanneson died alone on September 24, 1995, in Leeds. American poet Maya Angelou agreed to a family request to have her poem ‘Still I Rise’ inscribed on his headstone.

“Despite the humble beginnings from which he came, he engendered hope in others as a pioneer and brought pride to his race. Today, in spite of the fact that many have tried to disregard his contribution to the sport, his legacy can never die, as the poem says, ‘Still I Rise’,” says Yvonne.

It is arguable Johanneson has not received the recognition he deserves.

“My sister and I would very much like my father to be remembered for the joy he brought to the people watching him play. We firmly believe Albert should be recognized for the contribution he made in [British] football as a pioneer, who like Arthur Wharton, Andrew Watson and Walter Tull, paved the way for the black footballers. Although his influence was most prominent in [Britain], we would also like his legacy to be known in the land of his birth, South Africa. Lucas Radebe and Philemon Masinga are names synonymous with British Premier League football in South Africa, we feel that Albert should be equally recognized by his countrymen as a trailblazer who paved the way,” she says.

The last word on Johanneson goes to another battler, Angelou: I am the dream and hope of the slave, I rise, I rise, I rise.

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Related Topics: #Albert Johanneson, #Arsenal, #Aston Villa, #London, #September 2015, #Wembley Stadium, #Winger.