Jonny Giles - Irishman; Billy Bremner: Scotsman; Gary Sprake, Welshman; Jack Charlton, Englishman. Don Revie’s Leeds United alumni of the 1960s and 70s reads like of an advert for the benefits of the British Union. They were a team famously moulded in manager Don Revie’s image - tough, unforgiving and white.
It’s perhaps little known in the wider footballing world that South African winger Albert Johanneson was actually Revie’s first signing as manager of the club in April 1961. He went on to become a mainstay of his early years as a manager and the first black player to play in an FA Cup Final — when Leeds lost to Liverpool in 1965. As well as being a skilful fan favourite, he was an antidote to the tough-tackling ‘bite yer legs’ reputation of Revie’s legendary squad.
Johanneson died a penniless alcoholic in the city in 1995, but the trail that he blazed will live on for as long as the game of football is played. He was fast as a Yorkshire whippet, with feet like a ballroom dancer, and his place as one of the racial pioneers in English football cannot be understated.
A bare-footed Johanneson was plucked from the streets of Germiston on the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa, by British school teacher and scout, Barney Gaffney. The scout was impressed with his raw talent, and recommending him to Newcastle United, who Johanneson had never heard of. He would end up travelling to West Yorkshire and Leeds United for a three-month trial —he’d never heard of them either.
Growing up in apartheid South Africa during the 1950s was a harrowing and traumatic time for young black men like Johanneson. He was only eight when the all-white National Party came to power in 1948, and his experiences of racism left him determined to escape through what should be the most equalising of forces — the football.
In an interview with Paul Harrison for his great biography on Johanneson, Black Flash, Johanneson recounted his memories of growing up in South Africa with horror. He said: “Sometimes I lay awake at night and I still see the tortured faces of little children, women, and the vulnerable, each one struggling to come to terms with the inhuman actions of political abuse and sadistic domination over an entire race”.
They were experiences that shook the young Johanneson, and, unfortunately, the familiar spectre of racism followed him to England. He was mercilessly abused on away days even years after leaving his homeland, and he found it difficult to accept his hero status amongst the predominantly white fans of Leeds.
Deer in the headlights
In January 1961, Johanneson arrived at Heathrow Airport like a deer in the headlights. He was knocked to the ground by a stranger who crudely told him to: “get out of the way, nigger”. If this was to be his future and his escape from apartheid South Africa, then it quickly became clear that this was no promised land.
He began a three-month trial in the middle of winter and stayed in a house just streets away from Elland Road in the Beeston area of Leeds. Even today, the area retains an aura of grim, grey functionality, but for Johanneson, it meant he was just was just yards from the sanctuary of the stadium where he was free to go and practice with a football as he pleased.
At the start of his trial, he was given his first pair of football boots, which felt unnatural to the barefooted wonder. He said: “the boots felt terrible. I had the control of a rhinoceros and apologised to everyone for looking so stupid.”
History hasn’t been kind to Don Revie, but outside of Leeds, it’s perhaps overlooked of how much of a radical he was. His manifesto for Leeds United involved razing much of what was at the club stood for to the ground and starting afresh. Leeds wasn’t even a footballing hotbed at his time of appointment, and they had spent much of the post-war years languishing in the Second Division —it was the Rugby League side featuring the swashbuckling Lewis Jones who picked up the civic pride.
Famously, one of Revie's first acts as manager was to change the kit colour to all-white in a bid to replicate Real Madrid’s success and dominance in Europe. By the end of his tenure in the 1974, the gentle mocking of the football world at this apparent gimmick had turned into begrudging admiration at their achievements.
The all-white kit certainly didn’t denote purity, however, and Revie’s Leeds were vilified for their combative and uncompromising style of play. After impressing during his trial, Revie recognised that with Johanneson on the wing, he could offer a creative majesty to his tough side.
Upon the signing of the contract, Johanneson recounts in Black Flash, that Revie told him: “This is my Leeds United, and you’ll answer to me only - do you understand that? Well done, lad, now stop snivelling and get back up that hill”. Revie straddled the line between father figure and cold tyrant, and his relationship with Johanneson was complex and often fractious.
The First Team
The green grass of Elland Road quickly became arable land for Johanneson in the early years of Revie’s tenure, and he was a key figure as the club narrowly avoided relegation in 1961 before achieving promotion back into the First Division a couple of years later.
Already at the club was fellow South-African, Gerry Francis, and the two would go on to be the first two black players to play together in an English league game against Stoke City away, on April 15th, 1961. Francis had been at the club a few years prior to Johanneson, and was able to help him navigate through the choppy political waters that were completely alien territory to Johanneson, who arrived just wanting to play football.
Johanneson was a key part of the Leeds outfit that were promoted from the Second Division in 1964, chipping in with 15 goals and mesmerising a Leeds faithful that quickly took him as one of their own. “He’s better than Eusebio” rang the chants from Elland Road’s Scratching Shed, and it looked like Johanneson would be a key part of Revie’s Real Madrid prophecy. Yorkshire Evening Post sports writer Phil Brown wrote, “When did you last see a winger stop in full stride so shatteringly? — his career was on the rapid ascent.
With Johanneson dancing down the left wing, it gave the side the artistry and flair needed to push into the First Division for the first time since the days of John Charles in the 1950s. After a dismantling of Newcastle in March, Jonny Giles remembers Johanneson’s goals as one of the “most dazzling individual efforts I have ever seen.
"Albert was surrounded by three Newcastle defenders as he brought down a long pass through the middle, and it looked certain that he would be forced away from goal. Yet in the space of five yards, he side stepped them all, one after the other, and nonchalantly slipped the ball past the goalkeeper as he came off his line. Albert was always such a nervous type of person off the field that it was unbelievable that he was capable of expressing himself like that on the field.”
The FA Cup Final
Leeds travelled to Wembley in 1965 and faced Bill Shankly’s Liverpool in their first ever FA Cup Final. The pressure on Johanneson to perform was immense. He was the first black player to play in a Wembley cup final; watching footage of him today walking onto the pitch in the all-white shirt, surrounded by 21 other white players, is a powerful sight, and he admitted that he felt the burden of history on his shoulders.
As so often is the way with the most mercurial players on the biggest stage, he didn’t perform. He was harangued throughout the game by both Liverpool fans and players, but Revie was unsympathetic to any suggestion of his racial abuse affecting his game. Leeds lost the match in extra-time, and Johanneson shouldered much of the blame for the defeat from Revie. He demanded Northern grit – and saw someone who was weak.
Earlier in his career, he had complained to Revie of the abuse he had suffered during a match. Revie’s blunt reply was “Albert, what the bloody hell do you expect me to do about that? Get back out there and call them a white bastard”. This was how it was back then.
After the fact
It’s perhaps too simplistic to judge Johanneson’s career in two parts - before the ‘65 Cup Final and after - but that is the way history has viewed Johanneson’s football career.
After diagnosing weakness, Revie, ever the strong man, would not trust Johanneson again, and even though he stayed at the club until 1970, he would never regain a starting berth in Revie’s side. Leeds United would win the First Division title in 1968/69, but Scottish winger Eddie Gray had long usurped Johanneson as the mainstay on the left-wing. He managed just one substitute appearance in the title winning campaign.
Revie had his favourites, and these names monopolised numbers 1 to 11, while bit-part players like Johanneson found it impossible to penetrate. At the end of his Leeds career, Revie ruthlessly cast him aside with inhuman disregard: “You are finished here, you’re washed up, look at you. I’ve got plans and you don’t figure in them”, recounts Johanneson in Black Flash. If his Leeds career started with a flash, then it ended with a sad whimper.
He gained weight and further sank into the alcoholism that blighted the rest of his life. He moved to 4th division York City and was taunted for being overweight, which he said hurt him almost as much as the racism. Having lost the electric pace that took him to the FA Cup final, he felt robbed of the thing that truly did make him different to the others.
Unlike today, the path from rags to riches was not guaranteed for life, and players were often left to struggle post-retirement. The story goes that on a night out in Leeds, George Best saw Albert, and feeling sorry for him, Best bought him a meal and something to drink.
Best himself was spiralling at that point, which perhaps tells you how far Johanneson’s star had fallen. The Sun ran a sleazy exposé on him with a headline that said: “He’s boozed up and broke”, and Leeds fans would spot him around the city centre, selling newspapers, or going about his business. It was a sad and slow decline that ultimately lead to his death in a Leeds tower block in 1995. He was just 55.
His death brought worldwide obituaries including in the New York Times, which was a reflection on the huge cultural significance of Johanneson’s tenure in English football. He was a shy and humble man, but his talent thrust him into an era of English football that was at best hostile, and at worst, downright racist. His life and career went against the grain in both South Africa and England, but this pioneering trail ultimately came at a high price.
Rather than lingering on the unfortunate end to his life, there has finally been a move in recent years to celebrate his career in football, and on the 50th anniversary of Johanneson’s appearance in the FA Cup Final in 2015, the FA invited his family to Wembley to commemorate not only his pioneering achievements in the game but his remarkable talents with a football that were previously unseen by English audiences.
Albert Johanneson was truly an agent of change.
By IBWM Editor Thomas Barrett.
Header image credit goes fully to footysphere