Albert Johanneson: First Black Footballer to Play in FA Cup Final
Albert Johanneson waited anxiously in the tunnel at Wembley Stadium knowing that he was about to make history as the first black man ever to play in an FA Cup Final.
England’s showpiece competition – the oldest football cup in the world - is all about making dreams come true and the 1965 final was no exception.
Albert had, after all, come all the way from a repressed youth in apartheid South Africa to one of football’s biggest stages.
Running onto the field that day 50 years ago to play for Don Revie’s Leeds United against Liverpool, Albert did indeed become a pioneering role model for all the black players that have graced our game over the past half a century.
But the fairytale ends about there.
If this were a Disney feel good movie, the silky winger so fast he was nicknamed the “Black Flash” would have scored the winner and been carried shoulder high off the pitch by his adoring teammates.
The truth was that he had already suffered such a barrage of racist abuse – including being called names in the media in the run-up and even facing taunts from his opponents in the minutes before the game – that he asked to be substituted before kick-off.
“I went to Don Revie to pull me out of the team because I wanted to protest and make a stand so people could see that what they were doing to me was wrong. He didn't want to hear about my feelings,” Albert told his biographer Paul Harrison.
"It was awful, my whole body was trembling and I just didn't feel like I could play," he added. "In the tunnel before we came out onto the pitch some of the Liverpool players got at me, calling me dreadful things. Ordinarily I would have risen above this sort of behaviour, but it affected me."
He performed poorly in the game, which Liverpool won 2-1 after extra time, and never truly regained his confidence.
"It felt as though I had let down everyone who'd ever known me. I may have made black football history, but believe me when I tell you, I still look back on that game with much despair and sadness,” he said.
This from a man who faced some level of vile abuse at almost every game he played from opposition supporters even as he was adored by Leeds fans for his lightning wingplay that would, Harrison writes in The Black Flash: The Albert Johanneson Story, ‘transform the ugliest and dreariest of gloomy Yorkshire days into a much brighter place as he raced at defenders, putting them on their backsides or leaving them behind, always with a beaming and very proud smile on his face.”
He was described by England manager Sir Alfred Ramsey as being the only player in Europe at the time comparable to George Best and the Irish genius himself noted that “in those days, Albert was quite a brave man to go on the pitch in the first place, wasn’t he? And he went out and did it. He had a lot of skill. A nice man as well, which is, I suppose, the more important thing, isn't it? More important than anything."
As it turned out, being a nice man wasn't enough to save Albert from the emotional impact of the abuse he suffered as a sportsman.
Born in 1942, he was six when his country introduced apartheid and he was subjected to racial violence at first hand in Johannesburg, being spat at and beaten by a white father and son who attacked him in the street as a boy.
It was supposed to be different when he arrived in England in 1961 after being recommended to Leeds by a South African schoolteacher. In the ensuing nine years, he played 200 times for the club and scored 68 goals.
In that time, especially in the couple of years leading up to that fateful FA Cup Final appearance, he was a major reason Leeds was able to lift itself out of the then Second Division in 1964 and take its place among the very best teams in the country.
Understanding the difficulties he faced, teammates like Billy Bremner and Johnny Giles have spoken warmly of Albert’s immense talent.
But the pressure slowly took its toll, with the final as a major catalyst. He faced relentless racist chanting and the hurling of bananas.
By the late 1960s his football career was in decline and his marriage was in trouble. When his wife and children left him in the 1970s he was drinking heavily in his lonely Leeds apartment, living on memories and handouts from friends.
He died in 1995, his body lying in a Leeds council flat for days before it was discovered.
On Saturday, Albert was honored before the Arsenal vs Aston Villa final in a way long overdue recognition of the sacrifices and strides he made for every young player in the game whatever their color.
I am writing this to remind readers just how hard won these gains were and how preciously we must value them. The game wasn’t enough for Albert Johanneson; it couldn’t protect him from the worst of human nature.
But all these years later we can continue to protect his legacy and ensure he rests in peace.