When Albert Johanneson stepped out on the hallowed ground of Wembley Stadium to play in the 1965 FA Cup final between Leeds United and Liverpool, not only did he make history but he also firmly positioned himself as a trailblazer for what was to follow. Although the winger and his Leeds United team lost 2-1, the South Africa-born Johanneson will forever remain in history books as the first black player to appear in the final of the world's oldest competition.
Beyond his ground-breaking in racial terms, Johanneson's story is fascinating. His path to Wembley began in 1940, when he was born in a township outside Johannesburg. A local teacher, who doubled up as a scout for Leeds, saw Johanneson play and recommended him to the club, who invited him for a three-month trial. 'Hurry Hurry', as he was fondly called by the Leeds fans, so impressed its coaching staff that he was offered a professional contract and played his first match in April 1961. He caused an immediate impact by setting up one of Jack Charlton's goals in a 2-2 draw against Swansea Town.
Johanneson went on to play close to 200 matches for Leeds, highlighted by the FA Cup final appearance, before seeing out his career at York City, for whom he scored three goals in 26 matches before retiring in 1972. Republic of Ireland international Johnny Giles, who played with Johanneson at Leeds, remembers the South African: “He was an amazing player. Really fast and had an eye for goals. But there was, unfortunately, another side to him. He kept very much to himself and struggled to come to terms with things.”
A sad ending
Sadly, Johanneson's life took a downward spiral after he finished his playing career and he succumbed to alcoholism and died, poor and alone, in a Leeds flat in 1995, aged just 55. Giles believes that Johanneson did not receive the help he would have needed to fight off his life stressors: “Today clubs are equipped to deal with those kind of situations. They have psychologists and support staff who can help players who are struggling. Sadly for Albert, that was not the case when he was playing.”
It is an observation that Johanneson's youngest daughter Alicia agrees with: “Were he born in a different time, we might be telling a different story. It’s easy to see how my father lost all sense of hope in the end. And that’s a hard thing for us to bear as his children, a very hard thing. It’s no secret that my father’s alcoholism has overshadowed much of his reputation as an accomplished professional footballer in England.”
There is another side to their father that Alicia and older sister Yvonne remember. The former recalled: “He had an intense love of music, which I think both Yvonne and I have inherited. His favorite type of music was country and western, but he would pretty much listen to anything except metal. He also liked reggae music quite a lot and I remember him playing a lot of Desmond Dekker and the Aces, Jimmy Cliff, Johnny Nash. He had quite an extensive record collection and a powerful stereo system.
“He was also a fan of all types of different sports, and I remember us, as a family, gathering around the television to watch tennis, cricket, and track and field events together and we’d cheer on our favorite personalities. He especially liked to watch boxing. Muhammad Ali was his favorite sports personality. He just loved him. His favorite football player was Eusebio. I think he was like a role model to him."
Alicia is disappointed that her father's memory is not being kept alive more in the country of his birth. “If you look at his stats and talk to people who saw him play, it’s obvious he was one of the good ones, one of a few South Africans who actually made it in top-tier international football at the time," she said. "Everyone looks to the English league as being one of the best and most competitive leagues in the world, and if my father was able to maintain more than a decade’s long career in it, then that has to be saying something. He he was a very humble, meek person by nature and when he was alive I guess he didn’t toot his own horn enough for people to really pay attention and care."
It is a view shared by Godfrey Gxowa. The veteran South African football official, who joined Moroka Swallows a year after the 1950 FIFA World Cup™, wonders why South Africans know so very little about Johanneson and why even less is being done to preserve his memory: “I think if he had been playing for one of the big clubs, like Swallows or Orlando Pirates, he would be a household name. He would be an icon of South African football, a legend on par with the best.”
Poignantly, one person who recognised Johanneson for what he was: Northern Irish legend George Best. The troubled icon, who fought his own demons throughout his life, once by chance happened upon Johanneson in Leeds. Best had gone there for a speaking engagement, but when he saw the South African, he decided that it was more important to offer him a meal and they spent an evening together: "Albert was quite a brave man to actually 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."