Leeds United nostalgia: Johanneson was a football pioneer

Albert Johanneson.
Albert Johanneson.
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The tragedy that surrounds the career and life of Albert Johanneson casts a dark cloud over what he achieved in his sporting life.

He was undoubtedly a pioneer, the footballing equivalent of the Christopher Columbus, a man exploring uncharted territory.

Johanneson was the first black person to feature in the final of the FA Cup, playing at Wembley for Leeds United against Liverpool in 1965. This set a precedent that builds up to today’s multicultural footballing world.

The very fact that Johanneson reached this peak would have been seen as a pipe dream at first. He grew up in a poverty stricken township in Apartheid-torn South Africa, limited from birth by the racism that pervaded his country. It was pure luck that led to a teacher recommending Johanneson to Leeds United, having seen him play for Germiston Coloured School.

Signed following a three-month trial in 1961, he soon made his debut for the first team. Johanneson was a key part of Don Revie’s side as he looked to take Leeds United out of the Second Division. Their attacking movement was almost entirely based around the South African winger’s silky skills and wide play.

It took Leeds three seasons to escape the division under Revie, eventually doing so in 1964. Johanneson was an integral part of the side, finishing the season as joint top goalscorer in the division.

Johanneson continued to impress in the First Division, the side’s success culminating in Leeds’ appearance in the aforementioned final and a second place finish in their first season in the top flight.

Problems began to build, however, with racial abuse from the sidelines becoming more and more of an issue. On the field, Johanneson suffered from a series of injuries. The emergence of Eddie Gray in his position also created increased competition for Johanneson, and he fell down the pecking order.

Albert would go on to make only 10 more appearances for Leeds before departing the club to join York City in 1970.

It was after the football ended that trouble began to stir for him. His problems with alcohol began to develop. This was, in part, not helped by the crowd that formed around Johanneson, nor the keenness of the residents of Leeds to toast him whenever possible.

Even sadder, Johanneson never seemed to realise the affection and esteem that people held him in, writing in 1982: “I am not important in this world, people outside of Leeds and perhaps Yorkshire will not remember me.

“People see me as being different. I am black.

“I am not a hero. I am not very interesting at all.”

As you look at the footballing landscape today, you have to say that Johanneson was simply wrong. He was a hero, a man who changed football. He made it possible, in part, for players to be judged by their talent, not the colour of their skin. Johanneson will be noted heavily in the history of the game, and deservedly remembered for a long time to come.

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