OBITUARY: Albert Johanneson

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The Independent Online
Albert Johanneson was the first black footballer to achieve true prominence in the English professional game. Others before him, such as Roy Brown, of Stoke City, and Doncaster Rovers' Charlie Williams (who became better known as a comedian), enjoyed worthy careers just after the Second World War, but the personable South African's dashing exploits with Leeds United in the 1960s gave him a far higher public profile.

Johanneson was a left winger whose explosive pace, bewitching sidestep and knack of scoring goals made him one of the most effective early contributors to the revival at Elland Road inspired by Don Revie.

Having been recommended to the then Second Division club by a teacher in his home town of Johannesburg, the 21-year-old Johanneson impressed on a three-months trial with Leeds, and then became one of Revie's first signings in April 1961. Conditioned by a life of rigid apartheid, Johanneson was understandably unsure of himself initially, not even knowing if he was allowed to join his white colleagues in the team bath. They responded by stripping him of his kit and plunging him in; a rough-and-ready welcome but a warm one which he appreciated.

Thereafter, Johanneson settled well both on and off the pitch, winning promotion to the senior side, and became a favourite with the Elland Road fans. They, like the vast majority of other supporters, judged him purely on his merits as a footballer, and he stood out as one of the few entertainers in an essentially dour team. Incidents of racism were extremely rare, though on one occasion he complained that an Everton defender, whom he didn't name, had called him a "black bastard" during the heat of a particularly bitter match. Revie's advice was to "call him a white bastard back."

Johanneson distinguished himself in the latter stages of Leeds's successful battle against relegation in 1961-62, then became firmly established in the side and was the joint top scorer with 13 League goals as they won the Second Division championship two years later.

He was especially effective in tandem with the club's skipper, Bobby Collins. As the effervescent little Scottish schemer put it: "Albert could fly and I could put the ball on the spot for him. When he was in his stride there weren't many who could catch him."

Johanneson's performing peak came, perhaps, in 1964-65, when the newly promoted Leeds were pipped for the title only on goal average by Manchester United, then lost the FA Cup Final to Liverpool. In retrospect, that Wembley defeat - Johanneson was the first black player to appear in a final, but made disappointingly little impact - marked something of a watershed in his career. It was as though his self-belief, always rather fragile, had taken a severe knock and he was never quite the same again.

Soon after that he lost his place to the England international Mike O'Grady, and then became increasingly peripheral through a combination of niggling injuries and the rise of the brilliant Eddie Gray. Accordingly, Johanneson was no more than a bit player as Revie's Leeds matured into a mighty footballing force and it was no surprise when he left to join York City, of the Fourth Division, in the summer of 1970. Though in his 31st year, he had much to offer the Minster men and in his one full season at Bootham Crescent, he helped them gain promotion. He continued to be dogged by fitness problems, however, and retired in 1971.

In the years that followed, Johanneson fell on hard times and his health suffered as he became dependent on alcohol. A gentle fellow, he had been popular with his team-mates, some of whom attempted to help him over his difficulties.

Poignantly, though, he died alone in a tiny council flat in a Leeds tower block, aged only 55, and had reportedly been dead for several days before his body was discovered. It was a pitiful end for a man who, in his pomp, had thrilled huge crowds and earned their affection.

Ivan Ponting

Albert Johanneson, footballer; born Johannesburg 12 March 1940; played for Leeds United 1961-70, York City 1970-71; died Leeds c24 September 1995.