Leeds United & Albert Johanneson, 1960s

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
January 5, 2019

“When we walked out, all I could hear was a cacophony of Zulu-like noises coming from the terraces. It was dreadful, I could barely hear myself think for those screams. I wanted to run back down the tunnel." Albert Johanneson

The 1965 FA Cup final was not a classic. In what looked a damp but muggy day at Wembley, Liverpool and Leeds slogged their way through ninety scoreless minutes and eventually into extra time. The short British Pathé film of the final does it few favours, either, consisting almost solely of strange, slow motion footage of Gary Sprake catching routine crosses and making simple saves.

Albert Johanneson barely features at all. He’s there at the beginning, looking lean and athletic as Leeds stride out behind Don Revie, and he can be seen on the fringes of the play a few times, trying to influence a game which would ultimately pass him by.

Liverpool would win in extra-time. Roger Hunt had opened the scoring, nodding home from close range with Sprake stranded. Billy Bremner would equalise, thumping past Tommy Lawrence from the edge of the box. But, three minutes from the end, the cup was Liverpool’s, with Ian St. John beating Sprake with another header, just three minutes from time.

It was a day of firsts. It was the first time Leeds had reached a final, having never previously gone beyond the quarters. It was Bill Shankly’s first FA Cup win as a coach. And, in Johanneson, the occasion had its first black player.

The picture above isn’t taken from that day, but the quote beneath it is. What Johanneson truly felt in those moments is lost to time, but the horror of what he experienced to get there is – sadly – far easier to comprehend. A white person can’t really relate to the suffering of those first black players or understand how the naked bigotry they were exposed to impacted upon them. Unfortunately, enough anecdotes exist to make the reality imaginable enough.

Dwell, for instance, on the title of Clyde Best’s autobiography: The Acid Test.

Best was another pioneer. He was Bermudian and Johanneson was South African, but their experiences of the English football landscape were – sadly – likely very similar. In the prologue of his book, Best remembers receiving a letter in the week before a league game in which the sender threatened to throw acid in his face the next time he emerged from the players’ tunnel at Upton Park.

At that was in 1970. Nine years after Johanneson had first played for Leeds.

One of Duncan Hamilton’s childhood memories, recounted in The Footballer Who Could Fly, is of filling a sticker album for the 1967-68 season. In researching his book, he recalled leafing back through it, across the twenty-two different teams and 330 players. Johanneson’s was the only black face he saw. One, in an entire league. Everywhere he went in the division, he would have been different and any time he got off the Leeds coach he would have been the outlet for that region’s festering prejudices.

Reading about him now, one of the common observations of the time seems to be that he met the abuse he received with great strength. That he, like Best, was utterly determined to block out the noise, not let it affect him, and succeed in spite of such hostility. It’s admirable but still deeply depressing and, in both cases, probably more façade than reality. That he recalled the moments before that final with such clarity, for instance, certainly suggests that to have been the case.

“Albert was quite a brave man to actually go on the pitch in the first place.” George Best

In 2015, to mark its fiftieth anniversary, The Guardian’s Ian McCourt remembered the 1965 final. He wrote about how, in the minutes before leaving the dressing-room, Johanneson had been throwing up in the Wembley bathrooms and had actually asked Revie to drop him for the game. McCourt went further back, too, describing Johanneson’s childhood in South Africa and the range of racial abuse he suffered in a country which had recently descended into apartheid’s darkness.

This was someone who had endured a great deal even before he arrived in England; when he did make his debut for Leeds, in 2-2 draw against Swansea, after the match he didn’t know whether he was allowed to bathe with his white teammates. That really does describe where he had come from and how tenuous he must have felt his place in the world to be; over the long term, goodness knows what that does to somebody and what kind of insecurity it breeds.

Johanneson had a friendly face. He had soft features and kind eyes and it’s hard to reconcile the pictures of him with his fate. Or, at least, it’s horrible to have to do so. He left Elland Road in 1970, released by Revie, and would join York City before slipping into retirement two years later at just 32. Accounts of his career’s decline vary. It would, like his life, be slowly lost to a spiral of depression and alcoholism. There’s no clear consensus for why drink took hold of him, but former teammates speculate that First Division life was too much for him, that he was an excellent Second Division player who struggled with the crowds, the expectations and the pressure found at the level above. Whether that began his descent to becoming destitute is hard to say, but it seems reductive not to factor his life’s experiences into the tragedy.

And it was a tragedy. Several teammates have insisted that they tried to bring Johanneson into their old players’ network, but he seemed unreachable or reluctant to engate. Were it not for a chance encounter with George Best in the very early 1990s, when Best happened upon a dishevelled Johanneson in Leeds city centre and took him out to supper at a local hotel, the world might have forgotten about him completely. As it was, Best’s charity inadvertently served to highlight Johanneson’s plight, bringing unkind headlines and mocking tabloid front pages; one final taunt for someone who was already desperately fragile.

When he died from heart failure in September 1995, his body had lain undiscovered in his council flat for nearly a week. He was just 55.

"As young, football-crazy lads growing up in Chapeltown, Leeds, in the early 70s, Albert Johanneson was a name we were all familiar with. He had been an inspiration for the next generation of footballing talent in the city.” Brian Deane

There are many other quotes like that; many other players who were inspired by who Johanneson was and what he could do with a football. In more recent years, the game has become more comitted in its remembrance and most FA Cup finals seem to produce an article or a video commemorating him and recognising his legacy.

But to see that face, to know that future and that terrible ending. To understand what he made possible, but also what he had to experience and become for the sake of such progress.

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