Remembering Albert Johanneson's FA Cup final 50 years later

On Saturday, 50 years after becoming the first black player to feature in an FA Cup final, Albert Johanneson will be honoured ahead of this year's Wembley showpiece between Arsenal and Aston Villa.

Johanneson, the South African winger who played for Leeds United vs. Liverpool in 1965, made so many things possible for those who followed him. His own story is almost tragic, by comparison.

In his lovingly written tribute "The Black Flash: The Albert Johanneson Story," which features lengthy reminiscences from the man himself, Paul Harrison wrote: "Without Albert Johanneson, world football may not be as it is today; the Leeds United success story of the 1960s would not have been as exciting. On his day, he could 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."

Praise for Johanneson was no less forthcoming from his peers. Johnny Giles believed Johanneson "would become one of the game's outstanding personalities" while Peter Lorimer said "Albert could be the scourge of defences."

"He was frightening on the wing and used to turn defenders inside out," was Billy Bremner's verdict. "He was fast, clever with the footwork, very accurate with crosses, and had a terrific shot. I always thought that he did not get a fair deal from the media because he was black."

However, perhaps the most eye-catching praise came not from a colleague, but from a man who was merely an interested observer. "There was no comparable footballer of his type in Europe; maybe George Best," said England's World Cup-winning manager Sir Alf Ramsey.

Born in 1940, Johanneson grew up in a township outside Johannesburg and, despite initially showing little interest in football -- "It wasn't something I was really keen on," he told Harrison, "it was primarily a white man's game" -- he eventually grew to love it, and practiced for hours on end with an old tennis ball, developing skills and tricks that would impress people in his neighbourhood.

From there he started playing organised games, earning the nickname "Hurry Hurry" because of his speed -- he didn't like the moniker -- and was spotted by Barney Gaffney, a scout who arranged for him to travel to England in late 1960 for a trial with Leeds.

Upon arriving, the treatment he received was little better than the racism he suffered back home under apartheid in South Africa. Shortly after landing at Heathrow, he was barged to the ground and racially abused, while he was also thrown out of numerous cafes, shops and bars in Leeds simply because he was black. On the pitch, he sufficiently impressed the newly appointed Leeds manager Don Revie to earn a contract with the then-Second Division club.

Revie had replaced Jack Taylor, the manager in charge at Elland Road when Johanneson first came to England and, under Revie's management, the winger set about developing a reputation for flair and exciting play, becoming known as "The Black Flash." In "The Unforgiven: The Story Of Don Revie's Leeds United", Rob Bagchi and Paul Rogerson wrote that Johanneson "lit up Elland Road in its age of austerity" and "was to provide the only element of glamour in a drab Leeds side."

His prowess earned him newspaper attention. A report in The Times of an early game said he "looked and often played like some rising star from Brazil," while, even when the legendary John Charles returned to Leeds from Italy in 1962, Johanneson was the star of the show, with the Guardian reporting he "had the unparalleled effrontery to steal most of the limelight and applause. A great deal more will be heard of him."

Despite the obvious talent, though, Johanneson had little belief in his own abilities -- "Albert had no confidence," said Bremner, who defended him more than most against the racism of the day -- and was moved to tears on numerous occasions after being singled out for rough treatment.

In his very first game for Leeds he described a challenge that "wasn't meant to win the ball, but hurt me," and another where a player "literally kicked my feet away in a wrestling type tackle." In that FA Cup final he described foul play that "continued through the game, long enough for some of my colleagues to bypass moves away from me."

Nevertheless, with his speed and ability Johanneson was a key man when Leeds were promoted to the First Division in 1964. Once there, he continued to be a threat and helped them to the FA Cup final that should have been a defining moment in his career.

However, the final against Liverpool would turn out to be his career in microcosm, an opportunity missed because of racism, a lack of understanding from others and his own fragility.

"When I was named in the team to play against Liverpool I was initially thrilled," he told Harrison. "On the day of the game, I felt my self-confidence draining from me when a journalist referred to me as the 'sambo' [an offensive term used to describe people of African heritage] playing for Leeds ... 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."

Revie made it clear that Johanneson shouldn't want to miss the final because "someone has called you a stupid bloody name," but the damage appeared to be done.

"It was awful, my whole body was trembling and I just didn't feel like I could play," he said. "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."

Johanneson was a peripheral figure, shifted from his usual left flank after an injury to Jim Storrie and unable to influence a relatively dour encounter that Liverpool won 2-1 after extra-time. He never forgot his poor performance.

"It felt as though I had let down everyone who'd ever known me," he said. "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. If I could ever reverse time to have another chance to redeem myself, then I would want another opportunity to play at Wembley."

After the game, his relationship with Revie appeared to disintegrate as the manager openly questioned his claims of racism and accused him of "going hiding" in the final. Johanneson's time at Leeds drifted, as injuries -- both real and "as an excuse from the club for my non-appearance," according to him -- saw him spend more and more time away from the pitch and in the pubs and bars of the city. "I was enjoying a drink, sometimes only once or twice a week, but as I became more and more anxious by Don Revie's attitude towards me, I often drank every day," he told Harrison.

There were still flashes of his talent, but the emergence of Eddie Gray further pushed him to the sidelines. It seemed grimly apt that, in his final Leeds game, he lay on the turf as Gray scored a brilliant goal vs. Burnley.

He pleaded for another chance, but in 1970 Johanneson was sold to fourth-division York City and, despite initial enthusiasm, his career fizzled out due to lack of fitness and motivation. His wife and children left to set up a new life in America, and he spent the better part of the next 25 years drifting, earning money here and there.

Those who had watched him star on the pitch were only too happy to buy him drinks and unwittingly worsen his problems. His former teammates tried to help him out, but in the end there was nothing anyone could do.

Johanneson died in 1995 at just 55, his body lying in a tiny Leeds council flat for days before it was discovered. He was initially buried in an unmarked grave, but eventually a more suitable headstone, paid for by the club and with an inscription from a Maya Angelou poem, was laid in Lawnswood Cemetery, just north of Leeds city centre.

One year after Johanneson played at Wembley, Mike Trebilcock became the first black player to score in the FA Cup final. Fifteen years later, Garth Crooks was the first to win it and, in 1993, Viv Anderson was the first black captain when he led Sheffield Wednesday. For generations of black players, Johanneson was a pioneer.