This week we learned of the tragic death of Cyrille Regis. Part of ‘The Three Degrees’ along with Brendon Batson and Laurie Cunningham at West Brom during the 1970’s. He was undoubtedly a pioneer for black players in the English game. Scouted from non-League club Molesey he went on to be PFA Young Player of the Year for 1978, win five caps for England and later receive an MBE for his services to football. Brian Deane described Regis as ‘the man who started the dream for me and many others’. Remembering Regis makes me think of our own pioneer, the first black player to play in an FA Cup final, Albert Johanneson.
The “Black Flash” was recommended to Leeds by a teacher, after Johanneson starred with Germiston Coloured School and Germiston Colliers. Nick-named ”Hurry, Hurry” in his native country, he came from the poverty of township life in South Africa to star on the football fields of England. Back Leeds United with the latest free betting offers to win their next game. He arrived on a three month trial in January 1961, soon finding the wintry weather far different than what he was used to, but he stuck it out and was signed in April 1961, making his debut the same month.
The crowd soon warmed to him as he supplied the cross which Jack Charlton headed in for the first of his two goals that day. He impressed Manager Don Revie also and he played all five games that remained that season. In the second of those games, in a 0-0 draw at Stoke City on 15th April 1961, he played one game with fellow Black South African winger Gerry Francis for the Elland Road side, Gerry playing at inside right and Johanneson played on the left wing. His bewitching skills, at outside-left, caused havoc amongst Second Division defences. He had great speed, neat ball skills and an eye for goal.
He became 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 1960's gave him a far higher public profile.
Johanneson had explosive pace, a bewitching side-step and the knack of scoring goals and this made him one of the most effective early contributors to the revival at Elland Road. 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. But Johanneson soon had his answer when his team-mates stripped him of his kit and threw him in. It was a no frills welcome but a warm one which he appreciated.
He became a favourite with the Elland Road fans and 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 later occasion he complained to the Manager that an Everton defender, whom he didn't name, had called him a "black ba***rd" during the heat of a particularly bitter match. Revie's advice was to "call him a white ba***rd back."
Leeds were not a very successful side in those early Revie days and Johanneson after playing the first seven games, from which they had lost four, was dropped, with the young John Hawksby taking over left-wing duties. Johanessen was brought back and distinguished himself in Leeds successful battle against relegation in which they drew four and won one. He scored his first Leeds goal on 14th April 1962 in a 1-1 draw at Walsall in the first of those five games, and it was he who scored the opening goal in a 3-0 win at Newcastle United, in the do or die final fixture of the season on 28th April 1962.
He then became firmly established in the side, missing just one game, and was the second top scorer to Jim Storrie with thirteen League goals, as they came fifth in the 1962-63 season. He only missed five games and was joint leading goalscorer with Don Weston again with thirteen League goals as Leeds won the Second Division championship in 1963-64. One goal in that season would linger in the memories of all who were privileged to witness it. It came on Easter Monday, 30th April 1964, in the vital home fixture with Newcastle United, when he brought down a long through balland side-stepped three players before slipping the ball beyond the advancing goalkeeper for the vital second Leeds goal.
He continued to mesmerise his defensive opponents in the First Division. A target for racial abuse, Johanneson's confidence was sometimes undermined by the jibes of his opponents. 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, after extra-time.
In retrospect, that Wembley defeat, when Johanneson became 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.
While no longer a regular Johanneson still had the ability to breach any defence and in European Competitions he is still the only Leeds player to have recorded two hat-tricks at that level. On 26th October 1966 in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup Second Round Second Leg at Elland Road, he scored the first goal in the twentieth minute and the second goal in the thirty-third minute and completed his treble with the fifth Leeds goal in the seventy-fifth minute top make the score 5-1, which was the final score. His second came on 17th October 1967 in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup First Round Second Leg at Elland Road, when he scored the first Leds goal after ten minutes and the second after thirty-four minutes and completed his hat-trick with the final Leeds goal in the eightieth minute as they won 7-0 against Spora Luxembourg.
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 thirty-first 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, but scored three goals in twenty-six appearances before retiring in June 1972. He moved back to South Africa for a spell of coaching but returned to Leeds where he fell under the influence of drink and drifted through life as a lonely and broken man.
Upon leaving the game, the good life soon disappeared for the South African. He lived in squalor with his brother Trevor and struggled against alcoholism. Towards the end of his life Johanneson had little to remember of the glory days of his soccer career. His marriage had broken up, and he had little or no money. Friends made efforts to get Johanneson to beat the bottle and a dinner was held at Elland Road in his honour, but he was unable to win his personal battle and was found dead in his high-rise flat in Leeds on 29th September 1995, aged fifty-five, although it is thought that he died several days earlier.
A number of club officials and ex-players attended Albert's funeral at Lawnswood Cemetary in Leeds and probably reflected how the sporting limelight can some years afterwards leave our heroes struggling alone with alienation.
For more LUFC player profiles and history visit OzWhite's Leeds United FC History.
Albert Johanneson, The Black Flash