Long before Lucas Radebe made his mark at Leeds United, becoming “The Chief” in the club’s central defence, there was another South African who served the club with distinction. Albert Johanneson was a left wing who represented the All Whites in 200 matches in the 1960s, netting 68 times.
He helped the club climb out of the Second Division and, in 1965, became the first black man to play in an FA Cup final.
Being a black man meant Johanneson had to deal with plenty of pressure when he played for Leeds. He was often the target of racist insults, and the great George Best said of him: “Albert was quite a brave man to actually go on the pitch in the first place, wasn’t he? And he went out and did it.
“He had a lot of skill. A nice man as well . which is, I suppose, the more important thing, isn’t it? More important than anything.”
From Germiston to Leeds
Considered something of an enigma, Johanneson first joined Leeds in 1961. He was recommended to the club by a teacher in South Africa’s former Transvaal province, who had seen him in action for Germiston Coloured School and Germiston Colliers. After a three-month trial, the English club snapped him up.
While he served the club well, Johanneson’s impact could have been greater had he not been pitted against Eddie Gray for a place in the team; the Scotsman was regarded as one of the better players in the club’s history.
Johanneson had the ability, on his day, to turn opposing defences inside out, but he struggled somewhat to maintain consistency. Nonetheless, his goal scoring record was an envious one. He possessed excellent pace and he, for Leeds supporters at least, became a fan favourite.
‘Come on, Albert’
One former fan, writing on an Internet message board, had this to say about Johanneson: “Every time he got the ball we all shouted, ‘Come on, Albert’. I don’t recall any particular incident in a match, but he was very nippy and could beat a defender with his turns and speed.”
According to Peter Lorimer, who played over 650 games for Leeds: “Albert could be the scourge of defences, but he never quite fulfilled his potential”.
Another source echoes this sentiment: “Best remembered Albert as a nice man with a lot of skill, and others in the game have emphasised that with a little extra confidence he could have become a great player rather than a good one.”
Leading Leeds’ revival
Despite his lack of consistency, and at times of confidence, Johanneson helped lead a Leeds revival in the 1960s, contributing to the club’s climb out of the English Second Division. In 1964, when the club earned promotion to the First Division, Johanneson was the team’s joint top scorer.
While with Leeds, he played under the club’s legendary manager Don Revie, who led the side to two First Division titles, a League Cup, an FA Cup and two Fairs Cups.
Johanneson was part of the team that faced Liverpool in the 1965 FA Cup final, going down 2-1 in extra time. His appearance marked the first time a black man had appeared in the final of the prestigious knockout cup.
Scars and demons
The pressure of playing for Leeds, and the abuse he had to contend with as a black man, took their toll on Johanneson.
“He was braver than many people gave him credit for, and had the scars on his legs to prove it,” said Norman Hunter, former Leeds star and England central defender.
But the scars weren’t only physical. Johanneson turned to drink to cope with his demons.
He underwent treatment for alcoholism a number of times, but in the end it proved too big a barrier for him to overcome. It cost him his family – who moved out in the 1970s – and ultimately cost him his life: he died in a rundown flat in Leeds in September 1995, aged 53.
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