Albert Johanneson was no older than six when he first encountered a white man in Johannesburg, South Africa.
His Germiston Township was next to a designated ‘White Area’, and Albert soon learned the danger of straying too close when a boy of roughly the same age spat on him through the window.
His friends fled but Albert stood his ground, so the boy spat on him again. His father then got out and whipped him across the neck with a cane. He kicked Albert, now on the ground in pain, for good measure before driving off.
Albert went on to make history, as the first black player to star in an FA Cup final; for Leeds United against Liverpool, at Wembley in May 1965.
But that early experience of apartheid South Africa had made its mark, and Albert was left scarred. A talented winger, his career was fraught with self-doubt and he eventually turned to drink, living out his days in a squalid flat; drinking cider, eating sausages and watching Hawaii Five-O on a black-and-white television.
He died in that very flat, aged 55. His body had laid undiscovered for days.
Albert made history as the first black player to play in the FA Cup final but lived out his days washing dishes in a Chinese restaurant and eating sausages in his flat. When he died there, his body was undiscovered for days
Albert’s story lives on through FURD, a Sheffield anti-racism charity who have produced a comic-book style story of Albert’s life titled ‘The First Black Superstar’ of football. The comic begins with a scene showing 19-year-old Dane Romario Fortuin on a week’s trial at Sheffield United, organised by FURD. Fortuin learns that, 53 years earlier, Johanneson had made the same journey from Jo’burg to Yorkshire under the tutelage of Barney Gaffney, a schoolteacher and football scout in the 1950s.
“He stood out,” Gaffney remembers.
“He was raw, but like lightning and a brilliant dribbler.”
Albert had found freedom from the struggles of apartheid by running, and began to hone his footballing skills with an old tennis ball. With non-white players excluded from the South African professional league, Albert joined the Transvaal Coloured Football Union Team and was spotted by Gaffney. A trial at Leeds followed, and Albert - in his Transvaal blazer - left for England on January 4, 1961.
He had hoped to escape the racism and oppression that had blighted his upbringing. Little did he know this was just the start.
‘Out of my way, n***er boy’ was Albert’s introduction to life in England. He had touched down at a cold and wet Heathrow Airport and been barged over by a white man in the arrivals lounge.
In Leeds, it was eight degrees below freezing with snow on the ground in his first training session. Albert spent plenty of time face down in it, too, as Billy Bremner made his mark on Leeds’ newest signing. But Don Revie, Leeds’ new manager, liked what he saw and Albert became his first signing.
Bremner remembers Albert as a great athlete, with Leeds’ players impressed by his trickery on the ball.
He was physically resilient, too. He had to be; skilful wingers had a hard time in the 1960s anyway, without added prejudice because of their skin colour.
Albert’s debut came three days after signing, against Swansea - and racist abuse came from the away dressing room, as well as the visiting fans. Swansea players wondered if Albert was Leeds’ boot-boy but they soon regretted their words as he made a mockery of their full-backs, before setting up Jack Charlton’s equaliser in a 2-2 draw.
Albert was lauded by players and crowd alike but was still uncertain of his place; to the extent that he held back in the dressing room, unsure whether his teammates would want to share the bath with a black man.
Their response? They stripped him and threw him in.
The year of 1963 was a special one for Albert. He married Jamaican-born pharmacist, Norma Comrie, and scored 14 goals as Leeds won promotion to Division One. The following season, they missed out on the top-flight title on goal difference and reached their first ever FA Cup final. Albert, who was asked to eat in the kitchen soon after arriving in Leeds to avoid putting off other customers, suddenly could dine in any restaurant in the city. He was a Leeds hero, but the biggest moment of his career so far was to turn into the ultimate nightmare.
At Wembley, Liverpool’s pre-match plan had been to quieten Albert and the fans played their part, too. Knowing the abuse he was likely to receive, Albert spent much of the pre-match build-up vomiting in the toilets and suffering from diarrhoea.
In the tunnel, shaking, he emerged onto the pitch greeted by monkey chants; on the pitch, he was kicked, punched and one challenge from Ian St John, raking down his achilles tendon, saw him drift out of the game.
Liverpool triumphed 2-1 after extra time and, in the words of Revie, Albert had let his family, his team and himself down. Albert’s career was never to be the same again.
The odd flash of brilliance, including hat-tricks against DWS Amsterdam and Spora Luxembourg in the Fairs Cup, couldn’t mask his disappointment at losing his regular place and cider filled the hole in his life. When Eddie Gray, Leeds’ new young star, scored one of the club’s most memorable goals against Burnley, Albert can be seen prostrate on the turf. He knew his Leeds career was over and never played for the club again.
With help from the PFA and the Chaucer Clinic in Southall, Albert was clean for three months. He started a clinic football team and helped renovate the building, before a moment of weakness saw him fall off the wagon for good.
He ended up washing dishes in a Chinese restaurant, and a fitting headstone for his grave was eventually purchased three months after his death.
It bears a verse from Maya Angelou’s poem, Still I Rise. And how Albert rose.
The most fitting tribute came at last season’s FA Cup final, between Arsenal and Aston Villa, when members of Albert’s family were invited to the new Wembley to mark the 50th anniversary of his historic appearance there in 1965.
One third of the players on the pitch were black. There can surely be no finer tribute than that.