Leeds United's 100 Greatest Players #54: Albert 'The Black Flash' Johannesson
A unique and touching story: Definitely, in equal parts inspiring, uplifting, thought-provoking and mournful. First and foremost Albert Johanneson was a fantastic footballer, capable of performing with and against the very best. But as a backdrop to that Albert’s story is a tale of dealing with struggle and acceptance. Whilst he was rightly hailed by the fans and integrated as an established teammate within the ‘family circle’ that Revie was starting to create at Leeds, Johanneson, governed and affected by the constraints of an upbringing of rigid apartheid, could never accept his success as a natural right. Subsequently, in material and emotional terms, football never gave him the rewards that his spell-binding talent deserved.
What a player though: One of the very best on his day, and a key figure in Leeds’ initial rise from mediocrity under Don Revie. Johanneson had an array of captivating skills as an ‘outside left’, but his chief asset was blinding, natural pace. He was comfortable on the ball and improvised to fool defenders, he also had an eye for goal, but it was his role as the chief entertainer in an otherwise austere and hyper-organised team, plus his lithe agility and his intuitive body swerves, that made him a real favourite with the Leeds fans.
Billy Bremner on Albert Johanneson: “Albert had no confidence. He could play, he was bloody quick, and Bobby Collins could sometimes get him up, get him going. But it was as if Albert couldn't believe it was happening to him, as if he thought a black man wasn't entitled to be famous.”
Where was the original connection with Leeds then? Partly the fact that Leeds already had a South African on their books in the form of Gerry Francis, the club’s first black player, who joined in 1957, but mainly the recommendation of a South African schoolteacher working in Leeds. Johanneson was invited for a three-month trial and he signed immediately upon its successful conclusion in April 1961, a month after Revie had become player-manager. Within weeks he had made his debut, crossing for Jack Charlton, playing as an emergency striker, to score the first of his two goals against Swansea. Although he was in and out of the side initially, Johanneson slowly settled into his alien new life. At the beginning, he didn’t know if he was ‘allowed’ to share the communal bath with his team-mates, until they stripped him and threw him in; an unsettling but ultimately reassuring experience. Likewise, he was hesitant when a ‘white’ apprentice was asked to clean his boots.
But his on-pitch exploits helped all that: Yes. As Leeds battled against relegation from the Second Division in 1961/62 they faced a pivotal last game away at Newcastle, where a win would secure their status. Albert scored the crucial first goal in a 3-0 win and possibly averted the course of the club’s history. Andrew Mourant described it as “…their best performance of the season ... Playing in a stiff wind and on an unyielding pitch, Revie's team struck rare form. Bobby Collins, Willie Bell, playing out of position as an inside-forward, and Albert Johanneson were key figures in a performance of collective discipline. Johanneson's first half goal on 37 minutes, a header from Johanneson's cross by McAdams after 65 minutes and an own goal by Newcastle right-back Bobby Keith ten minutes later, gave Revie deliverance."
For a time he was unstoppable: In the 1962/63 season Albert was second top scorer with 14 goals and only missed one game. In the 1963/64 season, as Revie’s classic side began to take shape around him, Johanneson was in dazzling form, notching 15 goals as joint top scorer, including a stunning solo effort against Newcastle at Elland Road. New recruit Johnny Giles described the goal: “Albert was surrounded by three Newcastle players as he brought down a long pass through the middle and it looked certain that he would be forced away from goal. Yet in the space of no more than five yards he sidestepped them all, one after another, and then coolly slipped the ball past the goalkeeper as he came off his line!”
And then the First Division! Albert seemed to take it all in his stride, and even at a higher level he could torture defenders. Leeds were in line for the title and FA Cup in their first season in the top flight, but by this time Albert was becoming a marked man. Defenders knew how to rattle him with uncompromising tactics and often racist abuse. Opposing fans did likewise as Johanneson’s fragile confidence was exposed.
So to the FA Cup Final against Liverpool: Leeds had finished second in the league and Albert was identified as their danger-man in the Cup Final. In the wide open spaces of Wembley Albert was expected to shine, but like most of his colleagues, he froze. Liverpool won 2-1 and Albert seemed paralyzed by fear in his most ineffective performance in a Leeds shirt. From that point, observers note that he never seemed the same player again, as if his failure on the big stage was the ultimate sign that he didn’t belong there, despite his obvious talent.
That was the end then? Not quite. The emergence of Mike O’Grady and latterly Eddie Gray, plus a series of injuries meant Albert faded from the side, though he did manage to score two hat-tricks in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup as Leeds found their feet as a European force. But by 1970 Albert knew his time was up, and sadly, the only TV image most fans see of him today is lying prostrate and injured on the floor as Eddie Gray waltzes round the Burnley defence to score his legendary solo goal. It was also Albert’s last game for Leeds. He left for York City but soon retired from the game. With no wealth from football Albert remained in Leeds but struggled with alcoholism, and despite the help of ex-team-mates and family he never established another career. He died alone in his Leeds flat in September 1995 aged only 55.
What if he had never signed for Leeds? No one who saw him will forget the ‘Black Flash’, cherished memories of a man who changed Leeds fortunes at a critical stage.
In a nutshell: Special talent, if only he knew.
Date of birth: 13/03/40
Birthplace: Germiston, South Africa
Signed from: Germiston Coloured School and Germiston Colliers
Leeds United Debut: Swansea City (H) 08/04/61
Left Leeds for: York City
Leeds United appearances and goals
Season Apps Goals
1960-61 5 0
1961-62 14 3
1962-63 44 14
1963-64 41 15
1964-65 36 12
1965-66 15 3
1966-67 28 12
1967-68 11 (1) 6
1968-69 2 (1) 3
1969-70 2 0
TOTAL 198 (2) 68
*Substitute appearances in brackets
Leeds United Honours
1963-64 Second Division Champions
Strange but true
Johanneson became the first ever Leeds player to score away at Walsall and he also scored in three consecutive games against the Saddlers in seasons 1961/62 and 1962/63.