Comic book tells moving story of former Leeds United star

A new comic book celebrates Albert Johanneson's career.
A new comic book celebrates Albert Johanneson's career.
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A Sheffield-based anti-racism charity has produced a comic book to remember Albert Johanneson and his football career. Chris Bond reports.

IT WAS during a visit to Johannesburg that Howard Holmes decided to write about former Leeds United star Albert Johanneson.

Through his friend Chris Fortuin, from the South African Football Players Union, he’d gone to meet Barney Gaffney, the man who “discovered” Albert and helped him secure a trial with the Elland Road club.

“We’d been talking for about three hours and at the end of the conversation he brought out this brown paper parcel with the shirt Albert wore in the 1965 cup final,” says Howard.

Leeds United: Albert Johanneson, a sporting trailblazer

It was the first time the shirt had been seen by anybody in half a century. “Albert went back to South Africa after the cup final and stayed for a couple of nights with Barney and gave him the shirt. Barney wrapped it up and put it away and never got it out again until he showed it to us.”

Howard, project director with Football Unites, Racism Divides (FURD), decided to use Albert’s story as the basis for a new comic book. “It was at that moment that I decided to write about Albert,” he says.

“I got in touch with people who’d known him and went to the places where he’d lived and started putting the story together.”

The subsequent 24-page comic book, Hurry, Hurry Albert, is the result of a joint collaboration between Sheffield-based FURD and the District Six Museum in Cape Town, South Africa.

FURD and illustrator Archie Birch, from Cape Town, have joined forces to tell Albert’s inspirational, yet sadly poignant story.

The project follows on from the success of a previous collaboration, Arthur Wharton, Victorian Sporting Superstar, between Howard and Birch.

It’s 50 years since Albert played for Leeds United against Liverpool, becoming the first black player to play in an FA Cup final in the process, and to mark the occasion the Football Association (FA) has invited some of Albert’s family over from the United States to be special guests at this weekend’s final at Wembley.

Before then, on Thursday, one of his daughters and two granddaughters will visit the National Football Museum in Manchester and hand over his FA Cup runners-up medal which will go on display. Howard says it’s recognition for a player who paved the way for others to follow.

“He wasn’t just the only black player on the pitch in those days, he was the only black person in the stadium. Albert was a very humble, very unassuming man, he wasn’t brash in any way, yet he was the first black football star of the modern era in this country. He came before all the players that followed in the 70s.

“Three years after Pele starred in the World Cup, here was a black South African playing for Leeds United.”

But success came at a heavy price. “He came from a country where they had state apartheid to one where he had to face overt racial prejudice, where he was asked to leave restaurants when he was out with friends because it might put off other white customers.”

To begin with he was a great success but a combination of injury, loss of confidence and a growing reliance on alcohol saw his footballing dream turn sour.

“In those days they didn’t have the same support networks and there was a strong drinking culture and he turned to drink when things went wrong.”

However, Howard hopes the comic will help bring Albert’s story to a wider, and younger audience. “Albert was a true pioneer because he was very much on his own, and the idea is that this is accessible to as many people as possible and is available in schools and football clubs to show them what life was like for Albert.”

For more information about the comic book project email Howard Holmes at howard@furd.org