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Bare-foot Nigerian footballers long blazed the trail of British tour before Gor Mahia

Nigeria step out to take on Auckland Bishop in a match lost 2-5

 

The Story of the 1949 Nigerian Football Team’s UK Tour

A significant outcome of a Nigerian national football team 1949 UK tour was that it opened the door for the migration of Nigerian footballers to Britain.

Some members of the 1949 tour would return and become the first generation of Nigerian footballers to play for English clubs — Ottun (South Liverpool FC), Titus Okere (Swindon Town) and Tesilimi Balogun (Peterborough United and Queen’s Park Rangers).

The Nigerian team won two, drew two and lost five matches during their month-long tour. They were accustomed to playing 70 minute matches in Nigeria but had to play 90 minute matches during their UK tour.

Naturally, they suffered physically especially in the second halves of their matches. The heaviest defeat of the tour was an 8-0 thrashing by the Athenian League representative team. There was heavy rain on the day of this match (September 21) and this resulted in a slippery, muddy pitch which hindered the Nigerians. Eight of the players started the match barefooted but had to put on boots in the second half because they struggled to stay on their feet. The boots didn’t help them because they weren’t used to playing in them.

One of the Nigerian team’s most memorable fixtures was on September 17. The largest amateur soccer ground in England was crowded out – Dulwich Hamlet in the famous Isthmian League. And on this exciting day Nigeria faced their strongest opponents. It was the highest spot of their tour eight-match tour.

Nigerian players receive last minute coaching in the dressing room shortly before the match against Bishop Auckland

Nigerian players receive last minute coaching in the dressing room shortly before the match against Bishop Auckland

Everywhere by then, the admirable reputation of these fine lads from Nigeria had been firmly established by their gentlemanly behavior. By their clean and clever play, they had starred the admiration of all. They had created a closer appreciation and understanding of West Africa and Nigeria that had made a deep impression on thousands of those who watched them play.

Interest in the epic match with Dulwich was intense. All knew it was going to be a test of strength and skills between two teams that had proved to be true sportsmen – soccer at it best and Dulwich nicked it 1-0.

Nigeria tour results:

Won: Nigeria 5-2 Marine Crosby

Lost: Nigeria 2-5 Bishop Auckland

L: Nigeria 1-2 Leytonstone

L: Nigeria 1-5 Isthmian League XI

Drew: Nigeria 2-2 Corinthian League

L: Nigeria 0-1 Dulwich Hamlet

L: Nigeria 0-8 Athenian League

Won: Nigeria 3-1 Bromley FC

D: Nigeria 2-2 South Liverpool FC

The Nigerian team left Liverpool for Lagos on September 29 on board the R.M.M.S Accra. Like they arrived in England, the players, again, travelled third class. Etim Henshaw, the team’s captain, remained behind in the UK to take his Board of Trade tests in Marine Engineering. He travelled back to Lagos on the Tamele {an Elder Dempster ship} via Liverpool a year later. He travelled first class.

The Elder Dempster ship, MV Apapa, arrived at the Liverpool docks at 8.30am on Monday, August 29, 1949. On board were eighteen Nigerian football players, Captain Donald H Holley [Chairman of the Nigerian Football Association] and his wife. The players were in the United Kingdom to play nine goodwill matches against English amateur clubs. The purpose of this tour was to test the strength of Nigerian talent against good quality opposition.

It was the players’ first sea voyage and they feared they would be sea sick on the two week journey from Lagos to Liverpool. None was sick. They kept fit for the tour by running several times around the ship’s deck every morning and evening. Below in the ship’s cargo were Nigerian food items — rice, palm oil, dried shrimps, yam, ham, mutton, and red pepper — to sustain the players while they were in the United Kingdom.

The tour organisers arranged for four Nigerian women, wives of Nigerian Government officials stationed in London, to help cook meals for the players during their stay in the City. This was because the players weren’t particularly keen on the English cuisine. The women used the food items which the players brought with them from Nigeria. One of them said when interviewed during a cooking session “Do you know what our boys like best? Lots and lots of cold water. Your weather is too hot for them.” 1949 is considered as one of the hottest years in England since records were kept. The temperature for September in London rose close to 30°C at its peak.

The players were treated like royalty during their tour — feted everywhere with receptions and dinners in their honour. This occurred in every city and town they stayed and played. The English Football Association, at a reception for the team, presented a plaque to the Nigerian Football Association to commemorate the team’s tour. Lapel badges, ash trays and books were given to the players. The Nigerian Football Association reciprocated by giving two cigarette boxes of ebony and ivory to the English Football Association.

Thirteen of the eighteen players were from the Lagos and District League, two from the Western Provinces, two from the Eastern Provinces and one from the Northern Provinces. The players were selected not just for their football skills but also because they were deemed the best candidates to represent the colonial Nigerian Football Association in the Home Nation.

The tour had the blessings and backing of the Nigerian Governor-General John Macpherson. He sent a letter to the English Football Association a few months before the trip to thank the Association for permitting the players to tour the United Kingdom.

As they got off the ship, D H Holley was given a telegram. It read His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh sends to the team his very best wishes and hopes they will have an enjoyable visit.”

The Nigerian team was welcomed by Andrew Ralston, the representative of the English Football Association, and John Finch, an ex-Flam player, who would be the players’ trainer and coach during the tour. There were also several press and radio reporters waiting to interview the players and Holley. Etim Henshaw, the team’s captain, said in one of these interviews that “We travelled third class but we were treated as first class passengers by everyone on board.” Holley and his wife, Dorothy, had travelled first class.

Two days after arriving in Liverpool, the Nigerian players were playing the first match of their tour against Marine Crosby Football Club.

There were many ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from spectators when the Nigerian players’ bare feet came in contact with the tough leather ball but they didn’t flinch

There were many ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from spectators when the Nigerian players’ bare feet came in contact with the tough leather ball but they didn’t flinch

The Nigerians wore olive green jerseys and white shorts and they played with strips of white adhesive plasters around their big toes to prevent them splitting. They also wore white elastic ankle and knee supports plus green football socks with cut-off feet. Ten of the players played with their bare feet except one player, Dokubo, who wore lightly soled canvas shoes because he was used to them. There were many ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from spectators when the players’ bare feet came in contact with the tough leather ball but they didn’t flinch.

Len Carney, Marine Crosby’s captain, at the end of the match said “we soon found their feet were harder than our boots.” The fans urged the Marine Crosby players to take their boots off in the hopes that it would help them play as well as the barefooted Nigerians. A large group of West Africans from Manchester were part of the 6, 000 spectators that watched this match. The Nigerian team beat Marine Crosby 5-2.

The match referee admitted afterwards that “I have not seen barefooted footballers before but, by gum, these lads are good.” The spectators surged on to the pitch after the match and carried the victorious Nigerians shoulder-high to the dressing room. Marine Crobsy FC donated the total gate receipts from their match against the Nigerian team to the Nigerian Football Association. This amounted to £200.

England, 1949, supporters for the Nigeria football team enjoying watch them play in England one their first ever tour

England, 1949, supporters for the Nigeria football team enjoying watch them play in England one their first ever tour

The team travelled to Darlington two days after their match against Marine Crosby to play their second match against Bishop Auckland Football Club. Two matches within six days and seven changes to the team proved too much for the Nigerian team and they succumbed to a 5-2 defeat. The players who didn’t play the first match were assured by Holley that they would play the second match against Bishop Auckland. This was to ensure that every single player in the squad got the opportunity to play at least one match during the tour. Team selection for the remainder of the tour was based on merit. More than 13,000 spectators watched the Bishop Auckland match.

The team travelled from Darlington on September 4 by train to King’s Cross station in London, and were transported by coach to their London base – the British Council residence. The team would play six matches in London.

These days, Nigeria playing in Britain is a common occurrence, like here . Joel Obi (centre) at Wembley Stadium, London, Jun 2, 2018 in a pre-Fifa World Cup friendly against England. Below: Another Nigerian Super Eagles side lines up for against Cameroon in a World Cup warm-up

These days, Nigeria playing in Britain is a common occurrence, like here . Joel Obi (centre) at Wembley Stadium, London, Jun 2, 2018 in a pre-Fifa World Cup friendly against England. Below: Another Nigerian Super Eagles side lines up for against Cameroon in a World Cup warm-up

The match attendance records featuring the Nigerian team were broken at six of their nine matches. The players attracted a lot of Press attention. There was something mysterious about a team of barefooted Black footballers that captured the English public’s imagination.

The final match of the tour was in Liverpool against South Liverpool Football Club which was played under floodlights. South Liverpool. was one of the first clubs in the country to get permanent floodlights. The club invited the Lord Mayor of Liverpool (Alderman J J Cleary) to switch on the floodlights for the match. The match balls had to be painted white to make them visible for the players and spectators to see during the match.

A significant outcome of the 1949 UK tour was that it opened the door for the migration of Nigerian footballers to the country. Some members of the 1949 tour would return and become the first generation of Nigerian footballers to play for English clubs – Ottun (South Liverpool F.C.), Titus Okere (Swindon Town), and Tesilimi Balogun (Peterborough United and Queen’s Park Rangers).

-Reported by Horeb International blog

PS:

*In 1899/1990 the first known football team of Black Africans to tour Britain were the Basuto XI [today’s Lesotho]. The  amateur  Basuto,  affiliated to the Orange Free State FA, played in Belfast [Northern Ireland and Roubaix as well).

The squad consisted of  16 Black players and four white officials.  By today’s  view, the team, unfortunately, was presented to by the South Africans as a “Kaffir” side and referred similary by the contemporary British press.

The team wore blue knickers and orange shirts with blue facings. The 20-man touring party was listed as:

Thomas, Adolph (‘keeper), Daniells, Apollis, Davids, Brown, Kennedy, Laking, Mohn, Zwagi, Bothloko, Broffitt, Kortie, Stevens, Abel, Twazi (captain), Nicholas, Solomon, Twayi and Koslie. The white officials: Roberts, Nathan, Day and Moss.

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