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

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.

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.

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.

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-Fulham 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.

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 6000 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 F.C. donated the total gate receipts from their match against the Nigerian team to the Nigerian Football Association. This amounted to £200.

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 D.H. 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.

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.

Photo taken by author at the National Football Museum, Preston, UK. (c) Olaojo Aiyegbayo

Photo taken by author at the National Football Museum, Preston, UK. (c) Olaojo Aiyegbayo

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 F.C. 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.

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.

The Nigerian team left Liverpool for Lagos on September 29 on board the R.M.M.S Accra. 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.

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). The current generation of Nigerian players in the English Premier League include high-profile stars like John Obi Mikel (Chelsea), Alex Iwobi (Arsenal), Kelechi Iheanacho (Manchester City) etc.

The 1949 Nigerian tour also paved the way for other African football tours to the UK – the 1951 Gold Coast (Ghana) tour and 1956 Uganda tour. The English Football Association sent an English team in 1958 to tour Nigeria and Ghana. They won most of their matches in both countries.

DateOpponentVenueResultAttendance
Wednesday August 31Marine Crosby F.C.Liverpool5-2 (W)6,000
Saturday September 3Bishop Auckland F.C.Bishop Auckland
(Durham)
2-5 (L)13,000
Thursday September 8Leytonstone F.C.Leytonstone
(London)
1-2 (L)10,000
Saturday September 10Isthmian League XIIlford
(London)
1-5 (L)12,000
Wednesday September 14Corinthian League XIWalton-on-Thames
(London)
2-2 (D)4,500
Saturday September 17Dulwich Hamlet F.C.Champion Hill
(London)
0-1 (L)18,000
Wednesday September 21Athenian League XIWealdstone
(London)
0-8 (L)10,000
Saturday September 24Bromley F.C.Bromley
(London)
3-1 (W)10,798
Wednesday September 28South Liverpool F.C.Liverpool2-2 (D)13,007

Key texts consulted for this project (article and timeline)

Books:

Football in Nigeria by Samuel Ekpe Akpabot

Rest in Pieces: South Liverpool FC {1894 – 1994} by Hyder Jawad

The Hounding of David Oluwale by Kester Aspden

Colouring over the White Line: The History of Black Footballers in Britain by Phil Vasili

Feet of the Chameleon: The History of African Football by Ian Hawkey

The Mighty Mariners: The story of Marine Association Football Club by David Wotherspoon

Journal article:

Colonialism and Football: the first Nigerian tour to Britain by Phil Vasili {in Race & Class}

Web articles:

The Famed UK Tourists of Nigeria (via The Hamlet Historian) by Jack McInroy

A History of African Footballers in Britain by Phil Vasili

Nigerian Newspapers:

West African Pilot {1949 issues}

The Daily Times {1949 issues}

English Football Association texts:

The Football Association Bulletin No 17 {1949}

FA Match Permit Sub-Committee Minutes {1949}

English Newspapers:

Liverpool Echo {1949 issues}

Daily Mail {1949 issues}

The Manchester Guardian {1949 issues}

and many other publications ……

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