THE number of African players plying their trade in Europe’s biggest leagues grew steadily in the early 90s, although there was none present in the starting line-ups on the inaugural day of the Premier League in August 1992.
BY ED AARONS
In stark comparison to today’s competition, only 13 non-British players were selected by the 22 teams, with Ipswich’s Canadian goalkeeper Craig Forrest the only representative from outside Europe.
That statistic changed a week later, however, when a skinny teenager from Bulawayo came off the bench in Coventry City’s 2-0 win at Tottenham to become the first African player to feature in the Premier League.
“His balance is as perfect as Trevor Brooking’s and he’s quicker . . . he gets your knees wobbling with his skill,” said the Coventry manager, Bobby Gould, of the Zimbabwean.
“I’ve never seen a man with quicker feet. Some of his tricks are astounding.”
Deal that broke the mould
In more ways than one, English football had entered a new era. Winston Makamure still enjoys telling the story even two decades later. “I hired a car from St Albans for £15. I put £10 of petrol in it and went up to Coventry,” he remembers with a broad smile. “I stayed with a relative on Sunday in Tamworth and went to the training ground the next day, but the laundry lady outside told me that they weren’t training that day. I was supposed to drop off the car later on, but I phoned the company and arranged to have it for another day. Then I went to a service station on the M1 and slept in my car. I was so determined to win that bet.”
As he made his way to Coventry’s training ground on a cold December day in 1992, what Makamure didn’t know was that a wager he had met with university friends would end up changing his life forever. It had been 18 months since Peter Ndlovu first moved to the Midlands as a teenager, having been spotted by the 1987 FA Cup-winning manager John Sillett.
Ndlovu eventually arrived at Coventry in the summer of 1991 from Highlanders for just £10 000. Still only 18, he made his debut in August as a substitute in the 1-1 draw against Queens Park Rangers, becoming the second Zimbabwean to appear in England’s topflight after Bruce Grobbelaar.
He ensured instant hero status a few weeks later when he scored the second goal against Arsenal at Highbury in a famous 2-1 victory over the reigning champions that also featured Lee Dixon’s comical own-goal lob over David Seaman. It was the first time George Graham’s side had lost at home in the league for 18 months.
‘I had to start taking it seriously’
Ndlovu was soon promoted to the starting XI, scoring a brilliant individual goal against local rivals Aston Villa in a 1-0 victory before injury intervened. Despite that, it was a solid first season for the spindly teenager who had fondly been christened “Nuddy” by team-mates and fans.
“When I used to watch English football on television I would think, ‘Oh, that’s a big league’, but I never thought I would have the chance to play there,” Ndlovu admitted in 2014.
“When I got there, I asked myself, ‘Am I good enough to be here?’ because I quickly realised I had to start taking it seriously.”
As Coventry prepared for the inaugural Premier League season following the appointment of Gould, the new manager had been impressed by Ndlovu’s performances in pre-season.
“I didn’t know much about him at all when I first got there. He was as quiet as a field mouse,” says Gould.
“But all of a sudden when I saw him in training I thought, ‘My goodness, what have we got here?’ He came under the radar really. Looking back now, the nearest person I can compare him with today is Eden Hazard. He was so hard to stop when he had that momentum.”
With victories in their first three matches of the new season, the same applied to Coventry as they went top of the Premier League table for a few days before being brought down to earth with successive defeats at the end of August. But having been dogged by inconsistency in his opening season, Ndlovu’s historic appearance against Tottenham earned him a regular starting spot.
“He was living in digs, which is never easy. When you leave Zimbabwe it’s hard to adapt,” says Gould.
“It’s always a bit difficult for African players to come and settle in, but I think it was the way everyone loved him. It was a real love affair between him and the fans. He was a lovely young man who had come over with no airs and graces, but just wanted to be successful. After a while he just blossomed.”
Ndlovu’s diving header in the win over Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough was Coventry’s third away victory in succession and they made history a few days later by beating Oldham at Boundary Park to equal their best-ever run in the top flight. Suddenly, they were fighting it out with Norwich City at the top of the table. “We were a flying machine,” laughs Gould. Another narrow win over
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