Early football players of colour in the League of Ireland

As some readers may be aware I’ve had the opportunity to write a number of articles on the life and career of former Drumcondra footballer Ray Keogh. Indeed recently I was lucky enough to be asked by Dublin City Council libraries to give a talk on the subject, which I hope to have up here as a presentation and podcast shortly.

Ray’s life and career were filled with plenty of drama and highlights which would have been worth recording no matter his background, but the fact that initially I thought that Ray may have been the first person of colour to play in the League of Ireland meant that I felt that his story really needed to be recorded and told while he was still with us. Sadly Ray died in August 2019 but I was lucky enough to meet him before he passed away, I was also fortunate enough to speak with members of his family, former teammates and others who remembered him from his playing days.

In the course of this research I learned that although Ray was one of the first people of colour to play football in the League, he was not the very first. This short article will give a little bit of background on some of the other players who featured, albeit often fleetingly, in Irish football in the years before Ray made his debut. Ray played that first senior game for Shamrock Rovers in 1959 but there was at least one other player who appeared for a League club before then.

One such player who was brought to my attention by Bohemian FC historian Stephen Burke was Francis Archibong, who had a brief career with Bohs more than ten years before Ray made his debut for Rovers. Francis Archibong was born in Nigeria and came to Dublin in the late 1940s to study English in University College Dublin. During his spell studying in Dublin he lived on Coulson Avenue in Rathgar but found time to line out for the Bohemians on a number of occasions during the 1948-49 season.

In total Francis Archibong’s Bohs career amounted to four games; two for the Bohemian “B” team in the Leinster Senior League and two for the first team in the League of Ireland Shield, a competition played ahead of the commencement of the main league season. Bohs lost all four matches in these competitions:- to Shamrock Rovers “B”, Jacobs, Waterford and Sligo Rovers respectively, with Francis playing as centre-forward in these games but failing to find the net in any of the contests.

I’ve made the assumption that Archibong may also have lined out for UCD AFC who were not a league side at the time but I’ve yet to find any definite evidence of this. While there are newspaper reports of his Shield appearances for Bohemians against Waterford and Sligo which mention the novelty of a black African footballer appearing in the game, most reports are not particularly complimentary about his performances, or that of the Bohs side as a whole. The Munster Express was perhaps the most generous in their appraisal of Archibong’s performances who noted the warm welcome afforded to him by the Waterford crowd.

Archibong snippet

Munster Express 15th October 1948

While Francis’s Bohs career was short he did feature alongside players of note such as Brendan O’Kelly who would represent Ireland in football at the 1948 Olympics and Frank Morris. He also played against the likes of Ireland internationals Fred Kiernan and Sean Fallon who were lining out for Sligo. And if his football career didn’t perhaps live up to hopes then his professional life saw huge success.

He graduated with a degree in English from UCD in 1950, his thesis was entitled A history of the criticism of King Lear from Condell to Coleridge. Francis returning to Nigeria in October 1950 on board a plane packed with European missionaries, thereafter he devoted his career to educating young people in his home country. Francis Archibong ended up working for the Nigerian Ministry of Education and was involved in large scale literacy projects in the 1960s and even represented Nigeria at meetings of UNESCO.

Apart from Francis Archibong there were a number of subsequent people of colour with UCD connections who appeared in Irish football in the years after Francis’s brief sporting career.

UCD tended to be a Leinster Senior League side who also featured in the FAI Cup early

Pic of Obakpani

Francis Obiakpani

rounds, it would be 1979 before UCD AFC would be elected to the League of Ireland. UCD generally had a small number of foreign students at this time, including several from West Africa. A few years after Francis Archibong had graduated the UCD football team featured two Nigerian players in a Metropolitan Cup semi-final against Jacobs in 1956; they were Frank Obiakpani and Fidelis Ezemenari. They lost that game 3-1 with Ezemenari getting the consolation goal.

By that time Obiakpani was a medical student who had just graduated, he had been starring for the UCD side since 1953 and had helped the college to triumph in the Collingwood Cup.  While Ezemenari was studying Zoology. It was mentioned in one report that the two young men had known each other before their arrival in Ireland.

Among their teammates for UCD was a talented attacker named Brian Lenihan who won an amateur international cap for Ireland and who would later become Minister for Finance and run for office as President of Ireland, also on the side was Willie Browne, an accountancy student who would later win three caps for Ireland and captain Bohemian Football Club.

Back in 1953 Obiakpani had faced off for UCD against a friend who was playing for UCC, listed as A. Ezenwa who was described as a talented centre-half who had played football with Obiakpani back in Nigeria, he was also a useful athlete away from the football pitch, excelling in the Long Jump. While in Cork he was studying Science. That UCC side were captained by Tommy Healy who was a star player for League of Ireland side Cork Athletic. Writer Cian Manning has written previously for Póg mo Goal about Francis/Frank Obiakpani and what happened to him after his graduation, he has suggested that Obiakpani may have been killed during the Biafran War in 1967.

I would love to know more about these players, while they did not feature at League of Ireland level they were playing at a high standard and alongside present and future League of Ireland stars. However, the information I’ve been able to find still leaves unanswered questions, even down to simple details like the first name of players like Ezenwa.

If you know more I’d love to hear from you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s