Barefoot in the (Dalymount) Park

In 1957, at the dawn of its history as a post-colonial, independent nation Ghana chose its flag. The defining symbol of any nation, it shows three colours; green, representing the nations lush, tropical vegetation, red, representing the blood of those who had died in the nation’s struggle for independence, and gold, representing Ghana’s mineral wealth. This mineral wealth had led Britain to formally name it the colony of the Gold Coast when they formalised their colonial rule in 1867.

The flag was designed by Theodosia Okoh, a young woman in her mid 30’s who was also a keen sportswoman. Theodosia became President of the Ghana Hockey Federation and such was her influence on the sport that the national hockey stadium in the capital, Accra was named after her within her own lifetime. Sport and national identity intertwined from the very beginning.

The newly independent country adopted the name Ghana, a word meaning “warrior king” harking back to the glory days of the Ghana Empire. The new President, Kwame Nkrumah wanted Ghana to be an inspiration to other African nations, they had become the first of Britain’s African colonies to gain majority-rule independence and their flag consciously invoked a spirit of Pan-Africanism with its use of a Black Star in the middle above the stripe of gold.

This symbol referenced back to the Marcus Garvey founded, Black Star Line. Garvey was a Jamaican-born writer and politician whose philosophy was to inspire a global mass movement and economic empowerment focusing on Africa, the Black Star shipping line aimed to facilitate this by supporting African trade and assisting people of African descent in returning to the Continent.

In this spirit of aspirant self-confidence, sport would play a huge role in this new government of Nkrumah’s. By the time of independence football was already the most popular sport in Ghana and the country boasted the oldest football association in Africa which dates back to 1920. For much of that time they were known as the Gold Coast XI but the name was officially changed to Ghana in 1957, their nickname became the Black Stars, the symbol that adorns both the national team jerseys and the country’s flag.

This football team soon became a sort of ambassadorial service for the nascent Ghanaian state. As other African nations began to look to the example set by Ghana in casting off the strictures of colonialism the Black Stars began to receive invitations from around the continent. As their star forward Osei Kofi recalled “We were invited by Jomo Kenyatta in the 1960s. When we met them, we beat Kenya 13-2. We destroyed their independence celebrations”.

However, this touring was not a new phenomenon for the Black Stars. The man who coached the national side on that visit to Kenya, and who later became the most successful manager in the history of the Africa Cup of Nations, managing Ghana to three titles, had been the main attraction in a Gold Coast XI that toured to Ireland and Britain as far back as 1951. Back then Charles Kumi Gyamfi, better known simply as “CK” was a 21 year old striker with Asante Kotoko S.C. when he wasselected as part the touring squad.

The rationale for this tour was in part related to political motives, a subtle piece of PR at a time when the Gold Coast’s colonial rulers were celebrating the Festival of Britain, focusing on the achievements of British culture, technology, and indeed sport. There were many football matches with an international dimension including several Irish clubs who were invited to play friendly matches with teams throughout Britain as part of a sporting element to this festival.

In Northern Ireland a rare international game against non-British opposition was played when France visited Windsor Park in May of 1951 for a “Festival Match”, several Dutch sides played friendly games against the likes of Cliftonville, Ards and Glentoran, and an invitation was extended to the Gold Coast to send a selection to tour Ireland and Britain with the first games of their visit arranged for Belfast in August of 1951 before taking in a quick game in Dublin, then catching the boat to Wales and later, London.

It was hoped that this would demonstrate the harmonious relationship that supposedly existed between Britain and the Gold Coast, especially after violence witnessed in Accra just three years earlier when British colonial police had opened fire killing three demobbed World War Two soldiers after Gold Coast war veterans had marched protesting the lack of jobs and unfulfilled promises regarding their military pensions. In the days of rioting that followed in Accra those viewed as leaders of the United Gold Coast Convention, a pro-independence political party, including Kwame Nkrumah, were arrested and held for a month before finally being released in April of 1948.

By early 1951, in part as a response to the violence of the 1948 riots there was a free election held under universal suffrage, Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party would win 34 of the 38 seats available. In this context a touring Gold Coast football team visiting Britain would show that all was well, peace restored, free elections, and present an image of benign colonial rule…

Belfast was to be the first stop for the squad of twenty players, in all the Gold Coast XI would spend just under a month playing ten leading amateur sides around Ireland and Britain, including the amateur international sides of both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. In both cases the two Irish FAs selected all home-based XI’s for those games.

Things did not start well for the Gold Coast tour, playing their first game in Glentoran’s home ground, the Oval in east Belfast they took to the field in their green shirts, white shorts and bare feet. They were a goal down by half time and would lose the game by a three goal margin, succumbing 5-2 in the end and having lost their impressive goalkeeper Tommy Wilberforce to injury with 15 minutes left to play. Wilberforce left the field with his leg bound with a corner flag as a makeshift splint with the cheers of the near 10,000 crowd ringing in his ears.

While the scoreline would suggest the Northern amateurs had enjoyed a comfortable victory that was far from the truth, newspaper reports rated the Gold Coast as the better side in the first half and called the Irish win “flattering”, the Northern Whig praised the “smart football” of the Ghanaian players and said that of the Gold Coast side there were “a number of players who would be assets to any Irish League clubs”. This turned out to be more than a mere idle comment, Tommy Wilberforce the injured goalkeeper would later join Cliftonville after winning a scholarship to study electrical engineering in the College of Technology in Belfast, he was on the books of the Belfast club between 1958 and 1960 before a heart condition forced his early retirement.

Two days later the Gold Coast faced amateur side Cliftonville, again they played in bare feet and were somewhat hampered by an August shower towards the end of the game, but once again they were deemed to have played some of the best football, “showing the crowd a number of touches not often seen here” and playing “delightful, open football”, according to the Northern Whig. Though the Gold Coast side lost 4-2, the reports raved about the skilful play of inside left James Adjei and several of his teammates.

Adjei would become one of the stars of the independent Ghana national team, indeed Stanley Matthews encountered Adjei on a visit to Ghana some years later and rated him the equal of any player in the English league at that time.

The Gold Coast’s final game in Ireland was a trip south to Dublin to take on the Republic of Ireland amateur side in Dalymount Park. This was a considered a full international game for the Irish amateurs who were all drawn from League of Ireland sides, including Bohemians, Shamrock Rovers, Waterford, Cork Athletic and another Cork side, Evergreen.

Despite this being an amateur game Dalymount Park was very well attended for what doubled up as a pre-season run-out for many of the League of Ireland players. Some 17,000 supporters turned up for a midweek game in August and they weren’t to be disappointed. Though once again the Gold Coast side were on the losing side of the scoreline, their skill and talent was obvious. The Irish Times declared them “glorious in defeat” and praised a “display of delightful football and teamwork”.

Interestingly there is some discussion about the tactical layout of the Gold Coast side in the various match reports, they are described as playing with an advanced centre-half. This type of tactic is one which would be more common in the formations of the 1920s, when teams played with two full-backs in front of the goalkeeper, while the centre half played in front of them as a type of pivot between defence and attack, rather than as a third defender. This third defender formation was popularised by Herbert Chapman as Arsenal manager and became known as the W-M due to the formation of players on the pitch. It also suggests that this formation perhaps wasn’t common in Ghana in the early 50s and why the touring Gold Coast side seemed to concede more heavily despite their all-round play being routinely praised. Many years later CK Gyamfi recalled “while we were busy dribbling well and passing nicely, our hosts were mechanical and precise. They used the W-M on us.”

According to the match reports the Irish side were fortunate to come away with the win, scoring twice in quick succession on a counter attack when the scores were tied at 2-2, first a quick break from Cork Athletic’s pacey winger John Vaughan and then just a minute later another quick counter led to Waterford’s Dinny Fitzgerald getting his hat-trick and the game finishing 4-3 to the Irish amateurs.

Among those players who impressed in this game were Oscar Gasper, who despite playing in bare feet struck a ferocious free-kick to level the scores at 2-2, while CK Gyamfi also caught the eye. Gyamfi would end up as the top scorer of the tour, scoring 11 of the Gold Coast’s 25 goals. Among the other starters in that game was the impressive defender Emmanuel Christian Briandt. Both Briandt and Gyamfi would play important roles in modernising the game in their home country.

By the end of the tour the Gold Coast side had played ten games in total and lost eight of them, only defeating Barnet and an Athenian League selection, however Sid Ackun the team secretary had blamed wet weather and treacherous pitches for many of those defeats. They returned home in September of 1951 and using the small fees that had been paid to them for participating both Gyamfi and Briandt came home with a pair of football boots. Gyamfi played for Asante Kotoko, while Briandt lined out for Hearts of Oak in the capital Accra, two of the country’s biggest clubs.

Despite both men only being in their early 20s they became evangelists for the use of football boots in Ghana despite resistance from many of their teammates. Gary Al-Smith who interviewed Gyamfi for The Blizzard noted that it was Gyamfi’s view that football  boots were kept from local players deliberately noting “the colonial masters taught the locals football, but never with boots. CK Gyamfi told me it was just one way in which the British decided to delay the black man’s progress”.

Despite strong initial resistance both Gyamfi and Briandt were successful in getting the local game to move away from barefoot football and with independence in 1957 Ghana soon became a continental footballing power in Africa. Many of the side that toured Ireland and Britain were part of a Gold Coast team that destroyed Nigeria 7-0 in Accra in 1955, which remains a record defeat for the Super Eagles.

In 1963, Ghana won their first ever African Cup of Nations, defeating Sudan 3-0 in the final which was held in Accra. This was to be the first of three tournament wins for their coach CK Gyamfi. He was a history maker in many fields, becoming the first African player to play in Germany when he starred for Fortuna Düsseldorf in the early 60s,  before coming home to take up his coaching role with the Ghana FA. Of Gyamfi’s success one of his proteges Osei Kofi, a talented and skillful winger, could see the hand of Ghana’s President Kwame Nkrumah who always said “the black man was capable of managing his own affairs” , Kofi contrasted the success of Ghana with a domestic, black local manager with many other African nations who paid large salaries for European coaches who often could not deliver.

The 1951 tour by the Gold Coast XI should not be underestimated. They became the first African touring side featuring black players to come to Ireland since the Orange Free State team visited Belfast back in 1899 and by all press accounts won over the Irish crowds in Dublin and Belfast with their skill and creativity. It was also important for the development of football in modern day Ghana, with players and future coaches learning a great deal tactically during their month touring Britain and Ireland and bringing back ideas that within a decade would make the newly independent Ghana champions of Africa.

 

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