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How Peter Ndlovu’s Brilliance Led To An Influx Of African Players In English Premier League

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THE number of African players plying their trade in Europe’s biggest leagues grew steadily in the early Nineties, although there was none present in the starting line-ups on the inaugural day of the Premier League in August 1992.

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 made 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 top flight 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 TV 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 Tottenham moved Coventry into second spot. Despite a draw at Nottingham Forest a few days later, Gould’s side went into their fixture against Norwich at Highfield Road on 26 September knowing that victory would see them climb above their opponents to the summit of the Premier League.

 It all seemed to be going wrong, however, when Ian Crook scored for the visitors in the 13th minute. Ndlovu had other ideas. Racing on to a through ball from veteran defender Kenny Sansom after a clever dummy from Kevin Gallacher, the 19-year-old beat his marker to the ball and sped towards the penalty area. Two Norwich players tried to stop him but Ndlovu seemed to glide past them before wrong-footing goalkeeper Bryan Gunn with a wonderful shimmy and sending the ball into the bottom corner. “That is a lovely goal by the Zimbabwean,” exclaimed BBC commentator Barry Davies. “Wonderful balance. Smooth as silk.”

On the touchline Gould celebrated with vigour. “The reaction from everybody – there wasn’t a cheer immediately but then everyone realised what he had done.” He adds, with a large slice of embellishment: “It was a brilliant goal, virtually from the halfway line. The balance and the finish were amazing.”

‘Just behind [George] Best’

The match finished in a 1-1 draw that meant Coventry slipped to third behind Blackburn. Afterwards Gould claimed that Ndlovu ranked with Manchester United’s emerging star Ryan Giggs “just behind [George] Best” in terms of ability, much to the amusement of many of the assembled press.

After the early promise, however, a series of draws turned into defeats as Coventry plummeted down the table. Ndlovu had continued his knack of scoring at some of England’s most famous grounds with goals in the draws against Everton and struggling champions Leeds. Yet by the time Makamure was preparing to travel to England in December to begin studying for a degree in IT at Hatfield Polytechnic in his latest posting for the Zimbabwean army, Coventry were without a win for nearly three months.

“My friends and I were having a drink one night and talking about football,” he explains. “One guy said to me, ‘There is a very good youngster who is now at Coventry who is good enough for any team in England.’

“Having been there before a few times already, I said it wasn’t possible, that it was ‘drink talk’. I said that he wouldn’t make it in England. We then had a bet of 20 Zimbabwe dollars that I could get a photo with him.”

Novel approach

Having returned to the training ground the next day after a rough night in his car, Makamure adopted a novel approach to gain access to his hero.

“I told them that I was from the same village in Zimbabwe as Peter and I had come to meet him. I had never even seen him play! Luckily they let me in and I waited for the players to finish training. When he came out, he had already been told that someone from Zimbabwe was there to see him.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t speak Ndebele and he was terrible at Shona! So we started speaking in English. One of the players said, ‘If you’re from the same village then why are you speaking in English?’ Peter said, ‘It’s for the benefit of everyone else and we don’t want to be rude!’ He brought me some sandwiches and I said to Peter, ‘Here is a bet I did with my friends back home, so can I please have a photo with you?’ He called the entire team and I had pictures with them.”

Gould wandered over and asked what was going on and for some reason Ndlovu said, “Gaffer, this is my agent.”

“I had no idea what he was talking about,” admits Makamure. “I had just gone there to take pictures! But that is how it started.” As he prepared to leave, Ndlovu offered him tickets for the game against Ipswich Town at Highfield Road that weekend.

“I knew that I didn’t really have any money to come back up but agreed anyway,” Makamure laughs. “We exchanged numbers and I went straight to a place to get my pictures developed. Then I went to a phone box to call my friends and tell them I had won the bet! I said, ‘Guys, I’ve got the pictures. Just make sure you’ve got my money!’”

 Ndlovu was voted man of the match against Ipswich as Coventry were denied an elusive win by a late penalty, with Makamure watching on as his guest from the stands – he gave his seat in the directors’ box to his cab driver because he wasn’t wearing a suit and tie.

“Afterwards we went for a meal at KFC and we were just chatting. He told me how much he earned a week from playing for Coventry and it wasn’t a lot. He told me that he needed some help getting a new contract so I said I would talk to a friend of mine at university who might be able to give us some advice. Then he asked me if I would be able to do it and I said that I could try. We shook hands and that was the start of our business relationship.”

 With little more than six months until his original two-year contract was due to expire, there was plenty of work to do.

 “Before I went, I told Peter to tell Coventry that I was going home but we should talk about it when I returned,” says Makamure. “At first, they were not very keen to talk to anyone else and just wanted to do it with Peter on their own. A friend of mine said to me, ‘They don’t want anyone else to be there because they know they will end up paying more money.’ Not that I had a clue what to do in negotiating.”

He was then driven to Highfield Road and met chairman Derrick Robins to discuss the terms of Ndlovu’s new contract, with Gould also making an appearance.

‘Disappearing act’

“They were ever so nice to me. They had absolutely no idea about how I had come to be Peter’s agent. We chatted and I said, ‘OK, I need some time to talk to Peter about everything’ and asked them to put their offer in writing.

“We went away together to discuss things and did a disappearing act. They were trying to find us to get us to come back the following day but we stayed away. Eventually we came back and went to meet them.”

Incredibly, Ndlovu had been earning just £495 a week since joining from Highlanders and his new offer was double that. But Makamure, who would go on to represent Ndlovu until his retirement in 2011, and several other Zimbabwean players including Benjani Mwaruwari, had been doing his homework.

“I’d been asking around to see what other people were earning so we knew what he was worth,” he says. “What they had offered I multiplied by four and they agreed immediately. Peter signed the contract and was also paid a signing-on fee for the first time. He increased his wages fourfold. I have no idea whether I took my 10 per cent. All I was interested in was winning my bet and I could now go and watch Premier League games. I wasn’t in it for business or anything. He signed the contract and I ended up going back to college. I think he gave me about £100 to say thanks.”