By Ryan Ferguson
One of the most important men ever to wear a Tranmere shirt is also one of the most overlooked. A student who wanted to play football in his spare time, Elkanah Onyeali spent just a few months on the books at Prenton Park. Nevertheless, his trailblazing efforts as Rovers’ first foreign-born player deserve greater exposure, as does the progressive attitude of our club in this regard. By signing Onyeali, Tranmere became the first major club on Merseyside to hire a black player, and one of the first in England. That’s a very important distinction, and this is a very important story that has rarely been explored.
According to Tranmere Rovers, The Complete Record, Onyeali was born in present day Imo State, Nigeria, on 7th June 1939. It’s a place rich in natural resources, such as oil and zinc, wedged between the Rivers Niger and Imo in the country’s south-east quadrant. Manchester City striker Kelechi Iheanacho was born there, many decades after Onyeali became its prodigal footballing son.
Young Elkanah attended Holy Ghost College in Owerri, the capital of Imo State, where his talent for the game first became apparent. He was signed by the Port Harcourt Red Devils, a local team that rose to fame across the nation. His reputation was enhanced by many dazzling performances, including the 1958 domestic cup final, when Onyeali put on a sensational display as his team emerged victorious. A place in the national team followed shortly thereafter, and Onyeali began to thrill crowds at King George V Stadium in Lagos. He even set a record by scoring four goals in one international game, a feat that has only been matched once by another Nigerian.
The country was then under British rule, and it wasn’t uncommon for young Nigerians to study in London and beyond. Onyeali was a dedicated pupil, and a desire for excellent qualifications brought him to Wirral in the summer of 1960. Elkanah studied electrical engineering at Birkenhead Technical College, and succeeding in that endeavour was very important to him. Still, he yearned to play football. Onyeali wanted a familiar pastime in an unfamiliar place. A taste of home, if you will, to smooth the cultural transition. After settling in Birkenhead, he wrote letters to Liverpool and Everton, famous clubs across the Mersey, asking for a trial. Neither club was interested. It’s doubtful he knew about Tranmere Rovers, the hometown team, but they soon came forward with an invitation that couldn’t be refused.
Quite how Peter Farrell heard about Elkanah Onyeali is lost to the passage of time. Perhaps the youngster wrote to Tranmere, or popped into Prenton Park while wandering the streets of Birkenhead one evening. However it transpired, Rovers’ player-manager was keen to see what the lad could do, and Onyeali subsequently played in three reserve matches for Tranmere. The skilful forward impressed enough in his Cheshire League audition to earn a first team contract for the season ahead. Onyeali could only play part-time due to his studies, but the talent was undeniable. He would be Tranmere’s wildcard in Division Three.
This was a time of great progress and innovation for Rovers. Prenton Park hosted its first floodlit game in 1958. That same season, a club badge appeared for the first time, strictly on training tracksuits. A year later, Viktoria Berlin played a friendly in Birkenhead, becoming the first European team to do so. A man who appeared in more than 400 games for Everton, Farrell got Tranmere playing some swashbuckling stuff, and attendances soared to 11,815 on average, a club record. In every department, Rovers sought any edge possible in attracting new fans and raising their profile. Elkanah Onyeali certainly fit that bill, and he made an instant impact.
Bournemouth were the visitors for Onyeali’s first game. A crowd of 8,029 flocked to Prenton Park. This was still a time of relative racial disharmony in Britain, with groups such as the Union Movement and White Defence League spreading hate. It was important to send a message that people of all creeds and backgrounds were welcome at Prenton Park, and all involved should be proud of what they achieved, from Onyeali himself to the executives and fans who made him feel so comfortable.
Elkanah electrified the ground with searing pace and lethal shooting ability. Back home, he was known as Mercedes for his sports car-like speed. On his Rovers debut, Onyeali scored twice in a thrilling 4-3 victory that caused great excitement among townsfolk and newspaper cartoonists. Elkanah became an instant favourite with Rovers fans, who affectionately called him ‘Al’ for the sake of simplicity.
On that day against Bournemouth, Onyeali achieved something magical, something that deserves eternal appreciation. He became the first black player in Tranmere history. He also became the first non-British or Irish player to appear for Rovers. Records show that he was also just the second Nigerian to play professional football in Britain, and was among the very first waves of African footballers on these shores. That pioneering spirit is simply brilliant, and it opened the door to future generations, both at Tranmere and beyond.
It’s stupid to play politics or score points with such issues, but some perspective is needed to articulate the gravity of Onyeali’s achievements. Everton didn’t have a black player until Cliff Marshall in 1975. Liverpool didn’t have a black player until Howard Gayle in 1977. Tranmere was the first significant club on Merseyside to take that admirable step, and it did so more than a decade before either of its more storied rivals.
These are the things people often overlook about Tranmere Rovers. These are the things I wanted to highlight when creating Planet Prentonia. Rovers were established eight years before Liverpool, for instance. Rovers discovered Dixie Dean and Pongo Waring in Birkenhead. Rovers are the only major English club with a Norse-Viking name and heritage. Yet these things have only ever been touched briefly by the mainstream, referenced lazily by a media machine that views Tranmere as the inadequate little brother of Liverpool and Everton. Perhaps if less time were dedicated to pointless columns on Jurgen Klopp learning Scouse phrases, genuinely important stories, like that of Elkanah Onyeali, could reach the audiences they truly deserve.
In total, the Nigerian made 16 appearances for Tranmere, scoring 9 goals in the process. Onyeali scored the winner against Southend in his second game, before also notching against Shrewsbury, Walsall, Barnsley, Newport, Port Vale and QPR. He was often the lone attraction in a dismal Tranmere team that was relegated back into the fourth tier. Rovers conceded 115 goals that season, an unwanted club record. The aforementioned game against QPR ended in a 9-2 defeat, the heaviest ever inflicted on Tranmere in a Football League game. Optimism slowly trickled away.
Farrell struggled to manage Onyeali, who always put studies before sport. “My father at home in Nigeria would be very angry with me if he found out I was playing football rather than studying,” he once explained to the local press after missing a midweek game. Indeed, Elkanah was absent for several games that weren’t played on the weekend, and that presented a headache for the manager. Onyeali also prioritised international football, and legend has it that he even flew back to Nigeria for a game after telling Tranmere he was tucked up at home with the flu!
In any case, the tough pitches of wintertime Britain didn’t accentuate the skills of Onyeali. When Farrell left the club in December 1960, his Nigerian starlet fell out of favour. Walter Galbraith, the new boss, banished Onyeali to the reserves, and his final first team appearance came against Notts County, just a few months after Nigeria gained independence from Britain. Elkanah was then released at season’s end.
A stint with Holyhead Town followed. While there, Onyeali became the first player to appear for Nigeria while situated overseas. The national team flew him in specially for an important African Cup of Nations qualifier against Ghana in Lagos. It ended goalless, but provided another proud moment for a man who scored 11 goals in 11 caps for his country. Onyeali played in cities such as Accra, Porto-Novo and Cairo, no doubt telling people about Tranmere and Birkenhead along the way. It’s difficult to imagine a more well-travelled member of our family.
By all accounts, Onyeali ceased playing football to pursue further education and opportunities in the United States. He returned to Nigeria from Chicago in 1980, receiving a heroes welcome according to some accounts. Nevertheless, Elkanah enjoyed a quiet village life from thereon, lavishing in a peaceful and spiritual existence. He eventually died in Mbieri, Nigeria on 11th August 2008, aged 69.
Shortly after his passing, the Nigerian FA contacted Tranmere to say how proud Onyeali had been of his time in Birkenhead. However, the pleasure was most certainly ours, for without him, an uplifting chapter in Rovers history may never have come to pass.