THE DAY OUR FLYING ELEPHANTS LANDED AT WHITE HART LANE

Robson Sharuko Senior Sports Editor
EXACTLY 25 years ago to this day, at 10.10pm Zimbabwean time, a teenage Peter Ndlovu waltzed into the history books of the English Premiership at White Hart Lane in London when he became the first African to feature in a revolution that would significantly change the face of world football.

Ndlovu’s landmark introduction came in the 70th minute on August 19, 1992, in Coventry City’s second league match of the campaign when he was thrown into the fray for double-scorer John Williams as the Sky Blues led Tottenham Hotspur 2-0 before 24 388 fans.

Coventry City held on to their lead, their second on the trot in that campaign, and while Ndlovu didn’t know it back then, he had just created a piece of history for himself that night as the first African to feature in the English Premiership.

Ndlovu had missed the Sky Blues’ first league match of the season, a 2-1 home win over Middlesbrough on August 15, but four days later the man who would later lead his country to their first appearance at the Nations Cup finals, made his bow in the new era of the Big League.

Only 13 players who were neither British or Irish featured in that opening weekend of the English Premiership on August 15, 1992 — Arsenal’s John Jenson of Denmark, the Gunners’ Anders Limpar of Sweden, Everton’s Robert Warzycha of Poland, Leeds’ Eric Cantona of France, Oldham’s Gunnar Halle of Norway, Liverpool’s Ronnie Rosenthal of Israel, Manchester City’s Michel Vonk of the Netherlands and Manchester United’s Peter Schmeichel of Denmark.

The others were Manchester United’s Andrei Kanchelskis of Russia, Ipswich’s Craig Forest of Canada, Sheffield Wednesday’s Ronald Nilson of Sweden, Wimbledon’s Dutch goalkeeper Hans Segers and Queens Park Rangers’ Czech star Jan Stejskal.

In sharp contrast to how much the English Premiership has now become a global league, over 65 different nationalities are being represented in the new season which began last Friday with a seven-goal thriller between Arsenal and Leicester City.

As the first season of the English Premiership progressed, Ndlovu would become a key member of Coventry City, scoring his first goal in the new league away at Sheffield Wednesday on September 2, 1992 before 22 874 fans in a 2-1 win for the Sky Blues.

He had to wait until October 31, that same year, to add to his tally when he scored in the 2-2 draw away to defending champions Leeds United at Elland Road with another goal arriving on February 6, 1993, in the 2-0 away win over Middlesbrough.

Ndlovu would go on to make his mark in the English Premiership, scoring some wonder goals, and becoming the first visiting player to grab a hat-trick at Anfield since 1961, when he scored for Coventry City in a stunning 3-2 victory over Liverpool in 1995.

He is just one of three visiting players to score a hat-trick at Anfield in the past 56 years with the others being Andrey Arshavin, with his four goals for Arsenal in that 4-4 draw during the 2008/09 season, and Julio Baptista, also for the Gunners, in January 2007 in a 6-3 League Cup victory for them.

Ndlovu is one of a special group of African players who have scored a hat-trick in the English Premiership with others being Efan Ekoku, Sadio Mane, Nwanko Kanu, Aruna Dindane, Samuel Etoó, Demba Ba (twice, Didier Drogba (three times), Emmanuel adebayor (three times) and Yakubu Aiyegbeni (four times).

The Daily Mirror newspaper named the former Zimbabwe skipper as one of the three best forwards to wear the Coventry City shirt.

And, Kevin Darling, writing for Yahoo Sport in March this year, said Ndlovu brought a sexy touch to the Sky Blues.

“Coventry has never been considered sexy, not when they had a brown kit in the 1970s, not when they spent the best part of 30 years narrowly avoiding top-flight relegation, and certainly not now as they plummet dismally towards homelessness and oblivion,’’ he wrote.

“It’s just not a sexy kind of place, Coventry, or a sexy kind of football team.

“And that’s precisely why the people of this fair city still look upon Peter Ndlovu as a kind of god. He was gifted, he was exciting, he was exotic and he had innate star quality.

“He was, in a nutshell, everything that Coventry stereotypically wasn’t, and by association he carried the tantalising promise of making Coventry all those things too.

“In essence, Ndlovu put the sex into Coventry, for a fee of £10,000, (Terry) Butcher brought the 18-year Ndlovu to England, where he would be the only African outfield player in the entire football league.

“He was initially used as an impact substitute — and the impact was emphatic when he scored the winning goal in a 2-1 win at Arsenal in one of his first appearances.

“Ndlovu was soon upgraded to a starting place, despite his tender years, and a goal-of-the-season contender in a 1-0 win against Midlands rivals Aston Villa confirmed the improbable turn of events — namely, that the top flight’s hottest young star was strutting his stuff in the unfashionable surroundings of Highfield Road.

“Equally at home on the wing or down the middle, Ndlovu was the type of player who would dribble for dribbling’s sake, an approach that left various defenders looking silly.’’

Darling remembers the Premiership years, too.

“Ndlovu’s second season in England coincided with the dawn of the Premier League, and he briefly led the Sky Blues to its summit as Bobby Gould’s entertaining side — playing a bonkers 4-2-4 formation — threatened to dazzle the nation,’’ he wrote.

“It could be said that Ndlovu was a scorer of great goals rather than a great goalscorer — his solo strike in an unlikely top-of-the-table clash against Norwich demonstrating his penchant for the sublime.

“But no matter how many goals he scored, it was never enough to get any English commentators to pronounce the U at the end of his name. Coventry didn’t win the inaugural Premier League — and in fact they never finished higher than 11th in Ndlovu’s time at the club — but this does not lessen his standing among City fans. If anything, it made them more grateful he stuck around.

“Those six joyous years were littered with wonderstrikes, Ndlovu having a particular speciality for mazy solo runs capped off with thunderous finishes — a talent perfectly illustrated by this goal against West Brom in the FA Cup.’’

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