The English Premier League has been graced by some of the most talented African footballers in the history of the sport.
These players range from established greats like five-time African player of the year Samuel Eto’o and former World Player of the year George Weah, whose stints with the Premier League were short-lived, to players who made their name in England such as Didier Drogba, Anthony Yeboah, Michael Essien, Yaya Toure and Emmanuel Adebayor.
It would be lucid to think one the aforementioned great players hold the honour of being the first African player to play in the Premier League. However, you would be wrong, that merit belongs to Peter Ndlovu.
Ndlovu, pronounced “end-lo-vu”, was born in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city, at the heart of Matabeleland, the homeland of the Ndebele people. He played professionally as a striker from 1988 until 2011. Ndlovu started his career at boyhood club Highlanders, winning the Zimbabwe Soccer Star of the year in 1991 and 1992.
Nicknamed, ‘King Peter’, Ndlovu was originally spotted by FA Cup winning coach John Sillett, prior to his official signing from Highlanders but it was his successor Terry Butcher who signed the Zimbabwean for Coventry City in June 1991.
The 1991/92 season was Ndlovu’s first season in English football. It was also the last for the old English league system. That season, Ndlovu made an immediate impact by scoring away at Arsenal and then became the toast of Highfield Road with a thunderbolt winner against Aston Villa in November 1991, endearing him to the Sky Blues fans.
1992 would see the introduction of the new English Premier League, a new era for football in England. This was the season Ndlovu made history by being the first African footballer to play in the new English Premier League. His debut came at White Hart Lane on 19th August 1992, when Ndlovu came on to replace John Williams in the 70th minute of Coventry’s away victory at Tottenham Hotspur.
Coventry acquired striker Micky Quinn in November 1992 to form a deadly duo with Ndlovu. The pair continued what had already been a blistering start, with away wins at Sheffield Wednesday (2–1) and Wimbledon (2–1) to add to already impressive home wins against Middlesbrough (2–1).
Ndlovu would go on to leave his mark on the Premier League by scoring 17 goals that season. The following season, Ndlovu enjoyed a better campaign in front of goal, scoring 11 goals.
His hat-trick against Liverpool in the 1994/95 season stands out as one of his most important performances in a Coventry shirt ever, becoming the first away player to score a hat-trick against Reds at Anfield in thirty years.
Following his incredible performances for Coventry, Arsenal made a £4 million bid for his services which was swiftly rejected. That transfer would have made him the most expensive player in the English football at the time. However, the move didn’t happen and many fans have been left to wonder what the future would have held if he had have made the move.
Ndlovu played 154 games for Coventry, netting 34 goals and 13 assists between 1992 and 1997. He eventually moved to Birmingham City in July 1997, signed by Trevor Francis for a fee of £1.6m. Ndlovu spent time on loan at Huddersfield Town in December 2000, where he scored twice on his debut against Wolverhampton Wanderers. Upon returning to Birmingham he helped them beat Ipswich Town in the semi-final of the 2000-01 League Cup. However, before the final he was released to join Sheffield United in February 2001.
Ndlovu also enjoyed success at Sheffield United and was known to their fans as ‘Nuddy’. With him playing on the right side of midfield, United managed to get to two semi-finals of major cup competitions, in addition to the final of the Championship (formerly Division 1) play-offs in the 2002–03 season.
He scored the winning goal against Leeds United in the 2002 Worthington Cup competition and scored a hat-trick against Cardiff City in 2003–04. He left the Blades in the summer of 2004 having scored 25 goals in 135 league games. In all, Ndlovu scored more than 90 goals during his 12 seasons and 338 appearances in the top two flights of the English football league.
Ndlovu left English football in 2004, to return to Africa to play for South African giants Mamelodi Sundowns. After five years with the ‘Brazilians’, Ndlovu was released from his contract by coach Thanda Royal Zulu after they were relegated from South Africa’s top division.
Back in Zimbabwe, Ndlovu’s impact was phenomenal. Although he never did help them qualify for a World Cup, Ndlovu is considered a legend in Zimbabwean football. ‘King Peter’ claimed legendary status in 2004, when he captained The Warriors to their first African Cup of Nations appearance in Tunisia in 2004. He was capped over 100 times and scored 38 goals during his international career.
Ndlovu became the assistant manager of the Zimbabwe national football team in 2011. Currently, he’s the team manager for Mamelodi Sundowns.
Ndlovu may not have won any honours during his time with Coventry City in the Premier League. However, he broke the mould by becoming the first African player in history to play in the Premier League