TUNJI BANJO: LEYTON ORIENT FC, PLAYING FOR NIGERIA TO BECOMING TRAIN DRIVER

Tunji Banjo is the 60 year old mixed Nigerian footballer who was born and raised in the UK. He played 9 times for Nigeria from 1980 to 1982, leading to the Spain 1982 World Cup qualifiers which we were eliminated by Algeria. He played for us as solid defensive midfielder.

The Daily Mail interviewed him in 2018 reads:

Tunji Banjo still has a living to make with London Northwestern exactly 40 years after facing Arsenal in one of the biggest games in Leyton Orient’s history.

It’s hard to imagine Harry Kane or Eden Hazard spending their retirement shuttling between Milton Keynes and Crewe, but Banjo hasn’t got that luxury. In any case, that’s not one of the worst shifts.

“‘The earliest start is 5:00am in Northampton which means I leave home at 3:00am. I’ve been a footballer so I know the difference between that and proper work! ‘I wouldn’t expect players from today’s academies to understand but it’s nothing new for me. I’ve been a bus driver, a dustman. I’d work summers at Orient, I did cleaning at Lord’s cricket ground.”

Banjo was 18 and earning just £100-a-week when Second Division Orient beat Chelsea, Middlesbrough and Norwich to set up their semi with Arsenal on April 8, 1978.

The favourites won 3-0 in front of 49,000 at Stamford Bridge and it still hurts. ‘Their first two goals were fluky, deflected shots by Malcolm Macdonald,’ says Banjo.

He’d come on as a sub and is grateful there are pictures of him battling for the ball with Liam Brady because the match itself was a blur.

‘We went back to Brisbane Road after and then I caught the tube home,’ he says. ‘I remember changing trains at Oxford Circus, thinking how crazy it was I’d played in an FA Cup semi-final two hours before.’

Banjo, a strong-running midfielder, was among a group of young, black players at Orient who helped change the face of football.

The most famous, Laurie Cunningham, left for West Brom in 1977 but John Chiedozie, Chris Hughton’s younger brother Henry, Bobby Fisher and Kevin Godfrey remained.

‘I had a bad experience at Bolton early on,’ recalls Banjo. ‘I was warming up to come on and got all this verbal abuse and bananas being hurled down.

‘We were brought up tough in London so it didn’t put me off but I’m sure those people looking back now must feel ashamed. It was just a way of life then. Sometimes you get angry about it but I don’t feel it does you any good to hold any grudges.’

Black players supported each other. Banjo knew Cyrille Regis from London schools’ football and was friendly with Cunningham, who later played for Real Madrid and Manchester United before his tragic death in a car crash in 1989.

‘Laurie was never flash, always stayed down-to-earth. I bumped into him a few years after Orient. I walked into a bar in Muswell Hill and there he was! It was a lovely sunny day so we grabbed at a table outside and chatted about old times.

‘Everyone knows about Laurie and Cryille and what they did but there were a lot of us who went through the same thing but were lesser-known. We were all trailblazers, definitely.’

Ironically, Cunningham’s West Brom were the other beaten semi-finalists in 1978. ‘I supported Ipswich against Arsenal in the final,’ says Banjo. ‘Not just because Arsenal had beaten us. I was also a Tottenham fan!’

At that time, Banjo was already a Nigerian international, eligible through his Dad. The trips to Africa were an eye-opener for the Londoner who found it a fascinating experience, but was startled to witness dead bodies in the street on one visit.

On the pitch, he came close to qualifying for the 1982 World Cup. Nigeria were beaten by Algeria in a play-off and they went on to defeat West Germany in the finals the following summer.

Banjo never became another Cunningham. He left Orient in 1983 to play in Cyprus where a bad ankle injury put paid to his dream of reaching the top. He drifted into non-league, retirement and a new life on the trains.

In 2004, he moved to Stoke-on-Trent to keep his son away from London gang culture and it remains his home town today.

On the trains, he occasionally sees famous football names like Paul Ince on board. He recognises them, but they haven’t a clue who he is and he keeps quiet.

He is waiting to see if his next shift pattern puts him on earlies or lates but is devoid of jealousy or bitterness. ‘I am still totally into football,’ he says. ‘I’m not one of those who thinks ‘If only’. I had my time and that’s how things were in those days.’

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