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‘Long’ John Hewie: a genuine all-rounder

The much-respected Springbok played football for Scotland, baseball for England and 530 games for Charlton Athletic – including four games in goal.


This article first appeared in Issue 2 which was published in December 2016.

He is the Springbok who starred for Scotland in the World Cup. The man who helped inflict Bill Shankly’s most spectacular defeat as a manager, in what the Scot  called ‘the comeback of the century’. And he is the Charlton Athletic legend who played in nine different positions for the club during a 17-year career at The Valley, including a four-game unbeaten stretch in goal. He is the man former SFA president Tom Reid once described as “one of the greatest players to ever represent Scotland”. But he is a man who had never set foot in Scotland until he pulled on his adopted country’s jersey for the first time aged 24. This is the story of ‘Long’ John Hewie.

The British Pathé footage is grey and grainy. But there’s no mistaking the 6’2” frame and long, loping stride of John Hewie. It’s June 15, 1958 and among the 13,554 crowd there are people watching from the top of nearby birch trees at the Eyravallen Stadium in Orebro, Sweden as Scotland, who must win to have any chance of progressing from Group 2 in their second World Cup finals, take on France.

Trailing 1-0 to an early goal by Raymond Kopa, a quick, agile playmaker who won the Ballon d’Or that year and would go on to help Real Madrid lift three European Cups, Scotland were handed a lifeline when referee Juan Brozzi awarded them a penalty. Hewie steps up. He takes a short run-up. Three steps. Strikes the ball hard with his right foot. And watches as, keeper beaten, it thumps against the post and away to safety. Just Fontaine, who would score 13 goals in just six games in Sweden, a record for the finals, then made it 2-0 before half time. And though Sammy Baird pulled one back with 24 minutes left, there would be no more Scotland goals. It would be 16 years before they played in the World Cup again.

Hewie was beaten for both of the French goals by Fontaine, who was carried off the pitch on the shoulders of his country’s supporters after the final whistle. Of his 19 caps, this was the one Hewie is best remembered for, and the one he probably always most wanted to forget. But it is not the way Charlton fans remember him, and it is not the way Scotland fans should remember him either.

Born in Hercules, near Pretoria on December 13, 1928, John Davidson Hewie quickly earned a reputation as an all-rounder. Growing up he would play football on Saturdays, hockey on Sunday mornings and tennis in the afternoon. When he left school he worked as an apprentice pattern maker for the Iron and Steel Corporation and played football for the works team.

“I didn’t have any skill really,” he would say, years later, with typical modesty. “All I could do was run, although I was fast. I had determination and I could use the ball well. But apart from that I had no skill.”

It was enough to get him spotted by Jimmy Seed though. The Charlton manager, who made a habit of signing South Africans, brought him to England as a 21-year-old in 1949, and though Hewie took time to adapt to a new life abroad, he soon became a regular at full back.

Within months of making his debut he featured on England manager Walter Winterbottom’s radar and was selected for two FA representative sides. But Charlton’s Scottish club doctor, knowing Hewie’s father hailed from Selkirk, tipped off the SFA about him and he received a call-up to the Scotland B team for a game against England at Easter Road in March 1953. It was the first time he had ever visited the country, but it was not to be his big break. He didn’t play well, and dropped out of the reckoning.

Hewie wouldn’t get another chance to impress for another three years, when a Scotland XI faced a team of British-based South Africans at Ibrox in a fundraiser for that year’s Olympic team, which was to travel to Melbourne for the 16th Olympiad. Scotland won the match, and Hewie was outstanding, and he never looked back, going on to become one of his adopted nation’s most versatile players and the first South African to play in a World Cup. Until John Robinson passed his record at the turn of the century he was also Charlton’s most capped player.

Perhaps his greatest claim to fame at The Valley was the vital role he played at the end of the 1961-62 season when Charlton were battling against relegation. By the end of his Addicks career he had played in every position bar the two wings, but it was his four-game spell as emergency goalkeeper which has gone down in local folklore.

With Willie Duff injured, Hewie volunteered to deputise and started in goal in a run of four key fixtures in April 1962. Charlton did not lose a single one of them, and ended up winning their battle to beat the drop, finishing six points clear of danger. One report of his debut in goal, at home to Plymouth, told how the visitors had tried to “bombard the novice… but what they didn’t realise was that Long John Hewie – who has now played everywhere for his club but on the wings – also adds baseball to his accomplishments. And Long John fielded everything hurled at him by those puzzled Plymouth forwards as though he was none other than the catcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers.”

Another describes his “remarkable swallow dive” to turn the ball round the post late in the game, which ended in a 3-1 win for Charlton. Blameless for the goal he did concede, he said later his most awkward moment had come when he left his gloves behind at the end of the game and had to run back on to collect them from the goalmouth. He then kept a clean sheet in a 2-0 win over Huddersfield at Leeds Road and finished off his spell between the sticks with 2-2 draws at Brighton and Bristol Rovers, who would both go on to be relegated.

Hewie would go on to make 530 appearances for Charlton, as well as playing baseball for England, and while his time at The Valley coincided with a period of scant success for the south-east London club, he forged quite a reputation for himself. He also played in one of the club’s greatest games, one that Bill Shankly would never forget.

It was the Saturday before Christmas 1957, and The Valley was freezing. The mist rolling in was not coming from the Thames but the mouths of those present in the bitterly cold winter air. Just 12,535 turned up to see Charlton face Huddersfield, one of their lowest crowds of the season, but far fewer were left in the 70,000 capacity stadium after an hour of the match played. Charlton were reduced to ten men after centre half Derek Ufton’s shoulder injury in the 20th minute and were losing 5-1.

At that point, left winger Johnny Summers, who had been switched to centre forward after Ufton’s injury and had scored in the first half, set-in motion a passage of play in which he scored four goals and assisted in two more. Summers had changed his boots at half time and his new footwear certainly did the trick as Charlton ended up winning the game 7-6 and Huddersfield, managed by Shankly, became the first and only team to score six goals in a professional football match and lose.

Hewie had played an unwanted part too. With four minutes left and Charlton leading 6-5, Stan Howard’s shot deflected off his leg for a Huddersfield equaliser. But the drama wasn’t over as Summers crossed in the final minute of the game and Johnny Ryan hit a famous winner. Ecstatic Charlton fans invaded the pitch and carried Hewie and his team-mates off. They stayed put afterwards singing: “We want Summers” until the players re-emerged in the directors’ box to rapturous applause.

One report from the time described it as “the match of the century” – and Ufton, in a nearby Greenwich hospital, refused to believe it when he was first told the score, until a visiting team-mate showed up later to fill him in on how the drama had unfolded. Sadly, Summers died of cancer in 1962 aged just 34. Hewie would outlive him by 53 years.

In 1969 Hewie returned to South Africa to play for Arcadia Shepherds. But he never lost touch with Charlton. One club employee tells of receiving a letter from a heartbroken Hewie who had seen a picture of the now-derelict Valley, the scene of so many of his personal triumphs, and where he used to practice his golf from the terraces every summer, in a copy of Shoot magazine. Eventually he came back to see the new place after the ground was reopened in 1992. Fearing the political situation in his homeland, he would later relocate to England permanently before he passed away last year after a long battle with dementia.

He is still remembered with fondness at Charlton, and his son tells a tale of one occasion when an admiring Sir Alex Ferguson sought his famous father out. Adam said: “When Alex Ferguson came down to Charlton with Manchester United he asked Keith Peacock (the former Charlton midfielder) if he could meet my dad, who was in the hospitality lounge. They chatted away and Sir Alex told him he had enjoyed watching him play for Scotland.”

Hewie’s first Scotland cap came in a 1-1 draw with England at Hampden on April 14, 1956. He played well that day and set up a goal for fellow debutant Graham Leggat. After that he won ten straight caps the following year, helping his adopted nation qualify for the World Cup and scoring a penalty in a 4-2 win over Spain. At the finals he played in the first match, a 1-1 draw with a Yugoslavia side who had just beaten England 5-0.

Caretaker manager Dawson Walker, standing in for Matt Busby who hadn’t recovered from the Munich air disaster, then decided to leave out tough guys Dave Mackay, Baird and Tommy Docherty against Paraguay, despite receiving a scouting report from two of his players warning him they were “rough and fit and good”. Scotland lost 3-2, and after Hewie’s miss against France, they went home frustrated.

With Scotland re-building, initially under Busby, he was overlooked throughout the 1958-59 season, before returning to win two caps at left-half during an end-of-season European tour in May 1959.

Restored to his favoured left back role for two autumn internationals the same year, he scored his second Scotland goal against Northern Ireland before making his final appearance in dark blue against Poland at Hampden on May 4 1960.

Later in his life Hewie worked as a football coach for the Inner London Education Authority, and as manager of Bexley United, before eventually settling down with his wife Rachel in the village of Donington in Lincolnshire, where he later died in a care home, survived by his son Adam, daughter Alison and their families. He never won a trophy with Charlton, his time there coinciding with a relatively disappointing spell for the club, and there was little glory for him with Scotland either.

But in only his fourth senior match for the Addicks, against Manchester United at Old Trafford in September 1951, he earned this prophetic praise from the legendary Charles Buchan: “Hewie will make a big name for himself”.

And it is worth recalling the words of former SFA president Reid to gauge the true measure of the man and the high esteem in which he was held. “On and off the field,” Reid said, “his standard of behaviour brought credit to himself, club and country.” Not just one country either, but three of them.

This article first appeared in Issue 2 which was published in December 2016.

Issue 32
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