Wednesday, May 4, 2011
From Busby Babe to man of South Africa
South African mornings are usually frosty in June and July, chilly enough for most people to want to linger a little longer in bed and fresh enough to get veteran football coach Eddie Lewis out of it. He had accepted a job as an analyst for the World Cup on South Africa's only 24-hour news channel, eNews, and most of his shifts required that he arrive at the studio at 5am.
While the winter's cold was melting into daylight, Lewis would arrive, smartly dressed with stacks of research in hand and entertain the group of scriptwriters and producers with stories from football days gone past. He scoffed at the salaries of the current crop, especially in the northern hemisphere, recalling how when he started playing for Manchester United the money he was paid per game was only enough to call pocket money. It turned him into a real person, who understood the value of things, he said.
That much is true. Lewis was a man who could spot the worthwhile from the futile and he carried that over into his football. It was the game he adored, from the age of 12, when he became a member of the ground staff at Old Trafford to the last moments of his life, when aged 76 and battling cancer, he still turned up at Moroka Swallows club, where he was technical director, for training. It was the game that he treated with passion and respect, always believing nothing was bigger than the sport.
His career began when he was one of the original Busby Babes but he was unable to hold down a place at Manchester United because of the presence of the likes of Sir Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet. At 21, he signed for West Ham, having also played at Preston North End, and he was part of the team that helped the Hammers to promotion in the 1956-57 season. After stints at Leyton Orient and Folkestone Town, he turned manager.
Emigration followed when, in 1970, Lewis arrived in South Africa as an insurance salesman, but he gravitated towards football again. His involvement can only be described as brave, as he coached Wits University in the white National Football League (NFL) and Kaizer Chiefs in the black National Professional Soccer League (NPSL) at the same time. One of his favourite tales was how he would spend Saturdays in Milpark, in the centre of Johannesburg, with the students, and Sundays in Soweto with Chiefs.
"He joined the old NPSL when it was not fashionable and when it was not clear which direction the country was taking," Irvin Khoza, current chairman of the Premier Soccer League, said. "It was at personal risk for him and others like him to come to the townships where whites needed permits. They had to try and beat the system and at times were detained at Langlaagte station." Lewis has been credited with being part of the reason that corporations recognised the NPSL when it went multiracial in 1976.
The NFL became defunct in 1978 and Wits joined the NPSL with Lewis forced to chose between clubs. He stuck with the University side and in that year was at the helm when Wits beat Chiefs in the Mainstay Cup, the equivalent of the FA Cup. He resigned in 1979 and went on to have four stints as coach of Chiefs, which ended in 1985 with a 5-0 thrashing of Wits in the league.
In 1990, Lewis joined another Soweto-based club, Moroka Swallows, who he was again involved with at the end of his career. Under Lewis, Swallows won the Bob Save Superbowl and developed a level of professionalism that was previously absent in their structure. After stints at Sharp Highlands Park, D'Alberton Callies, Manning Rangers and AmaZulu as well as numerous consults for the national team, he returned to Swallows in 2007 as their technical director. "He was very involved with our development, that was his real focus," Gordon Igesund, current coach of Swallows, said. "In fact, he was at the club just three weeks ago."
Lewis was a regular on various television channels, most especially SuperSport, where he was on the panel that presented La Liga. He enjoyed his work on air as much as he enjoyed directing proceedings on the field, taking particular interests in the stories of the players he covered. The tale of the Palacios brothers from Honduras was a particular favourite of his.
In the latter years of his life, Lewis battled cancer and it sometimes kept him off the field for weeks. "He never showed anybody that he was hurting," Igesund said. But he always returned to the pitch, always interested in what was going on and always ready to lend a hand. "I've known him for 30 years, he is an honourable person and this is a huge loss. He just loved the game and he wanted people to do well."
It's a thought that will echo through football circles in South Africa for many years to come.