Steve Menary remembers a remarkable man.
Jim Lewis, who sadly passed away on November 21st aged 84 was quite literally a man you would not meet every day. Imagine going from non-league to winning the Premier League title, then going back to non-league – all without being paid?
The son of war-time England international Big Jim Lewis, he was always known as Little Jim and never emulated his Father in winning full-England honours but won the First Division title with Chelsea and his record with the soon-to-be revived Great Britain Olympic football team will never be broken.
Too young to be considered for Matt Busby’s 1948 team, he briefly appeared as an amateur for Leyton Orient, playing four games in 1950 after completing his national service in Sandhurst then India.
Lewis was also on the books at West Ham, but was always going to follow Big Jim and remain an amateur. He signed for his Father’s club, Walthamstow Avenue, an east London-based side that is now defunct but was then one of the great amateur teams.
In 1952, Walthamstow won the Amateur Cup in front of a bumper Wembley crowd and Lewis was called up for that year’s Olympics in Helsinki by Walter Winterbottom, who had replaced Busby as manager of the Olympic side.
In 1948, post-World War Two unity saw all four Home Nations join together. Although Winterbottom’s squad was drawn from all four Home Nations, most of the squad was English.
Lewis lined up alongside a team including the legendary amateur Bill Hardisty and future England internationals such as Bill Slater and George Robb, who both went on to play for Wolves and Spurs respectively. Lewis scored, but Winterbottom’s side were humiliated 5-3 by Luxembourg in the opening round.
His Olympic debut was inauspicious, but greater glories lay ahead. In the 1952/53 season, Walthamstow reached the fourth round of the FA Cup, where Lewis’ equaliser secured a famous 1-1 draw. The reply was on a Thursday afternoon at Highbury but interest was so high that 53,000 people turned up. Walthamstow lost 5-2, both their goals coming from Lewis, who was soon persuaded by Winterbottom to join Chelsea.
Lewis’ day-job as a sales rep for flask-maker Thermos was going well, providing a company car and a long-term future that football, still in the grip of the maximum wage, could not offer. So, like Big Jim, he remained an amateur.
“When I was at Chelsea, the maximum wage that anyone was on at the end of my time there was £25 a week and an awful lot of players were on far less,” recalled Lewis more than half-a-century later.
Lewis had been a regular in the England amateur team but was dropped after joining Chelsea, even though he had not signed professional forms. Only after Chelsea won the 1955 league title was Lewis finally recalled.
That same year, the GB side faced the ignominy of having to qualify for the Olympics and were eliminated 5-3 on aggregate by Bulgaria. After a raft of politically inspired withdrawals, a GB side comprised solely of Englishmen travelled to Melbourne. GB whipped Thailand 9-0 but then faced Bulgaria again and were thrashed 6-1, Lewis scoring GB’s consolation.
On the return journey home, GB played three friendlies in Asia before setting off from Rangoon on a flight back to the UK that stopped seven times and took three days. On re-entering British airspace, the London-bound flight was redirected due to fog to Prestwick, where Lewis and his team-mates spent the night shivering in a railway carriage until their train left the next morning.
In 1958, Lewis played for London in the Inter Cities Fairs Cup – a forerunner of the UEFA Cup, now Europa League – then left Chelsea after scoring 40 goals in 95 appearances. Only once, at St James’ Park, did he ever face criticism for playing as an amateur and depriving a professional from playing. On leaving Chelsea, there was no big money transfer. Lewis simply re-signed for Walthamstow.
GB faced the Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland in a qualifying group for the 1960 Rome Olympics and for the only time ever qualified. Lewis missed some games after breaking his leg, but it was his hat-trick in a 5-1 rout of the Dutch in Zwolle that secured a place in the Rome finals.
In Italy, GB were beating Brazil 3-2 in Leghorn when Tommy Thompson’s leg was broken by a shocking challenge and the South Americans won 4-3. A win against the hosts in Rome was now needed to ensure qualification.
Italy’s criteria for amateurism ruled that any player under 21 was not professional and therefore eligible. So a side featuring future Azurri greats such as Gianni Ribera, Giovanni Trapattoni, Tarcisio Burgnich and Giacomo Bulgarelli lined up against GB’s sales reps and draughtsmen.
The game was one of the GB team’s greatest. After falling behind, GB rallied magnificently to secure a 2-2 draw. The game ended with Italian fans showering cushions from their seats onto their home side. Despite a 3-2 win over Taiwan in their final game, GB were out.
After scoring nine goals in 11 competitive Olympic matches, Lewis’ Olympic career was over but he had one final glory day, winning the Amateur Cup again with Walthamstow in 1961. Overall, he scored 506 goals in 673 matches, including 39 goals in 49 England amateur internationals, once scoring seven goals in two consecutive matches.
The abolition of the maximum wage led to the secret payments among amateurs – known as shamateurism – becoming rampant. In 1974, the FA declared that the amateur credo was finished. Everyone was now a player, leaving Jim Lewis’ records untouched; something that the revival of the GB Olympic side in 2012 seems unlikely to change.
Steve Menary is the author of GB United: British Olympic football and the end of the amateur dream (Pitch 2010).