Interviewer's note: John Sewell will always be remembered as the man who captained Palace into the top flight for the first time. We caught up with John in his California home over the 'net in Autumn 2000...
We began by asking John about his boyhood team and how he became a professional footballer?
I was Charlton fan. My family lived in Grove Park then so we would all attend the home games, along with 50 - 70,000 others. I played for Bexleyheath Welling Colts before signing for Charlton in September 1953. In those days Clubs had 50/60 professionals so I was loaned back to Bexleyheath for playing experience. During my time with the Colts we lost to Man.United 2-1 in the semi-final of England Youth Cup. Man Utd had Bobby Charlton and Duncan Edwards in their side that day. However, we did win the London Youth Cup (1952-53). I scored the winning goal from the penalty spot. I trained every day with CAFC and had the privilege to change next to the legendary Sam Bartram. In January 1955 I had to do National Service and immediately became a Charlton player again. In January 1957, when I came out of the Army, Charlton was struggling at the bottom of the First Division. My debut was on January 12th, away to Sheffield Wednesday, who had Albert Quixall, Redfern Froggatt and Albert Broadbent in their side. Whilst the Charlton side included Ufton, Hewie, Leary, Kiernon and Lawrie.
How did your transfer to Palace come about?
After 10 years at Charlton, (the club seemed to be going nowhere) and at 28 years of age, I felt I needed to play with an ambitious Club. Fortunately Dick Graham saw me play one evening and I was a Palace player the next day. I believe the transfer fee was £11,000. Palace had a great bunch of lads at the time: Ronnie Allen, Cliff Holton, Peter Burridge, Bobby Kellard, Brian Wood, Bert Howe, Bill Glazier, as well as a super Chairman in Arthur Wait, who was very success orientated. My Palace debut was against Bristol Rovers at home. There was a big crowd and Dick always made you feel nervous. A Peter Burridge goal settled it and I remember heading one off the line.
John's first goal in Palace colours came in the 8-2 demolition of Harwich & Parkeston in the FA Cup, but he professes not to have been aware at the time of Palace's rather blemished record against non-league clubs. He soon found out
the next round Palace went down 1-3 away to Yeovil Town. John claims their infamous slope had something to do with that particular result. John played in every game up to a fateful away game at Millwall in February 1964, then didn't play for the rest of the promotion-winning season...
I injured my knee in that game and had surgery for cartilage, which actually
turned out to be a piece of bone floating around in the knee. We got a result though, 1-0, another Peter Burridge goal. Not playing in the final games was a bummer but promotion is promotion. The Friday before the first game of our Division 2 campaign, I injured my shoulder whilst playing with my son. Obviously Dick wasn't very happy when I gave him this news at the pre-game meal. He always announced the team one hour before K.O. and I'm sure I was a
starter. From then on I was in and out of the team. The Cup run of 1965 from the reserve bench, was still very exciting.
The following year saw a change in Management when Dick Graham left amidst rumours of ill-feeling between players and Manager. What was your
personal relationship with Dick Graham?
Dick Graham was different - hard to like as he didn't trust anyone, so to me it seemed to be a good move by the Club. I really don't know why he was let go. I had a few differences of opinion with Dick which may have been the reason I was in and out of the team. There was great disharmony within the club. Arthur Rowe, who took over as caretaker manager was a very nice gentleman and I have happy memories of our association. Bert Head arrived late in the season . He had just managed Swindon for a few years, very successfully. George Petchey was the Coach and did all the training and tactics.
After establishing himself as first choice right back, the following season saw John having a long period out of the team in the autumn due to a lingering hamstring problem. Who stood out from the team at that time?
Alan Stephenson, who was a very nice young man who also happened to be a very good player; Johnny "Budgie" Byrne, who was very good for the Club atmosphere but didn't last long on his second spell at the Club; John McCormick - Bert loved his low-priced Scottish players but proved he was worth his weight in gold. Stevie Kember - Bert was always bringing new players in and it was a real pleasure to see a local boy make the Team, with obvious above average talent; and, not forgetting John Jackson - a great character, as all English goalies were (what happened to them?) outstanding person and player.
Onto 67/8 season and John took over the captaincy when Alan Stephenson left to join West Ham. One day it just happened and being of a reserved nature I just blended in. I think Bert liked me! The promotion season, saw John nearly ever present and he was also installed as penalty taker. He admits there was an element of fortune about his first success from the spot against Portsmouth
I changed my mind at the last moment, sent the keeper the wrong way and the ball trickled in the other side.
John is keen to put the record straight with regard to the alleged booking, the one and only of his career which happened in the promotion run-in against Bury...
There was a fracas between their player Anderton and Mark Lazarus. I was trying to break it up. Afterwards Bert called me into his office and said I didn't deserve the booking. He wrote to the F.A. and subsequently my caution was deleted. Therefore my record is clean.
John captained the side to promotion and recalls the Fulham game which clinched promotion, when the team fought back from 2 goals down to win 3-2 - In the celebration afterwards the team threw their shirts to the crowd...
George Petchey made us all believe in ourselves. A great bunch of lads with superior play and team spirit made it happen. By the way, I would like my kit back please! Palace added to their promotion success with a win in the London Five-a-Sides at Wembley a few days later. John was both Captain and scorer on the night.
How did the nicknames "The Duke" and the terrace-originated "Shovel", come about?
I was always attired with blazer, shirt and tie as I coached Roan Grammar School, in Blackheath three afternoons per week, hence Bobby Kellard came up with the name "Duke". I don't recall being aware of the nickname "Shovel" but I hope the fans appreciated me as I did them.
George Petchey was quoted as saying "If John had been a few years younger when we reached the top, he would have become one of the game's greats. Few players use the ball better than John." What were your initial impressions of life back at the top?
It was great to be back in Division 1 after my brief spell there with Charlton in 1957. Play was very fast pace and took about five games to acclimatise. Peter Thompson gave me a tough time - he was the best winger and toughest opponent I ever played against. I scored at home to Liverpool. A free kick outside the box, Bobby Woodruff tapped to the side and I hit a bullet through the wall, top left hand corner. The away game at Liverpool was an experience too, the Anfield kop was awesome in those days.
John notched two penalties in the following game, a League Cup tie against Cardiff and, briefly was the Club's topscorer. Another penalty secured a point at Old Trafford ...
A good shot to the right post, parried by their 'keeper Alex Stepney. I kept running - put the ball back in the other side.
A number of fans commented on your ability to run backwards, as fast as
you ran forwards, was this something you particularly practised in training?
Actually I was a sprinter in school and backward running was always part of our training. It came easy to me.
Mentioning the name John Sewell to most Palace fans of that age and they will reply "Gary Sprake" - a reference to John's legendary goal which saw Sprake drop the ball in his own net. It's been immortalised on several "gaffes" videos and was used at the start of the Big Match for ages afterwards. Was it actually an intentional shot or a ball into the box?
I admit I just "shovelled" it back into the box - another beauty!I didn't say anything to Gary afterwards, I was just happy to get a point.
What was the players' relationship with Bert Head like - did the players respect Head?
I think they respected him. We hardly ever saw him. George Petchey took charge of everything on the pitch and Bert did his thing upstairs. He would come by and say something to us just before kick off. I remember once it was "Are we all kicking the same way this week George?" His nickname was "the fat man", but it was said in a nice way. Palace had a high churn of Players in the first two seasons in the top flight, Bobby Tambling, Alan Birchenall and Gerry Queen to name but a few, stood out for me.
John received a testimonial for his services to Palace, against RFC Bruges on 13th May 1971.
The Bruges game was actually my last in a Palace shirt, unfortunately it ended in a 3-1 defeat. I have the poster framed on my wall. We certainly played against some exotic teams over the years. I went on some great tours, the most memorable being the 1964 promotion trip to Bermuda. I received a telegram whilst there saying my wife Maureen had given birth to our second son, Warren.
You signed for Orient at the start of the 1971/2 season on a free transfer - how long did you keep playing there?
From August '71 to April '72. George Petchey was the coach. Then I went, with my family, to St. Louis, Missouri as Player/Coach in the North American Soccer League. I only intended to stay for a couple of years but they asked me to stay on. I was named NASL Coach of the Year in 1975. The team moved to California in January 1978 but folded in 1981. We stayed on in California and opened a British Tea Room/Antique Shop. I coached both sons in soccer and they still play the game when they can. I played on until I was 55!
Does your family still live in America?
We have two fine sons, Howard and Warren. Howard, the eldest is President of a Silicon Valley direct marketing agency and Warren is an art director in the entertainment industry. We also have a beautiful daughter-in-law, Elizabeth, and a darling two week old grandson William.
How important was it for players in your day to build up outside business interests in those days? Do you envy the modern day players, with their huge incomes?
Well of course the money we earned then was all relevant. We were able to purchase a home and run a couple of cars, etc., but you had to save too. Yes I do envy the salary of the modern day players, who wouldn't? When I first signed for Palace I was earning 20 pounds per week. At the end of my career I was earning between £200-£300, by which time we had also opened a Children's Wear Shop in Caterham.
How did your current business awfullycivilsed.com evolve?
We owned and operated a British Tea Room near Hearst Castle for 9 years. It became so successful and busy that we found it just too much to handle. Having sold this in 1998 we decided to just sell British Antiques - much less stress! Our eldest son Howard has his own marketing company and came up with the name "Awfully Civilized". We also sell British food online.
Did you get to see the Cup Final?
It was great and I watched the game on satellite from Canada. Unfortunately, I did not get to see the Liverpool Semi-final, though.
John still keeps in touch with Palace via CP-FRIS. From what you read, what's your take on the current Palace squad?
Underworked and overpaid. There doesn't seem to be any loyalty any more. I haven't seen a game since the 80's. Now we have the antique shop we hope to get"home" once a year on a buying trip and will certainly make it a
priority to visit Palace.
Thank you, John Sewell.
POSTSCRIPT: John and Maureen made it over for the '69 promotion winning squad reunion which took place after the Fulham game in March 2001.