Unmodern Man Interview: John Hewitt

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One after another a barrage of champagne corks spiralled across the front lawn of the Gleneagles Hotel. As the sun burned high in the evening sky, members of the victorious Aberdeen squad celebrated that day’s annihilation of Rangers in style. As the players and their families revelled in the afterglow of the 4-1 Hampden triumph, a helicopter thudded into view, low on the horizon. This wasn’t the type Aberdonians learn to tune out of their daily lives. This beauty demanded the attention of the assembled guests as it settled yards away.

Emerging from the sleek interior came Hollywood legend Burt Lancaster; the actor returning to his temporary base after a day’s filming on Local Hero, a film that much like the Dons, would go on to be one of the sleeper hits of 1983.

The ageing movie star readily accepted an invitation to join the celebrations and spent the rest of the evening boozing with the starstruck Dons. Among those basking in the party atmosphere was a jubilant John Hewitt; the teenage striker had plenty to be happy about on that balmy May evening. Having secured his place in the final with a breathtaking first half hattrick the previous week, the cup victory marked the culmination of an impressive breakthrough season in which he’d managed 19 goals from 39 appearances. His debut had come two seasons previously as a precocious 16 year old, but that 1981-82 campaign had cemented his place as a first team regular.

Hewitt could’ve been forgiven for concluding that this was as good as life got. Recently engaged to childhood sweetheart Lorraine, he’d just won his first piece of silverware for the club he’d supported as a boy, and here he was partying into the night with Hollywood royalty.

Hewitt could never have imagined that his goal in the opening round win over Motherwell en route to that Scottish Cup victory had actually triggered a seismic chain of events. He’d set in motion a trajectory which 16 months later would culminate in him leaping through the Gothenburg rain to win his club the European Cup Winners’ Cup. It was a result that sent shockwaves through the established order of European football. It ensured John Hewitt’s name was etched into footballing folklore and confirmed his enduring status as Aberdeen’s own local hero.

Hewitt’s destiny was cast from an early age. When he wasn’t marvelling at the striking prowess of his hero Joe Harper from Pittodrie’s Beach End, he was grabbing the attention with his own goalscoring exploits, including a prescient hattrick in a school’s final held at Pittodrie. The goals came by the barrowload, and so did the accolades. Cornhill became the first Aberdeen primary school to win the Sottish Cup in 33 years with Hewitt leading the line. As he progressed onto secondary school, the goals kept coming as did another Scottish Cup, this time for an Aberdeen Secondary Select side that also contained future Dons teammate Neale Cooper.

“Football was your life at that time,” Hewitt reminisces as we settle down for a chat on a dreich Aberdeen day.

“You used to get to school in the morning, someone’s school bag was a post, someone else’s jacket another post. You played until you got called in. Same thing again at mid-morning break. Often you didn’t even go home for your lunch; there was a field close to the school so we’d go in there. It was the same when school finished; home, changed and straight back over to the fieldy and you were there until you were shouted in.

“I was fortunate enough to play with a lot of great players at Cornhill, players like Kevin Walker and Wilson Robertson, loads of guys that should have made it at senior level.  It’s every schoolkid’s dream to be a professional footballer. I was just fortunate that I got the opportunity.

“I was prolific at that level because I had loads of pace, and no one could catch me. My teammates knew they just had to knock it over the top and bang it was a goal. I scored hundreds of goals, and that drew the attention of senior teams, I had my pick of clubs in the end”.

Hewitt isn’t exaggerating; he was courted by a host of English clubs, most notably Manchester United. Such was their interest that following a successful trial at Old Trafford, manager Dave Sexton accompanied the youngster on a flight back to Aberdeen, intent on securing him on a professional contract. Hewitt’s father had a soft spot for the English club and was hopeful his son would forgo the lure of Aberdeen and seize the English opportunity. However, Hewitt Snr hadn’t reckoned on the depth of affection his son held for the Dons.

“The thing was I was a fan; I’d been a ball boy at Pittodrie; I’d stood on the terraces. I knew from an early age that Aberdeen was the club I wanted to sign for,” says Hewitt. “I had to send Dave Sexton back down the road without the answer he was looking for, Aberdeen was always going to be the club for me”.

In June 1978, shortly after being appointed as the successor to Billy McNeil as Aberdeen manager, Alex Ferguson looked on as Hewitt starred in that Scottish Cup triumph for the Aberdeen Secondary Select. Having previously tried to sign the fledging striker while St Mirren manager, Hewitt’s performance only confirmed what Fergie already knew, and he moved quickly to make the Cornhill loon his first signing at Pittodrie.

Lenny Taylor, Hewitt’s youth coach at Aberdeen at the time, recalls the striker’s raw potential.

“Around the penalty box John just came alive, he knew exactly where he was and what he had to do to gain a yard, lose a marker. He was very good at timing his runs as well as having a great change of pace that most defenders couldn’t handle. He was a natural goalscorer, but he also had tremendous concentration, and he listened intently to what the coaches were telling him”.

Keen to unleash the striker on the lumbering defences of Scotland’s top-flight Ferguson handed him his professional debut in late 1979. By the end of that season, with a handful of appearances under his belt, Hewitt could rightly claim to be a fully-fledged member of the first team squad while still only 16.

John Hewitt will always be synonymous with that triumphant Cup Winners’ Cup victory. His iconic goals from the substitutes bench are indelibly burned into the consciousness of every Dons fan.

Firstly, the scrambled quarter-final winner against Bayern Munich. Hewitt displayed his customary predatory instinct to follow in Eric Black’s header and squeeze the rebound through the keeper’s legs to send Pittodrie berserk.

Then, in the most dramatic of circumstances, the extra time flicked header from Mark McGhee’s pinpoint cross to defeat the mighty Real Madrid and bring the trophy back to Aberdeen.

It’s because of those moments that if you mention Hewitt to any Aberdeen fan the term ‘super sub’ is never far from the conversation. He had an incredible knack for coming off the bench and scoring vital goals, not least those memorable European moments. It’s an understandable label.

Hewitt was unlucky to be competing with the pairing of Eric Black and Mark McGhee for a place in the team. Their styles were more complimentary, and they were able to rack up over a hundred goals in the three seasons they started regularly together. Despite being on record as one of Hewitt’s biggest admirers, Fergie often found it difficult to find a place for the striker and once called him “the best sub in football”.

The ‘super sub’ label stuck with Hewitt throughout his career and unfortunately it has diminished his contribution to the most successful period in Aberdeen’s history. Hewitt started over 250 games and scored 89 goals in his decade with the Dons; personally amassing two European trophies, two league titles and four domestic trophies in the process. Such was the height of his profile in 1983 that he was named the second best young player in Europe behind Massimo Bonini of Juventus.

As Hewitt explains, the ‘super sub’ tag still rankles.

“It does annoy me. I got that tag in the 82-83 season because Graham Forbes of Motherwell clattered me, mashed all the ligaments in my ankle and I ended up out for 16 weeks. Before the Bayern Munich game, I didn’t think I would be involved. The gaffer put me on the bench cos he knew I could come on and score. I scored important goals for the team that season when coming off the bench hence the super sub thing. If you look at my overall appearances I started a lot more games than I did as a sub”.

Anyone who needs reminding of Hewitt’s ability to impact a game from the start need look no further than the 1986 Scottish Cup Final.

With McGhee departed to Hamburg and having managed to rid himself of the injuries that had ruined the previous year, Hewitt managed 32 starts that season. His virtuoso performance in the final, including two brilliant goals, highlight how good a finisher he was. The first goal came from a neat finish after a surging run, and some tremednous close control, left the hapless Craig Levein trailing in his wake; the second an instinctive diversion of Peter Weir’s cross into the corner of the net.

This match as much as should be the one which characterises Hewitt’s career; injury free, playing from the start, scoring cup winning goals.

Throughout our discussion, John was keen to downplay his contribution to Aberdeen’s success; pointing out on more than one occasion how lucky he was to be surrounded by such great players.  He was equally effusive about the role his coaches played in harnessing his early potential.

John credits Archie Knox’s coaching during his formative years at Pittodrie as one of the most significant factors in his meteoric rise. Knox recognised that Hewitt would need more than raw pace to make the grade. They worked tirelessly on his movement and his ability to anticipate opportunities – the attributes that would go on to serve him so well on those European nights.  

“Archie Knox used to take the young players back every afternoon to work on that; to make you more aware, improve your finishing and touch, anything to make you a better all-round player. Eventually you go out and play, and you don’t even think about them, they are pure instinct, your body just does it. I’m a great believer that you are born with that instinct, but coaches can improve you to lose players, to find space and get on the end of things, and that’s what Archie did for me.

“Fergie would be there in the mornings but it was always Archie that set up the special sessions, he was the better coach, Fergie kept an overview and would say something now and again, but if you were to ask any of the players they would say it was Archie’s training that improved them as players”.

Hewitt is quick to acknowledge the manager’s role. If Knox improved him technically, Ferguson was the one who shaped his mindset.

“He was very good with me, but as with all the young players, he tended to be quite tough. As a youngster you probably don’t appreciate that, it’s once you get older you realise how much that shaped you in the early stages of your career. All of the players were brought up with the same winning mentality under Fergie and if you didn’t have that you’d be shipped out the door. He drummed it into you; for him winning was everything. He wasn’t interested in being a runner up.

“Even as a young player, you had to be a big character in that dressing room.  You grew up quickly; there was loads of stick. You took it, but you dished it out as well. You listened to your senior pros; if one or two of them were giving you a rollicking it was probably justified. But at the same time, you couldn’t be scared to speak out. If one of them was slack with their passing, you were quick to tell them”.

Whenever Ferguson is mentioned, Hewitt’s tone is reverential. The gratitude he feels towards his mentor is obvious. So too is the sometimes tempestuous nature of their relationship.

There’s a story about a hefty fine dished out when Fergie suspected the striker was secretly brokering a move away from Pittodrie while the manager was away with Scotland at the 1986 World Cup. Hewitt remembers confronting Ferguson on his return, “I went to him, and he said ‘Yeah you are getting fined, I was fucking sick fed up reading the Green Final about John Hewitt’s contract situation’ because of course he obviously got the Green Final sent out to him in Mexico!”.

On another occasion, Hewitt with Neale Cooper, Mark McGhee, Bryan Gunn and Neil Simpson crammed into his motor, incurred the manager’s wrath when he decided to overtake him on the way back from training.

“There was snow on the ground. Fergie was doing about 15mph in his Mercedes. Mark was in the front and he’s shouting, ‘fucking pass him, what a time he’s taking’, so I’ve pulled out to overtake him, and by then Dingus has rolled the window down, and he’s waving up to Fergie as we go past. We pull into Pittodrie Street and about 30 seconds later BOOM! the dressing room door goes flying open and Fergie’s standing there, “Hewitt you fucking maniac what do you think you were doing?” I said ‘gaffer you were doing about 10mph, if you’d been going any slower I’d have crashed into the back of you’ He says ‘The roads are bloody treacherous and you’re behaving like that with millions of pounds worth of talent in your car’. At that point, McGhee piped up and with a big grin on his face says ‘Aye you’re right gaffer, I’m worth at least two!’ “

As with many of Ferguson’s Aberdeen proteges, there is a feeling that Hewitt never fully realised the huge potential he showed in those early years. It is clear when speaking to him now that he puts that down to a horrendous injury record.

Despite the success at home and abroad, he never won a full cap for Scotland; a horrific knee depriving him of a call up when he’d played his way into contention.

“We played Celtic at Pittodrie, Alan Sneddon stood on my knee, and it ripped open. I ended up with 58 stitches. Fergie told me afterwards that Andy Roxburgh had been on the phone prior to the game to say I was being called up. That was the closest I came to a call-up. I’ve no hard feelings about it. I never really thought about the national team; my only concern was playing well for Aberdeen”.

Then came a difficult spell at Aberdeen when Ferguson departed for Manchester United to be replaced by Ian Porterfield. John recalls how the change in manager became the catalyst for an ill-fated move to Celtic.

“Having worked with the best under Fergie, no disrespect to Ian, but it was night and day. To be fair if you look at his record on paper it is still pretty good. I wouldn’t say I didn’t get on with Ian but I finished that previous season on a high with 2 goals in the cup final and I was close to being the top goal scorer. For some reason he wanted to play me in midfield. I said to him play me up top, but it never really happened, and I got scunnered with the whole thing. Just before Ian got sacked I said to him that I needed to get away.

“Alex Smith came in, but I’d already asked for a transfer, in hindsight if I could turn the clock back I could’ve withdrawn it and gone to Holland for pre-season with the team.  Instead Alex left me in Aberdeen with the reserves and I got a call from Billy McNeil. It all happened quite quickly. A couple of hours after I’d spoke to Billy, Neale Cooper phoned me and said ‘Johnny how would you feel about signing for Rangers, Souness has asked me to sound you out’ and I told him ‘Tattie you won’t believe this, but I’m actually signing for Celtic tomorrow’ ”

Hewitt’s time at Celtic was by his own admission a complete disaster. Shortly after joining the Parkhead club he ruptured his medial ligament and was initially only sidelined for 8 weeks as the full extent of the injury went undetected by club doctors. He was rushed back for a game against his former side and only managed 60 minutes with the aid of multiple cortisone injections before being substituted in agony. He recalls the time shortly after when the scale of the damage was revealed.

“Eventually I woke up one night at three in the morning, screaming in pain. I got a taxi to the hospital then everything escalated from there.  I got cut open and they said they couldn’t believe they hadn’t picked it up before then. In the surgery they pulled the ligament up and stapled it to my knee bone. I was out of football for a whole year. During my rehab I did lots of running on concrete and the staples started to push out of the bone. That set me back further.

“I ended up getting the staples removed, and after that I was the fittest I’ve ever been in my life. I was training Monday to Saturday, just me and the physio. Pat Clinton, who was a featherweight boxer training for a world title fight at the time, was in training with Brian Scott (Celtic physio) and myself every day. We’d be running down at Strathclyde Park then we’d come in and do a thousand sit-ups.  But I knew it wasn’t going to happen for me at Celtic. Guys like Andy Walker and Tommy Coyne were playing in the reserves, not doing as well but they were still getting opportunities in the first team. I knew then that my face didn’t fit.

“If could have turned the clock back I would have never left Aberdeen. I’m a local boy, and I support the club, if things hadn’t been the way they were with Ian Porterfield, I would never have left”.

There’s a scene in Local Hero in which one of the villagers, who’s about to be made incredibly rich by Burt Lancaster’s oil magnate buying out his home, turns to another and signs, “I thought this… would make me feel different. I don’t feel any different”. It’s a sentiment that perfectly sums up John Hewitt.

He’s an ordinary local lad who did extraordinary things while remaining faithful to his roots. He’s the European trophy winner who’d still make time to have a kick about with the local kids in the Cornhill fieldy. He’s the embodiment of your typical Aberdonian; quiet, unassuming, happy to let his achievements speak for themselves, never demanding the limelight. John Hewitt is the archetypal local hero; he’ll forever be Aberdeen’s hero.

This article is part of a series of interviews with the members of Aberdeen’s European Cup Winner’s Cup winning side of 1983. The conversations are intended to give a deeper insight into the members of that great team while raising money for ArchiesCLAN and Stand Free Youth Development in the process.

Once the interviews have been concluded, three match programmes fully signed by all members of the team will be auctioned off to raise money for the above charities. Details of how to bid on these items will be available as the project progresses.

Thanks go to John Hewitt, Lenny Taylor, Mark Elrick (Dolly Digital), Willie Beattie and Glen Milne for their help in making this article happen.