As a carpenter in Portsmouth’s dockyard, Ron Newman spent lunch hours having a kickabout outside the men’s toilets.
Occasionally he amused himself further by targeting the removal of cigarettes out of the mouths of any onlooking colleagues – a feat performed with a ball, of course.
That is the modest football beginnings of someone who became one of the greatest names in American soccer circles.
Newman went on to count Pele as a team-mate and then manage George Best, Gordon Banks and Gerd Muller in a trophy-laden career.
An inductee in the National Soccer Hall of Fame and twice recipient of the key to San Diego, the 81-year-old is footballing royalty across the Atlantic.
Back in his home city, the former St John’s College pupil is remembered by many as a hard-working outside left who netted 25 goals in 118 matches for Pompey.
Yet it is as an innovative coach in the United States in both indoor and outdoor formats of the game where he has achieved his greatest acclaim.
He said: ‘I was a carpenter in the dockyard for five years before playing for Pompey.
‘Then in January 1955, I was signed by Eddie Lever for Pompey, which was fantastic. That was until I was sold six years later – I didn’t want to leave.
‘Freddie Cox let me go to Leyton Orient for £10,000 and years later I would be finishing my playing career in the United States.
‘I knew Eddie Firmani, a South African centre back for Charlton, and as I was fully qualified for all coaching, including track and field, football and tennis, he told me I could get a job in his country in no time at all.
‘Then I got a phone call from Phil Woosnam, a former Orient
team-mate who I shared a house with during our days there.
‘He said: “What’s this I hear about you going to South Africa, they don’t even play the game.
‘They are starting a new league in America and I am going to coach Atlanta Chiefs, come with me, there might be a coaching job too”.
‘So along with my wife and two kids, we went across to the United States in 1967 and I only stopped working in the game upon my retirement in 2000.’
Newman embarked on a
glittering managerial career, initially as player-head coach with Dallas Tornado.
He took the Tornado to the North American Soccer League (NASL) title in 1971 and then in 1976 steered the Los Angeles Skyhawks to the American Soccer League championship (ASL).
Yet it was at Fort Lauderdale Strikers – from 1977 until 1979 – where he was in charge of a side which consisted of the likes of Best, Banks, Muller and ex-Pompey favourite Norman Piper.
He added: ‘I signed Georgie Best, Gerd Muller and Gordon Banks at different times in my career.
‘Banksie was the first and once I got him over there in April 1977, it gave me the opportunity to sign better players.
‘People saw him at the club and obviously became more interested in joining.
‘He was named the number one goalkeeper in the NASL that year, even though he was playing with one eye following a car accident.
‘I had read an article about him recovering from the injury and beginning to play exhibition games so I thought “I’ve got to get him to America” – and hunted him down.
‘Georgie Best was a bit troublesome but, like all the coaches, we all thought we could make him sober again and I was no different.
‘He was no trouble at all and then suddenly, out of the blue, I would get a phone call from his wife saying “He’s disappeared again, he’s not come home and been out drinking all night”.
‘There was no way of knowing when it was going to happen. We treated him right, he loved playing with us and suddenly didn’t go home one night.
‘On another occasion when he went missing, the owner of Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Joe Robbie, called and asked me to find him.
‘Well Georgie only goes and shows up at the bowling alley where my daughter was working behind the bar!
‘So I went in there, persuaded him to go home and also guaranteed the lads wouldn’t say anything when he went to training the next day because I knew that was a weak spot with him.
‘He said “Ron, you are such a great guy” and off he went back home.
‘Do you know what, he still never showed up to training in the morning! What the hell could you do for him? A wonderful player but he had that terrible illness.
‘You would see him in practice and we would set up the cones and small goals and he was unbelievable.
‘However, when you are trying to play in the Florida heat, it is not easy to run 10 yards.
‘During one match, it was the second half and he was finding running in the heat too difficult, getting slower and slower.
‘Then this opponent comes along, whips the ball off his foot and Georgie is getting redder and redder and kicks out at him.
‘Now I had got him from Los Angeles Aztecs in 1978 where he was serving a 10-game suspension.
‘So I am watching him kick younger players and it is running through my mind he could get another ban. They don’t give you an extra one, they double it, so it could be a potential 20 games!
‘I’ve got to get him off. Except people don’t take George Best off and as I’m watching him walk off the pitch, he is taking his shirt off.
‘I have been in the game a long time and knew what he was going to do – he was going to throw it at me because I have subbed him. He is coming across, getting closer to the bench, then screws his shirt up and threw it at my head but I was ready and knocked it down and carried on as if nothing had happened.
‘After the game the media were all over me. “What are you going to do, what are you going to do?”.
‘Now I had to stop it being publicised in case it involved a suspension so I innocently replied: “What’s wrong?”.
‘They couldn’t believe it. “Well Georgie Best threw his shirt at you”.
‘I innocently said: “He gave me his shirt, I am no different to any of the other soccer people in the world, everyone wants one of his shirts”.
‘I think we got away with it!’
A three-time NASL coach of the year, at one stage Newman won 10 championships in 11 years across two different leagues.
Ahead of the Major League Soccer (MLS) being launched in 1996, Newman was the first coach to be hired, taking up a role with Kansas City Wizards until his retirement.
Fareham-born Newman’s home has long been San Diego and one of the early pioneers remains proud how football is continuing to flourish stateside.
He added: ‘Back in the day I had lots of guys who would do anything to promote the game in America. Not Georgie, though.
‘It’s not easy, it’s very difficult and it’s still difficult.
‘Baseball people don’t want us loony Europeans, then there is American football, basketball and ice hockey.
‘That’s the difference between Georgie and Pele – and I love them both.
‘Pele would do anything to promote the team. He was a magnificent player to come over here, terrific.
‘And the game is continuing to do very well over here.’
RON NEWMAN ON...
I would say Pele is one of my best friends.
Whenever I won championships in California, he would always send me pictures in the post of himself saying “Well done, Ron. Have another one, Ron”.
He played with me when I was with the All-Stars, back when I was a lot fitter and still played a bit.
One time in training a ball came up waist-high to him so I thought “I’ll get this Pele” and stuck my foot around to nick it away from him.
How unwise was that! He saw the leg coming round, grabbed it with one hand and pulled me down the field with the other. He had the ball and I was hopping behind him!
...BEING A POMPEY FAN
My dad and his twin brother would take me to Pompey’s matches and I absolutely loved it.
Us youngsters were allowed to stand up but were half the size of everyone else.
There were three of us so we would be picked up and passed over people’s heads down to the front of the stand.
I had to do national service and was once challenged by the captain – an ex-Olympic sprinter – to a race.
Now I had never used starting blocks before so didn’t use them – and beat him!
‘How did you do that?’ he said. He wanted me to do it again and again to see how I did it – and I won every time!