By Ricky George
From The Daily Telegraph – 07 Jan 2005
As Nationwide Conference club Exeter City prepare for their dream FA Cup third-round tie against Manchester United at Old Trafford tomorrow, a sprightly 77-year-old by the name of Jim Lewis this week recalled the last occasion a non-League side visited the Theatre of Dreams in the old competition.
Lewis was centre-forward for Isthmian League side Walthamstow Avenue when on Jan 31, 1953, they took on Matt Busby’s Football League champions in a fourth-round tie which the Old Trafford crowd had assumed would be a formality.
United were in a transitional stage and their side included a mixture of ageing greats like Johnny Carey, Stan Pearson and Jack Rowley, who scored two goals in the 1948 final victory over Blackpool, and Busby’s new wave of youngsters, among them goalkeeper Ray Wood, future England captain Roger Byrne and recent signing Johnny Berry.
The ‘Reds’ had taken the title the previous season with a 6-1 demolition of Arsenal on the last day and were trailing the Division One leaders, West Bromwich Albion, by three points.
Walthamstow Avenue had the brilliant Polish goalkeeper Stan Gerula, a future Chelsea captain in centre-half Derek Saunders, Essex and England cricketer Trevor Bailey and the prolific goalscorer Jim Lewis. They were top of the Isthmian League, which they would win, and the previous May had taken the FA Amateur Cup at Wembley, beating local rivals Leyton 2-1 in front of 100,000 people, a game in which Lewis had scored the first goal.
To win the prize of a trip to Manchester the amateurs had already beaten two League clubs: Watford after a replay and Stockport County, a game witnessed by 16,000 people at Avenue’s old ground, Green Pond Road, which sadly no longer exists.
“It was windy at Old Trafford,” Lewis recalled, “but the pitch was good. I remember we were under great pressure for most of the first half but Gerula stopped everything. Eddie Lewis scored for United just before half-time. It was quite funny; both centre-forwards were called Lewis.”
The Manchester United programme, which cost four old pence, contained a tongue-in-cheek cartoon which in one breath ridiculed the precocious non-League team and in the next pleaded with them not to shock the champions. In fact, Lewis shocked the entire football world when he equalised 10 minutes from time to earn a replay, which was played at Highbury the following Thursday afternoon in front of 53,000 people.
Arsenal hurriedly printed a programme for the replay which was a penny cheaper, but included a description of Lewis’s goal at Old Trafford. The editor wrote: “That quick-as-lightning centre-forward had the ball in the net in no uncertain manner.”
Lewis also scored twice in the replay, which ended in a 5-2 victory for Manchester United. However, this epic FA Cup story barely scratches the surface of his remarkable career. Lewis made his debut for Walthamstow Avenue at the age of 16, alongside his father, Jim Snr, himself an England amateur international. In two spells at Green Pond Road, Lewis Jnr played 522 games and scored 423 goals.
In between, still as an amateur, he made 95 appearances for Chelsea, scoring 40 times and winning a League championship medal in 1955. He won 49 caps for the England amateur side, finding the net 39 times, and represented Great Britain in three Olympics, scoring four goals.
When Walthamstow Avenue had their memorable day at Old Trafford 52 years ago, Chelsea were bottom of Division One. Lewis signed for Ted Drake soon after and became a Stamford Bridge legend as part of the side who won the club’s one and only League championship. “I think we all got a suit for winning the League,” he recalled, “but in 1959 I received an ornate plaque to commemorate my career at Stamford Bridge.
“I’ve got some wonderful memories,” he continued. “I’ve scored against Bert Trautmann at Manchester City and Ted Ditchburn at Tottenham and never received a penny for playing, but I wouldn’t have swapped any of it. Good luck to Exeter, I’m going to ring Steve Perryman [Exeter’s director of football] and wish him luck and tell him to tell the players to bloody enjoy it. I did!”