The Big Interview: Jon Newsome on taking on Big Ron, playing for his boyhood club and how it ended in the wrong way with Sheffield Wednesday
It all began with a letter. Dear Mr Wilkinson, please can I sign for Sheffield Wednesday?
Jon Newsome was a teenage Owls fanatic living above his parents’ Post Office in Wincobank. He was already on the books of the club he’d first watched when he was six. As he prepared to leave school, he was looking for full-time deal.
For that to happen, he had to make a personal plea to the boss.
“The big question was, would you be taken on as an apprentice?” he recalls. “You had to write to the manager, Howard Wilkinson.
“Me and the other schoolboys had all written letters . You didn’t know when you’d get a reply.”
Along with a certain Mitch Ward, who went on to make a name for himself in the other half of the city, he waited: “We’d leg it home from school to see if a letter had arrived. There were no mobile phones back then. You had no way of checking. One day I got back and it was there. It was signed by Howard. Thankfully, they were taking me on.”
More than a decade later, the centre-half’s love affair with Wednesday would be severely tested. But for now he was living the dream - earning £27 a week, with a tenner for lodgings thrown in for mum and dad Christine and Roger, and cleaning the boots of first-teamers Lee Chapman and Gary Megson.
He scrubbed the baths, cleaned the balls, washed down the dressing rooms and relished every second of it. He was on his way.
Newsome is sat talking at Automarques, the prestige car dealership he owns not far from Sheffield Arena. We’re in his office, looking out on to gleaming Audis and Range Rovers, and his ‘The North Face’ coat is competing with the cold whipping in through the open hangar doors.
The 47-year-old is friendly and relaxed, immediately likeable. His greeting is as strong and warm as his Sheffield accent and there’s a mug of tea in my hand within two minutes of my arrival.
A picture of him playing for one of his later sides, Norwich City, hangs on the wall. There’s nothing to connect him with the Owls. “Everyone mentions that,” he grins.
His Wednesday debut came in the top flight five days after his 19th birthday - two minutes as a substitute right-back in a 5-0 Highbury defeat against Arsenal. There would be a pay rise and a handful appearances under Wilkinson’s successor, Ron Atkinson, but the player was growing restless.
“I was nearly 21,” he says. “I felt like the handbrake had been put on a little bit. The team were doing well - they won the Rumbelows Cup and promotion back to the top division - and I wasn’t starting. It was heart-wrenching to leave because I’d adored Wednesday since I was a kid.
“My contract was up and Atkinson offered me a better deal, but I told him it wasn’t about the money, it was about running out on to the pitch on Saturday at three o’clock. He turned a bit nasty. I stuck to my guns.
“I look back now and think: ‘Cor blimey, you must have had a bit of bottle at 20 to go into a meeting with Ron Atkinson and tell him you wanted to leave.’”
There’s a second photograph on the office wall of Newsome at a Special Air Service fund-raising dinner in Hereford last year. He once played a charity game at an SAS bash and has made friendships which persist to this day.
Taking on the might of Atkinson and getting what he wanted. Who dares wins.
Wilkinson took Newsome to Leeds United and the defender scored at Sheffield United in the game that secured the 1992 First Division (now Premier League) title before going on to make European Cup appearances.
A £1 million move to Norwich followed. Showing the same moral fibre that had vexed Atkinson, he turned down the chance to go to Aston Villa and Spurs when the Canaries were relegated.
“I would have felt uncomfortable walking out of that football club and turning my back on it,” he says. “I played in a team that got relegated. It doesn’t matter how well you’ve performed individually. I felt partly responsible.”
His daughter was born in Norwich and he played his best football there. He’d left Wednesday. But Wednesday never left him.
“I first went to Hillsborough in 1976 and I can clearly remember a game against Chesterfield around 1980,” he recollects. “Chesterfield played in red and it was a 3-3 draw. I was standing on the kop with my dad and brother. By then I was hooked, totally captured.
“When I retired, my mum and dad gave me the scrapbooks and boxes of stuff they’d kept throughout my career. There’s a copy of that letter I wrote to Howard Wilkinson back in 1985.”
We’re chatting the day after the Owls’ home defeat to Ipswich Town had stirred up fears of Championship relegation. Newsome is a fixture at Hillborough and travels to as many away games as work allows.
“I think we’re in a real mess,” he says. “Without trying to be a clever clogs, I’ve seen it coming for a good couple of years. Under the previous regime of Carlos (Carvalhal), I didn’t think things were right, from the top downwards. It looks like a house of cards and it’s falling down.
“The only solace you can take is there are three or four clubs who are worse than us and haven’t got as many points. We don’t look like we’ve got a scrap in us. We could do with a few lads who’re prepared to roll their sleeves up and get stuck in.
“We’ve got lots of injuries. There is something wrong when you have this many injuries over two seasons. For me, are the players fit enough? Is pre-season hard enough? Are they prepared for a slog?”
He’s a big man, just shy of 6ft 4in, the imposing, athletic frame of former top-level stopper making him seem even taller. He’s stood up to some of the world’s best players, not just Big Ron.
I mention the Norwich image. “I nicked it on the day I left them,” he reveals. “I went into the canteen to say goodbye to the women who worked in there and it was on the wall. ‘You won’t be needing this, will you?’ I said and took a screwdriver to it.”
The Canaries needed money so £1.6m saw him delightedly return to S6. Things went well under the boss who signed him, David Pleat, but then Danny Wilson took charge.
“I wasn’t playing,” Newsome says. “I didn’t have a problem with him picking the players he wanted, but I hardly kicked a ball. He wouldn’t let me play in the reserves in case I got injured.
“I went five or six months and played about three football matches. And I was fit. It was massively frustrating.
“When he did pick me, it was at right-back. I didn’t mind it there when I was a kid and you’re just happy to play anywhere, but I was a centre-half. That was my best position.”
The player handed in a transfer request and was shocked to be selected for the next match, at Newcastle United.
September 19 1999. Sunday. Bloody Sunday.
“The gaffer read out the team,” he says. “’Kevin Pressman in goal, right-back Jon Newsome ...’ I couldn’t believe it. I thought: ‘I’m having the mickey taken out of me.’
“The game was an absolute disaster. We lost 8-0. I got a whack after 20 minutes. My knee was hanging off. We came off at half-time 4-0 down. The dressing room was like a war zone, it was all going off.
“I should have come off, but I didn’t feel like I could because of the situation. We were 4-0 down. I wasn’t going to give him or anybody the opportunity to say I bailed out.”
Again, that Newsome morality kicked in. He saw out the rest of the game. And never played football again.
He earned his coaching badges and was manager of non-league Gresley Rovers before divorce saw him turn to the car trade for the sake of his children, Natalya and Conor.
“They were little then,” he says. “I couldn’t continue with all the weekend and evening hours if I wanted to see them. It was tough but, you know, what do you choose, your kids or football? There’s not a decision to make there, really, is there.”
Natalya, now 23, is an operation department practioner at Hallamshire Hospital and Conor, 21, is studying in Kansas, America, as part of his Leeds University economics degree. Newsome lives in the Lodge Moor area, enjoys his golf and plans a wedding one day with long-time fiance Sarah.
It’s just him and his laptop at his Automarques HQ on Leigh Street. “This is it. This is me,” he says. “Do I enjoy it? It’s all right. It’s not football, but nothing ever will replace football. I’d love to get back in. Football is what makes me tick.”
The knee problem sustained at Newcastle in 1999 was serious and Newsome’s contract was coming to an end. Wednesday, he says, were willing to offer him a week-to-week terms and then, if he proved his fitness, a permanent deal.
“Wilson had left and it felt like a fresh start,” he recollects. “I’d had an operation and they told me to go on holiday for couple of weeks and then do my rehab through the summer.”
When he returned, there was club correspondence on his doormat terminating his employment.
“It was just the way that they did it,” he says, his natural affability leaving him for a second. “They didn’t even call me in and have a meeting.”
Time has healed him. “Water under the bridge now,” he says. “I was 29 when I finished and I’d played 200-odd games. If someone had told me when I was 15 that I was going to go on and do that, I’d have bitten their hand off.”
But it will always hurt how a career that started with an Owls letter ended with one.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
Best player played with? Gordon Strachan at Leeds. He was the ultimate professional. He was clocking on a bit, but he was the fittest player I ever played with. He was infectious. He could play a bit as well! And he’s a proper nice bloke too.
Toughest opponent? I remember playing in a friendly for Leeds out in Italy. I played against Gabriel Batistuta of Fiorentina. It was only a 45-minute game and I had to man-mark him. We got beat 2-0. He didn’t score, but it was a long 45 minutes.
Best team played in? The Leeds United team that won the title in 1992. There were some great players in that side.
Best team played against? The Manchester United side of Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke, Teddy Sheringham, Ryan Giggs and Roy Keane, the team that went on to win the Treble in 1999.
Best manager played under? That’s a really difficult one. Probably Howard Wilkinson. The one I enjoyed playing under most was John Deehan at Norwich. Wilkinson was thorough and knew his stuff. And we were successful. Everybody likes winning, don’t they?
Best moment? Probably scoring for Leeds at Bramall Lane on the day we won the league.
Worst moment? Walking off at Newcastle after being thumped 8-0.
Best friend in football? You tend to have acquaintances in football rather than friends. You have pals, don’t get me wrong, but my best friends are my friends away from football and that’s always been the case for me. A lot of my friends were friends before I became a footballer.
Any regrets? We could be here all day with that! On the other hand, I think I tried to be an honest, genuine kid and was so, so fortunate to be able to fulfil my dream to be a professional footballer. I played for the club that I’ve loved from being a kid. My glass is always half full. There was a lad called Dave Billington who we’d signed from Peterborough. When I retired at 29, he had to retire at 19. He’d have swapped me, wouldn’t he? That puts things in perspective.