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Berry Nieuwenhuys: The Free State boykie who almost played for England

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Imagine this. You’re a youngster playing a minor club game of football in Boksburg when a man dashes on to the field during a lull in play and asks if you’d like to play for Liverpool. You wonder if he’s for real, but, of course, accept. A few weeks later, on the other side of the world, you play your first of 260 games for the prestigious English club you will one day captain. It sounds like something out of Boys Own magazine or the Beano annual, but that’s just what happened to Berry Nieuwenhuys in 1933, and the South African went on to fame and — well, fame was enough, in those balmy pre-Best, Beckham, and Rooney days.

Berry was born on November 5 1911 in Kroonstad in the Free State, and after completing his schooling at Bethlehem went to work on the mines in the Transvaal. A keen and natural sportsman, his first love was rugby, but he soon switched to the round ball game and played for Germiston Callies.

Eight years earlier another young South African player, Arthur Riley, had gone across to England to keep goal for Liverpool Football Club. His English-born father still lived in South Africa, where he keenly followed the sport. Having been impressed by Nieuwenhuys and another player, Lance Carr, he contacted management at Liverpool and told them that he’d found a couple of “likely lads” in South Africa. The Brits told him to go ahead and hire them. That was the way people did business in those days — no agents, no contracts, no fat commissions; just a shake of the hand.

The two eager young players arrived in England on September 11 1933, and were met on the quayside by Walter Cartwright and George Patterson, Liverpool Football Club’s chairman and secretary/manager respectively. After one warm up game in a junior side Berry was named for the senior side to play against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart-lane on September 23. The Evening Express headlines of September 25 told it all.”A GEM FROM SOUTH AFRICA” they trumpeted. “NIVVY’S TRIUMPH IN FIRST BIG MATCH FOR LIVERPOOL. HOME DEFEAT FOR SPURS AFTER 2 YEARS”. The South African had battled with a wet ball and unfamiliar slippery grass in the first half, but in the second gained confidence and set up two brilliant goals for his new club.

Over the next fourteen years the press had plenty more to shout about. Nivvy — the Brits, who had trouble with his full name, had immediately shortened it to something more handy — played 260 games for Liverpool, and was one of their most prolific goal scorers, with a final tally of 79 balls in the back of the net. “NIVVY THE MATCH WINNER”. “NEW LIVERPOOL WING PRODUCED THE SPARKLE”. “NIEUWENHUYS SCORES FOUR GOALS FOR LIVERPOOL”. “NIVVY GIVES THE ARSENAL NERVES”. “NIEUWENHUYS HIGHEST SCORING WINGER IN FIRST DIVISION”. “SHOOT! NOOWENHOOS!” “NIVVY SAVED GAME.” Nieuwenhuys had made it into the big time, but Carr was not as fortunate. He was never a regular Liverpool player, and transferred out of the club after a few games.

By the time World War II intervened, Liverpool fans on the Kop at Anfield were convinced that their favourite should play for England, and numerous soccer writers declared the fleet-footed player to be the best winger in the land. Not only was Nivvy a brilliant right wing, but he could fit into any position without effort, being one of only two players ever to be selected to play in nine different positions in top-level football. He never filled left wing and goalkeeper, but was quietly confident it would not pose a problem if the need arose. But it was not to be. The rules stated that for a player from the Commonwealth to represent England his father had to have been born in the UK, and this was not the case with Nivvy. The debate was however shortened by the unwelcome arrival of Herr Hitler in Poland in September 1939.

During the war years Nivvy served as a PT instructor with the Royal Air Force, but still managed to play soccer. Footballers usually represented the clubs nearest the camps where they were based, and Nivvy played for West Ham United, Arsenal and Aston Villa. He also captained the RAF.

When hostilities ceased in 1945 Nivvy became the first English pro to be signed up by a top-level club — Liverpool, yet again. In 1946/7 he captained the side, which topped the English First Division that season for the first time since he’d arrived over 12 years before.

One thing that didn’t come with the fame was the obscene wealth associated with modern football. In 1946 Nivvy and his teammates travelled to the USA to promote the game in that country. They played 10 games and won all of them, with seventy goals for and just 10 against, in front of a total of 110 000 paying American spectators. The players’ earnings? Just £6 per game and a £2 bonus for each match they won — a gross earning of £80 per player for the trip. A couple of years earlier, after Nivvy had given Liverpool five years staunch service, the club rewarded him with a benefit match against Everton from which he received the princely sum of £658. During the war things were even less rewarding — players were paid with sweets and cigarettes. Nivvy, a lifelong teetotaller and non-smoker, used to hang on to his sweets and swap his cigarettes for even more delicacies.

Nivvy was also a very talented tennis player — King Gustav VI of Sweden once sent an aircraft to the UK to fetch the South African for a knock up on the royal courts — and a keen golfer who achieved scratch status after just three months coaching. In 1946 he entered the British Open after hurrying back from the Liverpool tour of the USA, and missed the cut by just two strokes. That same year he played in the Irish Open, figuring among the money winners, and during the last years of his football career he doubled as assistant coach at the West Derby Golf Club.

Nivvy retired from football in 1948, returning to South Africa to take up a position as assistant coach to golfer Bobby Locke. There followed a spell in Rhodesia, where he married my aunt, Marjorie Richards, in 1964. He then returned to Johannesburg to work as a golf pro while coaching various premier league soccer teams, including Southern Suburbs and his old club, Germiston Callies. During this period he also scouted for talent for English teams.

Berry finally retired from active sport in the mid 1970s. In his final years he suffered from senile dementia, and he died in Grahamstown in 1984, largely ignored by the press that once adored him.

Berry Nieuwenhuys was a modest man who didn’t talk much about himself. As a child I spent a couple of holidays with him and my aunt at the Ohenimuri Country Club near Vereeniging, where he was the club professional, and although I knew he’d once been a pro footballer I had no idea of just how good he’d been or how far his talent had taken him. Then, in late 2003, while on holiday in Port Elizabeth, I asked my aunt if I could browse through his scrap book — a tatty A4 volume filled with yellowed newspaper cuttings, crudely titled Scrap Book — Berry Nieuwenhuys — Liverpool Football Club — 1933 to 1946-7 in thick black letters. That, and subsequent trawling through the Liverpool Football Club’s website brought home to me how close I’d been to an icon, without knowing it.

One famous South African sportsman who still remembers Berry Niewenhuys well is Cyril Mitchley — soccer pro, provincial cricket player, Test and one-day-international cricket umpire and Gladiator referee. “I played for Marist Brothers in the last amateur Cup Final in South Africa in 1958,” he reminisces. “I scored two goals, and straight after the match Berry phoned to offer me a chance to play in the UK — he scouted for a number of English teams at the time. For some reason or other — I think it was because I liked their colours — I chose Sheffield United, and I went across to play for them till the end of the year. Then, in 1959, when football became semi-pro back home I decided to return to South Africa.” Mitchley played pro football back here for a number of years, at the same time playing cricket for Transvaal. He later took to the field as an umpire, standing in 26 Tests and 61 one-day internationals. Then came television fame as a referee in Gladiators.

Author

  • Gavin Foster

    Durban photojournalist Gavin Foster writes mainly for magazines. His articles and photographs have appeared in hundreds of South African, American and British publications, and he's also instigated and researched stories for Carte Blanche. Winner of the Magazine Publishers Association of South Africa PICA Profile Writer of the Year Award in 2008. South African Guild of Motoring Journalists Motorcycle Journalist of the Year (Magazines) 2015/16/17. South African Guild of Motoring Journalists Motorcycle Journalist of the Year (Overall) 2015/16. South African Guild of Motoring Journalists Motorsport Journalist of the Year (Magazines) 2017 - Runner-Up 2015/16.