More from Arsenal in the USA, this morning’s main post, “The Cost Of The World Cup & Henry: Inspiration For Strikers”, is here.
Cosmos. Strikers. Earthquake. Diplomats. Whitecaps.
For a time when I was growing up in the 70s, these names were as familiar as the Australian pools during the summer months. We could tell you all about Athletic, United, City or Rovers; next to nothing about the North American Soccer League clubs who borrowed our players for the summer. Channel 4 didn’t even exist and the prospect of any football from these shores being shown on television was as preposterous as the notion of live coverage of league matches. Match of the Day and The Big Match still had the nation firmly in their thrall; nothing was going to change the way we thought about football or so we thought. How naïve were we?
Without the internet, it is testament to the marketing skills of the New York Cosmos that we were even aware of their existence. Pele, Beckenbauer and Cruyff ensured that coverage quickly went global. The fragility of the marketing plan exposed as NASL folded four years after Beckenbauer retired from New York Cosmos; there was an absence of longevity in the development of the professional game in the USA at that time.
The big names garnered the headlines but there was a cast of thousands of lesser-known lights selling the game to a previously disinterested nation. It didn’t work out that way but for more than a decade, America provided a supplemental income to the average English footballer and there were some were incredibly average footballers plying their trade in America. No sooner had the last shrill peep from the Acme Thunderer filled the air on the final day of the season than a mad dash to Heathrow airport began, flights to all manner of American cities were packed with English footballers.
It’s worth remembering at this point that in those days, they weren’t as handsomely rewarded as they are now even though the maximum wage regulations had ended a decade or so before. Compared to the man in the street, the gap in earnings was widening but players still invested in pubs or shops to provide an income when the final whistle blew on their career.
Arsenal’s links with the USA came before NASL’s creation. Before it became fashionable, former players Joe Haverty (Chicago Spurs / Kansas City Spurs), George Eastham (Cleveland Stokers), Gordon Ferry (Atlanta Chiefs) and Tommy Coakley (Detroit Cougars) chanced their arms across the pond for a summer or two.
Manchester City’s investment in a New York franchise was met with gasps of awe from the media. Glentoran and Shamrock Rovers shrugged their shoulders having masqueraded as the Detroit Cougars and Boston Rovers respectively, in the last 1960s; it was nothing new. Frank O’Neill turned out for the latter in 1967 whilst Billy McCullough played for the former. Except he wasn’t Flint, just a namesake.
But it was Peter Simpson who bucked the trend in those days. Short of first team experience, the defender headed to Toronto to play for the newly-formed Falcons in the US Professional League. Epitomising the incestuous nature of football, Simpson arrived to find László Kubala as player/coach with his nephew, Branko Kubala and brother-in-law Yanko Daucik on the playing staff whilst Ferdinand Daucik, Yanko’s father, was Head Coach.
Simpson played thirteen times that summer for the Canadians and gained from the experience to the extent that he crossed the Atlantic the following year, this time to Boston to play a couple of games for the Beacons in the newly-formed NASL. It wasn’t the best of times for the league, there was a constant battle for survival and in the end, a number of the franchises folded with the Beacons being one of them.
Finding that hook is the problem with the franchise system. The season previous to joining might have seen Simpson play the Beacons except they were called Boston Rovers then. By the time Ian McKechnie rolled into town – quite literally given his weight was a problem at Arsenal – they were the Minutemen. Toronto Falcons meanwhile had morphed into the Metros when Brian Talbot, then of Ipswich, turned in consecutive summers in the early 70s. If he had given Alex Cropley any advice before the Scot went to Canada in 1981, it was pointless as they had become the Blizzard.
Having won the FA Cup in 1978, Talbot celebrated by playing in Boston. Was there any discomfort on his part on being an Englishmen playing for the Tea Men as they had become. At least it meant something to Bostonians, I am not sure that when the franchise moved state that the Jacksonville Tea Men had the same ring to it. When Simpson joined them in 1980, the Tea Men had moved back to New England from Florida.
If nothing else, NASL was a chance to catch up with old mates. Vancouver Whitecaps must have liked the cut of a man’s jib if he had The Arsenal on his footballing CV as Jon Sammels and Alan Ball found Bob McNab coaching the Canadian club when they joined in 1979. They obviously enjoyed it, winning the NASL Bowl. McNab seemed at home in the USA; his first sojourn in 1976 saw him roll into town and play alongside Bobby Moore at San Antonio Thunder. He ended his career at Tacoma Stars in the Major Indoor Soccer League after NASL imploded.
That Ray Hankin was moderately successful away from these shores makes it less of a surprise that the game failed to ignite the nation’s imagination. In fairness, Hankin hadn’t done badly at Burnley and Leeds but surely the warning signs were there for Terry Neill? He was buying the lad from Vancouver Whitecaps – Ball and Sammels so underwhelmed by that prospect that they didn’t return to Canada despite their previous success. Neither was Neill overjoyed in fairness and he acted decisively, shipping the player back having played less than the equivalent of three halves of football for Arsenal. It was, I suppose, commendable that the manager acted so swiftly to rectify his mistake.
If Hankin was a mistake – and Neill later noted he was a ‘Don Howe signing’ – then John Hawley was all Terry’s own work. He’d managed him at Hull and Hawley too had gone to the US, playing in St Louis in the mid-70s on loan. He fared a bit better at Highbury, getting 21 appearances to show how bad he was, during which time he scored three times, eight less than he managed in a similar number of games for the Missouri franchise. Grandma was forthright with her observations in The Outlaw Josey Wales; Hawley served to reinforce those prejudices.
Some clubs seemed to attract former Arsenal players, more by coincidence than any pre-conceived plan. The most conspicuous was Seattle Sounders for whom (sharp intake of breath), Arfon Griffiths, Tommy Baldwin, Alan Hudson, Bruce Rioch and Jimmy Robertson all played as their careers wound down. Rioch wasn’t the only former Arsenal manager to play in the NASL, George Graham managed a summer for California Surf before taking up his coaching career. It seems such a fitting place for him, the player was a world away from the disciplinarian boss he became.
It’s quite a lengthy list and I haven’t even mentioned Eddie Kelly, Charlie George or Geordie Armstrong’s spells after their Arsenal careers were over. The one thing that struck me about it all; what did Los Angeles make of Terry Mancini? “Did this guy really write the Pink Panther theme? Must have because he’s bloody useless at football…“