Living the dream

RockRoll101Moving to the NASL was a culture shock for many British pros in the 1970s – an extract from Ian Plenderleith‘s book Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer, which WSC readers can purchase at a discount here

Many young British players arriving to play in the North American Soccer League had no clue about the geography of the United States. “I thought it was the San Francisco Earthquakes. I didn’t know it was San Jose until I read it on my jersey,” said former Newcastle United reserve Derek Craig after signing for San Jose in 1975.

Middlesbrough’s Alan Willey came to the Minnesota Kicks in 1976 and admits, “I’d no idea where Minnesota was, I just remember getting out of the airport and the cars were massive and the freeways were huge, but I didn’t know what to expect. It was a real culture shock. I lived in a place called Houghton-le-Spring, half an hour from Middlesbrough, and that was the furthest away I’d ever been from home – into Middlesbrough; and here I was abroad living with a crowd of blokes.”

Alan Birchenall of Leicester City remembers being whisked from the plane to the soccer field, where he was expected to take part in a trial game after flying all the way from the UK to San Jose, California. “It was 1977,” Birchenall says. “The owner was Milan Mandaric. I’d never met him, and didn’t realise he’d set up a practice match for me for when I arrived. I’d flown for twelve hours from Heathrow and had a few beers on the flight; so I was in no condition for a match and I was half cut. So because I couldn’t run I hit this ball from 35 yards and it screamed into the net, and I remember one of the English boys, Laurie Galloway, said to me, ‘That’ll keep you here.’ Some lads had come over the previous week and signed a contract, but they were rubbish and were out on the next plane home. But Laurie was right, it set me up.”

His former Leicester teammate Frank Worthington was greeted with a little more panache in Philadelphia, where the team had been taken over by a panoply of rock ’n’ roll personalities. He arrived at the airport to find co-owner and Rolling Stones manager Peter Rudge “waiting for me in a huge stretch limo with smoked glass windows – a bit of a step-up from the on-loan Lada I’d left with the keys in the ignition on a double yellow line back at Manchester Airport.” Rudge presented him with a limited edition ‘Taking Care of Business’ necklace “which Elvis had made in 14-carat gold for all his male friends. It was in the shape of the thunderflash Elvis used as signature and, knowing I was a big fan, Rudgie had got Elvis’ dad Vernon to secure one for me.”

While being treated like a rock star represents the top end of the VIP treatment scale, it was not untypical: Rodney Marsh was flown to California in Elton John’s private jet while being wooed by Los Angeles. But even in the League’s pre-Pelé days, before the mid-70s, the journeymen players recruited from the lower English divisions were not left to fend for themselves. Wages were higher, while decent apartments and loaned cars were part of the deal as a matter of course. “The wages were better when I came from Scotland,” says Derek Spalding, who arrived from Hibernian to play for the Chicago Sting in 1978. “It was around $25,000 (£14,000) per year when I came over, and maybe I was on £100 a week at Hibs.”

While cash was a factor, opportunity and a nose for adventure were just as important. Scottish defender Charlie Mitchell was one of the early pioneers, moving to Rochester in New York State from St Mirren in 1970 after a chance conversation at the shipyards between his dad and the father of another player, Johnny Kerr, who’d gone over to play there from Partick Thistle. Kerr’s father suggested that Mitchell should give it a try too. “I was just going to go over for one year, make some money, and come back,” says Mitchell, “But after a year, you were already a big star in a small pond; they looked after us well, the training facilities were great. To go back to St Mirren with the muddy training gear, [where] you had to fight like a bastard to get into the team. I was only nineteen or twenty at the time and was enjoying life in the US and being popular there, so I stayed.”

In its early years, in the late 1960s, the NASL had, according to one of the league’s internal memos, consciously targeted lower-level players at “clubs in financial trouble” in Britain and Europe purely for economic reasons – they were the cheapest professionals around, together with reserves and youth team players from top flight teams, and could be taken on loan at no great expense. The lower European clubs were pleased at the extra income for otherwise idle players, who would benefit from the experience. The League, meanwhile, could be seen to be recruiting professional players, and planned to pay them no less than $7,000 per year which was very good for that level, in the late 1960s.

The players themselves discovered that in places like Rochester, as Mitchell points out, you could attain a certain level of local celebrity, and that being recognized as a soccer player was a pleasant experience, unlike in Scotland, where “if you made one mistake then the crowd would boo you and be right on your back. In Rochester if you made a mistake, there weren’t too many people who knew you’d made a mistake, so you could just get on with it and enjoy your game. Back home there was a lot more pressure, first to get in the team and stay in the team, and second, as a local boy, you had people in the crowd saying, ‘Ach, I played against him at school and I was better than him’ or, ‘I played against him and he was nae good’.”

Even when you arrived in a city striven with riots, as Man City’s Roy Cheetham did when he went to play for Detroit in 1968, you were unlikely to be too affected by them. The country and its cities are so vast that the focused sportsman can remain untouched by, for example, civil unrest, and lose himself in his own narrow, fitness- and ball-oriented world. “My initial thought,” said Cheetham, “was ‘What have I done!’ I’d left a championship-seeking side for a riot-torn city. Despite that, I loved the two years there and it was all a great experience. The razzmatazz was all different from Manchester – we had names on our shirts and each player was announced individually. I know that’s all normal now, but back then it felt more like showbiz. The team would be made up of about seven or eight different nationalities, and away games were like going on a long holiday.”

“I fell in love with America and the Americans,” said the Washington Diplomats’ Scottish defender Jim Steele. “I found things were a little more free and easy over here and I fell right into the lifestyle. In England nobody touches another person on the street, but I saw Americans hugging and kissing in public, and I liked that.”

From WSC 333 November 2014

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