Nobody goes down the park to be Paul Mariner

Nobody goes down the park to be Paul Mariner

I wrote an article about Italia 90 a year or so ago, one which somehow found its way onto the web pages of Guardian Sport. Within the article I stated that my childhood friends and I had essentially been a gang of prototype hipsters, in that during Spain 82 and Mexico 86, when we’d headed down the park to kick a ball around, we’d all done so as the likes of Platini, Boniek, Zico, Elkjær and Rossi. Nobody ever went down the park to be Paul Mariner or Mark Hateley.

It was a tongue-in-cheek line which was forwarded by someone on Twitter to Mariner himself, whom happily took it within the humour it was intended.

Despite the fact that Mariner originates as a product of the area I live in, it was still a surprise to bump into him in the local shop recently. I identified myself as the deliverer of that line and solemnly promised that the next time I took the kids down the park for a kick-about, then I’d definitely be Paul Mariner.

Mariner is one of a steady stream of British ex-professional footballers to embrace a new life in North America – a concept which stretches back way before the advent of the NASL – that wonderfully evocative, yet fatefully doomed entity which stretched from its inception in December 1967 to it folding in March 1985 – an entity which is widely seen as the initial gateway for British football players heading for American or Canadian pastures new.

Despite the vagaries the game of football has encountered in trying to gain a foothold within the United States, the allure of the Land of the Free has always maintained itself to the British footballing community. An English language world with many familiar assets; a home from home where opportunity presents itself to elongate a career within the game on multiple levels. Playing, coaching and broadcasting, Mariner has embraced them all.

From the Albany Capitals, where he combined on-field duties with his first forays into coaching, then with the San Francisco Bay Blackhawks, when kicking some of the last balls in anger on his illustrious career, onwards to post-playing coaching positions with the Harvard Crimson, New England Revolution and Toronto FC, Mariner has now moved on to broadcasting with ESPN.

Mariner is an enigma in his homeland to a degree. Boasting a career which encompassed the rise of Ipswich Town as a credible and trophy-winning force during the late-1970s and early-80s under Bobby Robson, to a high-profile move to Arsenal, and an England career which took him to both the 1980 European Championship and the 1982 World Cup finals.

When Mariner resurfaced in English football in late-2009 as the manager of Plymouth Argyle, after two decades away from the mainstream of the national game, it was met with a nostalgic nod of the head from those old enough to remember him as a player, but without so much as a blink of the eyes from the Premier League baby-boomer generation.

By New Year 2010, Mariner had returned to North America, to resume his well-respected position within MLS. He’s one of a legion of Englishmen revered abroad, in an unexpected manner that still has the power to confound blinkered Premier League watchers, in a similar way to the booming musical prowess in Germany of David Hasselhoff, which jars with the senses. A familiar face in an unexpected environment tends to short-circuit most common or garden British football observers. 

A product of the north of England, Mariner made his name in the south of the country, thus never attaining the elevated homage of a player rising to be a hero at a local big club, despite rumours of heavy interest in him from both Liverpool and Manchester City at various points of his career. Massively appreciated and venerated by the supporters of the clubs he did grace, he’s often overlooked when it comes to the admiration of the wider game in general.

Read  |  Remembering Ipswich Town’s odyssey in Europe under Bobby Robson

At international level, Mariner was integral during the final years of Ron Greenwood’s reign and remained in the reckoning during the formative years of Robson’s tenure. The critical eye of England supporters often looked for alternatives, yet of his contemporaries, of which there were many available to both Greenwood and Robson, it was Mariner who struck up an effective working partnership with Tony Woodcock in particular, but also Trevor Francis and Kevin Keegan at times.

At a juncture when his rivals for a place in the England side often failed to gel with others as effortlessly as he did, Mariner’s adaptability served him well.

Starting out at non-league Chorley, Mariner was soon spotted by freelance scout Verdi Godwin, who alerted Plymouth Argyle to the talents of the apprentice electrician. When Argyle manager Tony Waiters voiced uncertainty about the merits in signing Mariner, Godwin staked his own reputation on just how good a player they were considering passing over.

After a number of viewings of Mariner by various members of the Argyle coaching staff, a ballot was taken on whether to sign the striker or not. The ‘yes’ campaign narrowly won by just one vote. The player himself stating that he would walk to Plymouth if it meant that they’d sign him. For Chorley, it was a timely financial boost, given that the club had voluntarily dropped down a division due to budgeting reasons just 12 months earlier.   

At Home Park, Mariner hit the ground running, soon claiming a place in the first team and helping the Third Division club on an epic run to the semi-finals of the League Cup, where they finally succumbed to the Manchester City of Denis Law, Rodney Marsh, Francis Lee, Colin Bell and Mike Summerbee, ending a run during where they’d twice won away to top-flight opposition in the shapes of Burnley and Birmingham City.

If Mariner’s debut professional campaign was a dream come true, it was the following season, 1974-75, which propelled him into a greater spotlight. Thrown together into a prolific and almost telepathic strike partnership with Billy Rafferty, Argyle overcame an inconsistent start to the season to sweep to promotion with three games to spare, Mariner scoring the goal which clinched promotion at home to Colchester United.

Just two years beyond plying his trade in the Cheshire County League, Mariner was heading towards the Second Division. Less than two years later, he would be a full England international and challenging the trophy-winning establishment of the First Division with the unfashionable yet upwardly mobile Ipswich Town. 

A remarkable five-season span under Bobby Robson brought FA Cup and UEFA Cup glory, but also a spate of other near-misses. Ipswich finished in the top three of the First Division on four occasions, twice as runners-up, whilst another FA Cup semi-final was also reached.

After initial raised eyebrows over his transfer fee, Mariner took to top-flight football like a natural, opting for Portman Road ahead of a switch to West Bromwich Albion after a protracted multi-club battle for his signature. He put in a confident display on his debut away to Manchester United, before finding the net for the first time the following week on his home debut against West Brom – the club he spurned in joining Ipswich – during a 7-0 drubbing.

Having signed in late-October, Mariner was winning his first England cap just six months later, called up by Don Revie for the Wembley World Cup qualifier against Luxembourg, appearing as a substitute. He was handed his first start in the very next game, in Belfast, against Northern Ireland.

Read  |  When Kevin Keegan went to Hamburg

His star ascending rapidly, Mariner was instrumental in assisting Ipswich in an unexpected push for the title. Top of the table in mid-April, they contrived to win just one of their final six games during the run-in as Liverpool eclipsed them.

Within a year, however, Mariner was in possession of an FA Cup winner’s medal. Having overcome West Brom in the semi-final, Ipswich dominated the final against a star-studded Arsenal line-up, the eventual 1-0 scoreline being unrepresentative of the gulf in quality on the day. It was a silver-lined ending to a season of overall inconsistency on a collective level.

Individually, Mariner had continued to enhance his burgeoning reputation, proving to be more than the basic target-man many had assumed him to be. Flowing in movement and blessed with a deft touch, combined with a shoulders back, chest out visual aspect, opposing defenders struggled to cope against him, with the duel threat he posed either with the ball at his feet and in the air.

The 1977-78 season proved to be the first of three successive campaigns when Mariner ended as top scorer at Portman Road, winning further England caps under the new manager Greenwood, and scoring his first goal at international level.

Mariner, however, fell onto the periphery of Greenwood’s thinking over the course of two following seasons, as the former West Ham manager guided his nation back to the finals of a major tournament for the first time in a decade.

Greenwood had been blessed with the use of Keegan at the peak of his powers, and had at varying times paired him with not just Francis and Woodcock, but also David Johnson and Bob Latchford, plus having embraced the emergence of Garry Birtles.

Mariner made a late run to obtain a place in Greenwood’s squad for Euro 1980 in Italy. Injury to Francis, coupled to Latchford’s form dropping off, opened the door to him once again, and when he scored in two warm-up games prior to the finals, it was enough to claim a place in the squad.

Too conservative an approach to the tournament meant that England failed to go beyond the group stages in Italy, and Mariner appeared twice from the bench to gain some vital big-game experience. When moving onto the new challenge of reaching Spain 82, those games in Italy would serve Mariner well.

The 1980-81 campaign was a watermark season for Mariner with both club and country. As Johnson, Birtles and Latchford all drifted from the international scene, and with Francis still recovering from injury, it was Mariner who led the line for Greenwood going into the World Cup qualifying campaign. Goals against Norway and Switzerland helped him gain a foothold in the side.

Read  |  England’s missed opportunity for glory at World Cup 1982

With Ipswich, he was about to launch into the season of his career. As Liverpool suffered an uncharacteristic fall-off in league form from the onset of winter, it was the Tractor Boys who grasped the initiative in the race for the title.

The title appeared to be Ipswich’s for the taking in late-March, but a fixture list of epic proportions proved their downfall as they battled on three fronts. With FA Cup and UEFA Cup semi-finals to fit in, Ipswich lost six of their last eight league games, allowing Aston Villa to take the title instead. Even in mid-April, a win at Villa Park had put the destiny of the title back in Ipswich hands.

The disappointment of a title lost was intensified when combined with their FA Cup semi-final defeat to Manchester City. A potential treble had drifted away.

The UEFA Cup wasn’t allowed off the hook, however. After a startling run which had seen them navigate their way past Manchester United’s conquerors, Widzew Łódź, a club armed with Zbigniew Boniek, a club two years away from a serious flirtation with winning the European Cup, before convincingly seeing off the Saint-Etienne of Platini, Rep, Larios, Lopez and Battiston, and then the Woodcock, Littbarski, Schumacher, Zimmermann and Bonhof powered FC Köln in the semi-finals, they came up against AZ Alkmaar in the two-legged final.

In two wonderfully open and attacking games, Ipswich prevailed 5-4 on aggregate. Mariner scored what proved to be Ipswich’s vital third goal during the first leg at Portman Road.

That the 1980-81 Ipswich team were restricted to winning one of their three trophy challenges does them a historical disservice, yet aesthetically they were a bewitching side, of which Mariner was at the tip. Supported by Eric Gates and Alan Brazil, and supplied by the Netherlands midfield duo of the technically gifted Arnold Muhren and the free-spirited Franz Thijssen, it was a side built on defensive solidity, with Paul Cooper in goal and a back line patrolled by England internationals Mick Mills, Terry Butcher and Russell Osman, alongside Scottish international George Burley.

Fixture congestion went a long way to denying Ipswich the title in 1980-81, but the following season it was a remarkable run-in from Liverpool which denied them. Despite putting in a strong finish themselves, one in which they lost just two of their last 16 fixtures, it wasn’t enough to stop the Liverpool juggernaut.

So near yet so far – an era was coming to an end. Robson departed Ipswich in the summer of 1982 to succeed Greenwood as England manager, after a World Cup finals which England owed Mariner a debt of gratitude in qualifying for.

Mariner started every game England played at Spain 82, scoring in the 3-1 victory against France. It was a tournament in which England returned home unbeaten, conceding just one goal, undone by an unsatisfactory format of second round group games. A conservative approach when it mattered the most went against England’s potential progression to the semi-finals.

Read  |  The triumph and tragedy of Ray Kennedy

Post-World Cup, Mariner would lead the line initially for Robson, his new international manager and his former club manager. Failure to qualify for Euro 84 was a bitter blow, losing at Wembley to Denmark, the emerging purveyors of near bohemian football.

Mariner would have likely spearheaded an England campaign in France had they qualified for the tournament. By the summer of 1984, he had moved on from Ipswich in search of a new challenge, signing for Arsenal, linking up at club level with a familiar international strike-partner in Woodcock. Bit-by-bit, the Ipswich that Robson had built was essentially allowed to melt away. Facing his former club soon after his transfer, Mariner’s goals against them were bittersweet ones.

The 1984-85 season brought renewed promise. Goals for his new club and a continued presence on the international scene were marred by recurring Achilles problems which began to slow him down. The early optimism of the season drifted, and along with it came a change of manager, as Don Howe replaced Terry Neill.

The rise of the likes of Hateley, Kerry Dixon and eventually Gary Lineker and Peter Beardsley meant that Mariner drifted away from the England squad. He represented his country for the last time in May 1985, in a World Cup qualifier in Bucharest against Romania.

The following season was injury plagued for Mariner, restricted to a small number of games, and when fit, at times asked by Howe to cover at centre-back amidst the eye of the storm in an injury crisis. Initially reluctant to play in defence, he covered well enough to enjoy the experience. 

The arrival of George Graham as manager in the summer of 1986 brought with it a shift in emphasis at the club, one which looked toward its blossoming youth system. Many of the experienced and slowly ageing stars were eased out of Highbury. Mariner was amongst the first wave released, leaving for Portsmouth.

At Fratton Park, Mariner was blessed with one last taste of glory as he helped guide Alan Ball’s side back to the top-flight for the first time in 29 years. Back in the First Division for the 1987-88 season, it was there that he came to terms with the fact that football at the highest level was now beyond him.

He departed the English game in the summer of 1988 for a new odyssey, one which largely left him out of sight and out of mind for the wider span of the general football fan in his home country, yet conversely remembered with joy by the fans of the clubs he served.

It was Mariner’s goal at Wembley against Hungary which ensured England’s qualification for Spain 82, A first World Cup since Mexico 70. Whilst amongst me and my friends, nobody was being Mariner down the park in the summer of ’82, looking back now, we probably should have been him.

By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74

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