When the Vancouver Whitecaps, led by an ex-Blackpool goalkeeper, got the better of Cruyff, Beckenbauer and Marsh

When the Vancouver Whitecaps, led by an ex-Blackpool goalkeeper, got the better of Cruyff, Beckenbauer and Marsh

In the nascent years of football trying to force its way into the North American sporting consciousness with the North American Soccer League, there was a perceived need to bring in big names from Europe or South America to give the game a fighting chance of gaining a foothold in an environment dominated by basketball, baseball and gridiron. Whether the plan worked or not is probably open to debate. The NASL folded in 1984, but perhaps the lid on the ketchup bottle had been loosened sufficiently for the later iteration, Major League Soccer, to secure a more solid platform. 

The NASL ran its race from 1968 to 1984 and star players, particularly those reaching the salad days of their careers, were drawn into the league by the money being offered by a clutch of nouveau riche clubs, some backed by global organisations. Warner Brothers, for example, bankrolled the New York Cosmos, attracting the likes of Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer and Georgio Chinaglia amongst many others.

Whilst the Cosmos were the richest club and built to dominate, others secured star names as well. The Los Angeles Aztecs, part-owned at the time by Elton John, secured the services of Johan Cruyff and George Best. The Washington Diplomats were backed by the Madison Square Garden Corporation and, as well as signing Cruyff from the Aztecs, they brought in Wim Jansen, his teammate from the 1974 World Cup final. 

Sometimes, though, as Leicester proved so wonderfully in 2016, big bucks and big names don’t always get the job done, and in 1979, the Soccer Bowl was won by a club some 20 miles north of the border between the USA and Canada, as a team managed by a former Blackpool goalkeeper and featuring no less than nine aged players from Britain, with varying degrees of celebrity, became the NASL’s top dogs. It was the year that the NASL doffed its cap to Vancouver.

There’d been a history of football and its location in British Columbia was appropriate as it had strong footballing links with the old country in particular, and Europe in general. In the late 1960s, a club named the Royal Canadians, which then migrated to merely the Royals, existed there. For a time, it was managed by legendary Hungarian star Ferenc Puskás and had former England wing-half, and later legend, Bobby Robson on its roster. Success and fame, however, were largely limited, and like the legendary soldier, the club faded away.

In 1973, a new organisation was launched. Danny Veitch, appointed as general manager for the venture, announced the formation of a new club to be based in the city called the Vancouver Whitecaps. Whilst some have erroneously ascribed the name to the snow-topped mountains of the Rockies, it relates to a wind wave – as opposed to a surf wave – on the sea, as illustrated by the club’s crest at the time. Veitch also announced that the club would compete in the NASL. 

With the influx of big-name players flooding into the clubs south of the border, efforts by the Whitecaps to make any kind of wave at all were, in the main, stymied, and the first three managers employed by the club, Canadian Jim Easton who had played in Scottish football, together with Germans Eckhard Krautzun and Holger Osieck, enjoyed little success as the club drifted on an open sea. In 1977, however, Vancouver took on the services of the former Blackpool goalkeeper, Tony Waiters.

After more than 250 appearances for the Tangerines, Waiters retired from playing in 1967 and began working for the Football Association as a regional coach in the north-west. He briefly took up his gloves again in 1970, initially as an emergency ‘keeper for Burnley. The emergency lasted for 40 games, however, before a definitive retirement in 1972 with more than 300 club appearances and five England caps to his name. 

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Shortly after, Waiters was named as manager of Division Three club, Plymouth Argyle. He would stay at Home Park for five years, taking the Devon outfit to the Third Division title in 1975. Whilst with the Pilgrims, he also had a coaching role with England youth sides and led them to a European Championship in Italy. In 1975 he packed his bags for the challenge of managing the Vancouver Whitecaps.  

At the time, the club was still finding meaningful success elusive. Under Waiters, however, there was an early suggestion of better things to come. Reaching the playoffs in 1976 was a success of sorts, but as nothing compared to what would be achieved three years later. Now with a squad bolstered by a number of experienced old hands, Waiters had a team capable of taking on the best that the NASL had to offer. 

The previous season had seen the Cosmos land their third title – their second in a row – and for the new term a similar outcome was widely anticipated, as their star-studded roster preened themselves for another run to glory in the Soccer Bowl. If many of the players at the club were well known, that was less the case with the manager.

As well as coaching in Italy, the Cosmos manager, Eddie Firmani, had also spent time plying his trade in England at Charlton, before beginning an odyssey around North Africa and the Middle East. Despite his earlier success with the club, the 1979 season would see the South African-born former Italy international sacked. 

There’s conjecture as to why the man who had guided the club to successive Soccer Bowl triumphs was moved on. A stumbling performance on the pitch didn’t help, but rumours of a row with the volatile Chinaglia may well have been the deciding factor. Player power is anything but a new phenomenon.

Firmani was replaced by Ray Klivecka, but his erstwhile assistant and replacement was also moved on when things didn’t play out as the owners expected. The Cosmos were far and away the biggest club in the NASL and their stars performed at Giants Stadium in front of crowds averaging over 42,000 in the 1979 season. Success was not merely expected, it was required. 

The format of the league was fairly well set, but to many non-American observers it appeared overly complicated. It comprised off 24 clubs – a number had been added the previous season – divided into six divisions of four, with two conferences and a 16-club playoff format after the completion of the regular season. The top two clubs from each division qualified for the playoffs, producing a total of 12. To these were added the next two best performing clubs. The two teams with the highest point totals remaining in each conference were then granted wild-card status and filled out the playoff section to 16 clubs, with the match-ups ranked by results up to that stage. 

Both Vancouver and Cosmos played in the National Conference and, ahead of the playoffs, both had topped their divisions at the end of the regular season. Unsurprisingly, the Cosmos again looked the dominant team, winning 24 games and losing a mere half-dozen – no draws were allowed, of course, but more of that later. 

In Canada, Vancouver had an entirely worthy, if somewhat less spectacular, record of 20 wins and ten defeats. It was still a measure of success for Waiters and the Whitecaps, though, with a squad of players that included former English league luminaries. The clubs were allowed to have 17 players in their squads, but six of that number must be American or Canadian, and when playing, at least two of the players on the pitch needed to come from that half-dozen.

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Such a semi-patronising nod to development of homegrown players would surely be enough to make Gareth Southgate wince, but the money men running the game in North America at the time cared little for such things as the development of a national team. 

Among his squad, Waiters could call on the services of former Wolves goalkeeper Phil Parkes, England’s 1966 hero Alan Ball, one of Brian Clough’s favourite strikers and Derby County hero Kevin Hector, Trevor Whymark, who made his name with Ipswich under Bobby Robson, Scottish wing-wizard Willie Johnston, and Millwall striker Derek Possee. All were in their mid to late-30s, but so long as they maintained a level of fitness drilled into them by the hurly-burly of the British game and avoided injury, their case-hardened professionalism meant they would still be a more than effective unit.

It wasn’t quite what American sports pundits often describe as a no-name team, but without the likes of Cruyff and Beckenbauer, it was squad without a need to pander to a superstar headliner. In fact, when the season was done and dusted, despite the Whitecaps’ success, only Parkes would make the NASL All-Star team, whilst no less than five of the Cosmos – Carlos Alberto, Wim Rijsbergen, Johan Neeskens, Beckenbauer and Chinaglia – were included. Given how things played out, the selection process may have had more to do with past glories than contemporary success.

In the conference quarter-finals, Vancouver accounted for Dallas, winning both home and away. The scores were 3-2 and 2-1 to the Canadian club, but in the format by which things were calculated in the NASL, the scores were less important than the result. In fact, the scores were, on the whole, meaningless. There was no aggregate to calculate. It was win or lose.

In the event of a drawn game, a mini-game of up to 30 minutes would be played to decide a winner and if that failed to produce a result, a shoot-out occurred, where five players from each team had a time limit of five seconds to score, running from a 35-yard line outside of the penalty area with just the goalkeeper to beat. Vancouver’s progress would be complicated by this as time went on. 

The semi-final match-up in the National Conference pitted Vancouver against Los Angeles Aztecs – and Johan Cruyff. A visit to Southern California suggested that the Canadian club may be in trouble as the Aztecs secured a 3-2 victory. A crowd of more than 21,000 cheered the Aztecs on, but an opening goal by Carl Valentine, a native of Manchester who had joined the club from Oldham that same year, put Vancouver ahead.

As opposed to some of Vancouver’s other recruits, Valentine was very much at the early stages of his career, only just into his 20s. Apart from a brief stint back in England with West Brom, he would stay in North America for 16 years, appearing 32 times for Canada’s national team after being given his international debut by none other than Tony Waiters, who was promoted to lead the Canucks in 1981. Into the second-half, Valentine hammered in a second, firing high into the net from just inside the area. At this stage, Waiters must have felt confident of progression, but things would change.  

Cruyff’s Dutch compatriot Hubert Smeets headed in at the far post to cut the arrears. Then, after a brief scramble following a free-kick, defender Bob Sibbard stabbed a goal home from a crowded goalmouth to square the scores with less than two minutes left on the clock. It meant another mini-game. The momentum was now clearly with the home team and if a winner was going to come, it would surely be from the Aztecs. No goal came, however, and it was down to a shoot out to decide the winner. 

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The Whitecaps had scored with their first run on goal, but had then been denied in the next three attempts. The Aztecs had missed their first two but netted the third to square things up. The next player up for the home team could put them ahead with just one player from each to go. Walter Wagner netted, stroking the ball past a sprawling Phil Parkes as the ‘keeper advanced to narrow the angle. The Aztecs were ahead 2-1. Waiters sent the experienced Alan Ball to take the last shot, but the veteran had his run halted as the Aztecs goalkeeper plunged at his feet when Ball tried to go past him.

In goal was a young Seattle-born American, Dave Morrison. He had been brought on specifically to face the shoot-out and worked the Oracle for his manager. He would only appear in six games for the club but made his mark on that day. Across the Atlantic in Holland, a midfielder plying his trade with Sparta Rotterdam by the name of Louis van Gaal may have heard of the ruse.

In the return leg, back at Empire Stadium, a 1-0 win for the Whitecaps meant it was one win apiece. It took the tie to a mini-game and Hector nabbed the goal that would send the club into what would be an eventful and controversial conference final against the galaxy of stars that formed the Cosmos.

The New Yorkers had been expected to book their place in the final with some comfort when they were paired with the Tulsa Roughnecks. The Oklahoma club had experienced a topsy-turvy regular season, with their home form being particularly strong, winning 11 out of 15 games.

On their travels, however, things were very different. A mere three victories when playing away from Skelly Stadium suggested some kind of debilitating travel sickness gripped the squad when they left Tulsa – even if it was for 24 hours as suggested by Gene Pitney. It was form that would be highlighted in their tie against Cosmos. A stunning 3-0 victory in Oklahoma was very much against the odds, although given the regular season performances of the Roughnecks, perhaps it shouldn’t have been. 

Early on, what was perhaps a misdirected cross by Wayne Hughes squirmed away from the Cosmos’ German goalkeeper Hubert Birkenmeier, and apologetically rolled into the net to give the underdogs the lead. The tally was added to when former Derby striker Roger Davies headed home the second and appeared to lock in a home victory. With time running out and the Cosmos pressing for a goal n- knowing that even if they lost, the level of defeat was unimportant – it was Davies again, robbing a defender of the ball, who coolly rounded Birkenmeier to slot home for the win. 

Back in New York, the crowd at the Giants Stadium expected their heroes to roar back. They did so – and in some style. Any victory would have meant a mini-game to decide the tie but Cosmos were keen to wipe away the memory of the heavy loss in Tulsa and nailed their own 3-0 victory to do so. The mini-game saw the Cosmos home, who were through to the final against Vancouver. With the apparent stumble against the Roughnecks now behind them, the Canadian club would surely be eclipsed with some ease by the reigning  champions 

The first game in Vancouver suggested otherwise. Waiters’ team were unwilling to bend the knee to the supposed visiting superstars of the game and came away with a well-earned 2-0 victory. Whilst the Whitecaps’ back line kept the visiting all-stars at bay, at the other end, the Canadian club’s forwards took the chances that arrived.

Willie Johnstone scored one of the very few headed goals of his career, converting a cross from Alan Ball, but the Cosmos were still in the game right up to the last few minutes, seeking an equaliser that would mean any home win would see them triumph. With time ebbing away and the game inside the final few minutes, Whymark nabbed the killer goal. 

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Whether the New Yorkers harboured a genuine grievance about the awarding of the goal or there was just a petulant refusal to accept defeat, things quickly kicked off. Cosmos technical director Julio Mazzei stormed onto the pitch to protest – to no great avail – and minutes after the game was restarted, Iranian defender Andranik Eskandarian delivered his own retribution, kicking out at Hector, and was promptly dismissed. Inevitably, tempers were still flaring at the final whistle, and former Seleção captain Carlos Alberto confronted the referee, throwing his shirt at the official and allegedly spitting at a linesman. 

The affair was hardly likely to end there and both players were banned for the second leg. There’s little point in having billionaire benefactors if they don’t stretch their financial muscles now and then, and Warner Brothers decided to see if their prestige – and money – could change things.

They apparently started legal proceedings to have the bans rescinded. Given the events in Vancouver, it was surely a forlorn pursuit, and the bans were quite correctly upheld. The game in the Big Apple. though, had seeds of hot passion at its core and, due to what many modern fans would consider the bizarre tournament rules, it was a game that would take more than three-and-a-half hours to decide in a tempestuous atmosphere. 

The first 90 minutes ended with things all square at 2-2. Chinaglia had scored twice for the Cosmos, but goals by John Craven and Willie Johnston had brought things level. Most modern tournaments would have seen the tie end in victory to the Canadian club, but the NASL considered draws abhorrent. Only winners could be lauded.

The game would go into familiar territory for both clubs, and when that bought no conclusion, the 35-yard shootout was brought into play. The Cosmos would win that, meaning they had won the second leg and, regardless of any aggregate calculations, the final was now balanced out at one win apiece. 

As the implications of the tournament rules became more involved, with the clubs now level, another mini-game of 15 minutes would follow. The format was set up not only to create a winner at all costs, but to increase the drama of the occasion, and in this second mini-game of the evening, that certainly came to the fore.

With time running out and a second shoot-out appearing inevitable, Whitecaps forward Valentine crashed a shot against the underside of the Cosmos bar. The ball bounced down and out, but had it crossed the line? For Alan Ball, with memories of Wembley in 1966 and Geoff Hurst’s controversial goal, it must have felt like déjà vu, especially when the referee appeared to give the goal and point to the centre circle, indicating the Whitecaps had won. It was far from over, though. 

With resentment still burning from the first game, the Cosmos players and officials were incandescent with rage at the perceived injustice. Chinaglia grabbed the linesman nearest the goal by the shoulders in an attempt to shake some sense into him. It took some time for any semblance of order to be restored, after which the referee reversed his initial decision and ruled out the goal.

On another day, Chinaglia, and any number of other Cosmos players and officials, could have faced sanctions on top of a defeat. On this day, however, in front of more than 50,000 fans screaming for the home team, manhandling officials and forcibly questioning their decisions won the battle, if not eventually the war. The remaining time played out and after two games, comprising 90 minutes each, and two mini-games, it would now take a second shoot-out to decide the destiny of the National Conference Championship. 

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Beckenbauer was given the opening opportunity but failed to convert. Then Derek Possee stepped up to put Vancouver ahead. The goalkeepers were beaten on the next four occasions, maintaining the Canadian club’s slender advantage. With the pressure mounting, Ricky Davis came up short for the Cosmos, meaning Alan Ball needed to convert to send the Whitecaps into the Soccer Bowl. As in the earlier game, though, the midfielder came up short. 

The pressure now swung back onto the Cosmos. Nelsi Morais was a Brazilian midfielder who had joined the club four years earlier from Santos. He would play 63 times for them, finding the net only once, and although he achieved his aim in this shoot out, the goal would be controversially wiped out.

Players had a mere five seconds to score, and although Morais eluded Phil Parkes to find the back of the net, the referee declared that he had run out of time. The goal was discounted, and with one kick to come, the shoot out was over. The Vancouver Whitecaps had won, ending three hours and 35 minutes of drama. 

To no-one’s great surprise, the controversial decision provoked more fury on the park and anger from the stands. This time, however, the official would not be swayed. The Cosmos were on their way out. 

Afterwards, Waiters was philosophical about the tumultuous events: “There was so much good play today, so much good stuff,” he declared. “A shoot-out devalues what has gone before. It might be a good idea for NASL now, but maybe in a year or two it will disappear.”

In a few years, the NASL itself would disappear, but that was for the future. The next game the Whitecaps faced would be back at Meadowlands and the Giants Stadium. They would play for the 1979 Soccer Bowl in front of a crowd numbering more than 50,000, many of whom would be Cosmos fans who had purchased tickets well in advance, in the assured assumption that their team would be competing. That, and the events in the conference final, would mean a hostile atmosphere for the Whitecaps.

Having defeated teams featuring Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer, the Whitecaps would now be confronted by one led by Rodney Marsh, the Tampa Bay Rowdies, who had lost to the Cosmos in the previous season’s Soccer Bowl. Marsh had joined the cub three years earlier, and this would be his last game for the Rowdies; landing the Soccer Bowl after coming so close would round out his time nicely.

The club from Florida had reached the season’s finale after qualifying from the regular season mainly due to their impeccable home record, winning 14 of their 15 games at Tampa Stadium. They would defeat Detroit in the playoff quarter-finals and then overcome Philadelphia after a mini-game victory in the home leg. Their conference final wasn’t too dissimilar from the adventure the Whitecaps had experienced in New York, but Marsh and his teammates eventually got past the San Diego Sockers to reach the big game.

There were any number of contrasts between the two clubs. Whereas Tampa bathes in the warmth of Florida’s Gulf Coast, Vancouver is surrounded by mountains and faces out to sea across Vancouver Island into the North Pacific, with the two cities being some 3,500 miles apart and, of course, from two different countries.

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The teams selected by each manager – Waiters for the Whitecaps and former Millwall and QPR manager, Gordon Jago, for the Rowdies – had wildly contrasting compositions. Waiters maintained his tried and tested formula of ex-British players; eight Englishmen, plus Willie Johnston, being accompanied by Canadian defenders Buzz Parsons and Bob Lenarduzzi. Zimbabwe international Bruce Grobbelaar – on the bench – was the exception.

Apart from Marsh, Jago’s selection contained Englishmen, Canadians, Scots, South Africans, a Dutchman and a Chilean, together with two Croats and two Americans on the bench. Nevertheless, for all the contrasts, on 8 September 1979, the Vancouver Whitecaps and Tampa Bay Rowdies came together in New York to decide who would win the 1979 Soccer Bowl.

The Whitecaps players were met by a chorus of boos from the disenchanted Cosmos fans in attendance, with particular attention being placed on goalkeeper Parkes. The ex-Wolves stopper hardly seemed upset by the raucous treatment, though, and even blew kisses to the crowd in response.

Those same fans would have been even less happy just a dozen minutes into the game when Trevor Whymark galloped past the challenges of Steve Wegerle and Barry Kitchener, through acres of space in the Tampa defence, before firing home left-footed into the corner of the net past Željko Bilecki to put the Whitecaps ahead. The game could have been done and dusted just a few minutes later when another Whymark effort struck the post. Somehow, Kevin Hector, from right in front of goal, managed to squander the chance. It would prove to be an expensive error.

Despite the Whitecaps being the dominant team at that point, the Rowdies were a more than decent outfit and just ten minutes after the opening goal, against the run of play, they were back on level terms. Moustachioed Dutchman Jan van der Veen weaved through the Whitecaps’ defence, evading challenges and fired past Parkes.

The remaining minutes of the first half, and into the second, were played out without any further scoring, with efforts from both teams being ruled out by American referee Gino D’Ippolito. Then, on the hour mark, it was Whymark again, receiving a pass from Ball. His shot struck Kitchener and deflected high into the net to give the Whitecaps a lead they wouldn’t surrender. 

At the final whistle it was the Whitecaps’ English skipper John Craven, who had played alongside Waiters at Blackpool and under him at Plymouth, who lifted the trophy. He had joined the club the previous season and would only play one further term before briefly moving to California Surf in 1981. Tragically, Craven would die from a heart attack before reaching his 50th birthday. On that day in 1979, though, he and his teammates were the toast of Canada.  

The following day, the victorious Whitecaps returned home for a victory parade in Vancouver in front of an estimated 100,000 fans. Striker Carl Valentine, addressing the crowd, summed up the feelings of his teammates: “You are the number one fans, and we are the number one team.” It was true – a unique success. 

The club would never enjoy such glory again. Despite having the likes of Leeds legend Johnny Giles manage the club and future luminaries like Peter Beardsley in their squad, the 1979 season was a rare but hugely enjoyable taste of glory.

The NASL folded five years later, with many of the clubs migrating to the indoor leagues. The Canadian club would continue in that format but would never revisit the heights achieved in 1979, when an ex-Blackpool goalkeeper got the better of Cruyff, Beckenbauer and Marsh, and the Vancouver Whitecaps won the Soccer Bowl.

By Gary Thacker @All_Blue_Daze

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