Pele, Jimmy Conway and that old time Rock and Roll soccer

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When Noel Lemon died a couple of years back, obituaries on both sides of the Atlantic mentioned the sterling work the Irishman did as a promoter of international soccer in America in the 1980s and 1990s. In many ways, his company laid the foundation for all the big European club tours that seem to happen here every summer now.  That his good friend Pele called him “The Chief” says something about the contribution Lemon made. Not bad going for a fellow from East Belfast who originally came to the US to play semi-professional soccer and ended up as general manger of the Tulsa Roughnecks in the old North American Soccer League.

That Oklahoma outfit lived up to their name so often they very quickly developed a reputation, one that their boss was quite proud of.

“We’ve only been in the league two and a half years and already half the teams hate us,” said Lemon. “Give me another two years and we’ll have them all.”

Lemon’s story and a whole host of other fascinating yarns are contained in “Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League”, a brilliant, new book by Ian Plenderleith. An Englishman long since exiled near Washington DC, Plenderleith has pieced together a hugely entertaining narrative tracing the brief, action-packed and star-studded history of this extraordinary league.

That it was a subject long overdue the book treatment can be deduced by the quality of the anecdotes and the marquee names in the dramatis personae. As a for instance, take the day the Tampa Bay Rowdies trounced the New York Cosmos in 1976. The Cosmos had Pele and Giorgio Chinaglia, an Italian icon by way of Wales, but they were led a merry dance by Rodney Marsh. In the middle of a virtuouso performance when the ball often appeared glued to his feet , Marsh offered the type of cameo that the sport, then and now, needs more of. Plenderleith takes up the story.

“Eventually, Dave Clements (another Northern Irelander) half-tackled him, but Marsh still managed to retain the ball as he ran back towards his own goal, now inside his own half,” he writes. “He turned, Clements was now ten yards away, so this was the moment when Marsh knelt down and gestured, inviting Clements to come and fetch the object he desired but had no chance of obtaining. Then Marsh stood up again and made another back-heel pass without even glancing to check if it had reached his own player. It had.”

For all the (mostly) English snobbery towards it, the NASL was a league that expressly tried to bring entertainers in, and more importantly, encouraged them to entertain. Where else would you get Eusebio playing against Pele on a field in Las Vegas? Never mind that the two of them were past their prime, they still cared enough about the game to get into a fight that day. In a photograph that became a wonderful memento of his own career, Eusebio’s team-mate Hilary Carlyle, a native of Derry and a one-time Finn Harp, is caught trying to broker peace between the two legends

NASL was the kind of unique place where the biggest names ever to play the game rubbed shoulders with journeymen and with youngsters gaining vital experience on the way to greater things. For every Pele, Beckenbauer and Cruyff and, indeed, our own John Giles, there was a Peter Beardsley playing for Vancouver at 20 or Graeme Souness with Montreal at just 19.  Of course, in the middle of it all was George Best, way past his best but still capable of being the best when the mood suited. It did on the day in 1981 when he scored the best goal in NASL history for San Jose Earthquakes against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers.

Aside from providing forensic accounts of goals like that and collating an important part of the archive of the game in America, Plenderleith makes a very good case that the NASL deserves more coverage because it was, in many ways, a forerunner of the future direction of the sport in other countries.

“If you were designing a prototype for a brand new, modern soccer league, you would place the most image-conscious, most skillful, most brand-friendly players with the clubs in the biggest, most glamorous cities,” writes Plenderleith. “The ensuing media coverage would guarantee the crowds, and so sponsorship revenue and a fat television deal would automatically follow. Celebrities and politicians would start to show their faces in the stands as sure as ticks on a stray dog. Your league might look like the Premier League or the periodically mooted European Super League. It would look something like the top half of North America’s first division in the late 1970s, a league that got too much right to ignore.”

Jimmy Conway doesn’t crop in Plenderleith’s excellent book but he was part of the NASL story too. A career that began at Bohemians on the northside of Dublin, blossomed at Fulham in west London and culminated in a move to the Portland Timbers in the American north-west in 1978. After he retired from playing, he turned to coaching and played a huge part in the growth of the sport in that part of the country. Now that he’s suffering from dementia, the soccer community in the region hasn’t forgotten their man.

At the Timbers’ Major League Soccer clash with the San Jose Earthquakes on September 7th next, Conway’s name will be on everybody’s lips. In the 8th minute (chosen because that was the Dubliner’s old number), “Timber Jim” Serrill, the team’s first mascot, will lead the stadium in a 60-second round of applause in his honour. A fitting tribute because Conway, like the league he once graced, left an indelible mark.

 

* Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League” by Ian Plenderleith is available at all good booksellers now.

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