Phil Woosnam (Clubs: West Ham United, Aston Villa, Internationals: 17 Caps [3 goals])
Vic Rouse (Clubs: Crystal Palace, Oxford United, Leyton Orient; Internationals: 1 Cap)
Vic Crowe (Clubs: Aston Villa, Peterborough United; Internationals: 16 Caps)
Bryan Hughes (Clubs: Swansea City; Internationals: 3 Caps)
LOST BOYOS IN ATLANTA GA, USA
A scarcely believable 1% of all the players that featured in the inaugural 1968 North American Soccer League (NASL) came from tiny Wales. In a 17-team league, that 1% constituted just four players who all featured in the same Atlanta Chiefs side, and who are possibly the most successful Lost Boyo collective that Welsh football has ever seen.
Player-manager Phil Woosnam had been a forward with West Ham United and Aston Villa before heading to the US in 1966. A year later, Woosnam recruited four of his countrymen to join him in Atlanta: goalkeeper Vic Rouse had played at Crystal Palace, Oxford United, and Leyton Orient before his move to the US; Brian Hughes was a Welsh Cup winner and FA Cup semi-finalist with Swansea City; Vic Crowe, a League Cup winner with Aston Villa, had been an unused sub at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, Wales’ only appearance at the finals; Brian Bedford had scored more than 200 goals in the English leagues, mostly with Queen’s Park Rangers.
In 1967, professional football in the US was split into different league systems. The first was the FIFA backed United States Professional Soccer Association (USPSA) that followed the bizarre system of importing whole teams from around the world into US cities. Most comical was perhaps the Cleveland Stokers, who were essentially England’s Stoke City and featured England’s World Cup-winning goalkeeper Gordon Banks in nets.
The five Welshmen found themselves in the rival National Professional Soccer League (NPSL). The 10-team league was split into two divisions, Eastern and Western. The Chiefs drew the Eastern Division’s highest average crowds, but could only manage a fourth place finish (out of just five teams) and closed with a record of 10 wins and 12 defeats (in a 31-game season). Woosnam was the team’s joint top-scorer with eight goals (from just nine games) and Bedford managed four in the only four matches he played.
In 1968, the USPSA and NPSL merged to form the North American Soccer League (NASL), the league that would in the coming decade feature Beckenbauer, Cruyff, Best, and, most notably, Pele. The 1968 running was less glamourous with the most familiar pre-season signings being Ferenc Puskas, who would manage the Vancouver Royals (replacing Bobby Robson, who had been due to take charge).
Bedford departed, returning to the UK, but the remaining Welshmen began the league with a 2-1 victory against on March 30th 1968. Tragedy was to strike Atlanta just five days later when the city’s most famous son, Martin Luther King , Jr., was assassinated in Memphis. The Chiefs next game was cancelled as Dr. King’s funeral took place.
When they got the campaign back underway, the Chiefs picked up a win and a draw against the St. Louis Stars and San Diego Toros respectively, before back-to-back defeats against the Chicago Mustangs and the Vancouver Royals. Vic Crowe picked up the goal in the 4-1 defeat in Chicago, becoming NASL’s first ever Welsh goalscorer.
The Chiefs went unbeaten in a busy nine-game run between May 1st and June 6th. However, the team’s biggest headlines during this period were for two victories over the recently-crowned English Champions, Manchester City. More than 23,000 people showed up to see the Chiefs pull off a major upset, defeating City 3-2 with goals from Zambian duo Freddie Mwila and Emment Kapengwe. After the game, City’s outspoken assistant manager, Malcolm Allison claimed the Chiefs “couldn’t play in the Fourth Division in England.” The second game took place in mid-June and, in front of an even bigger crowd, the Chiefs repeated the trick, this time scoring a 2-1 victory – Mwila again scoring and Kaizer Motaung, who would later go on to found South Africa’s Kaizer Chiefs, getting the other.
The Chiefs lost just four games in the final 18, sealing the Atlantic Division crown and a place in the end-of-season play-offs when they defeated the Washington Whips 1-0 in Washington, courtesy of a Graham Newton goal.
The regular season with a record of 18 wins, six draws, and seven losses for the Chiefs. They boasted the highest win percentage rate (58%) not just in the Atlantic Division, but in NASL as a whole. In a league where points were given for goals scored, the Chiefs managed just the ninth best scoring record. However, they also possessed the tightest defence; Vic Rouse ‘s 0.96 goals per game conceded, remarkably low in a league that averaged 3.42 goals a game, was only just bettered by San Diego Toros’ Ataulfo Sanchez’s 0.93.
In the play-offs, their mean defence would serve the Chiefs well, as they conceded just two goals in their four games. First up was the Cleveland Stokers, no longer featuring the Potteries’ finest, in the semi-finals. The away-leg ended in a 1-1 draw, but the Chiefs won 2-1 back at the Fulton County Stadium to book a place in the first ever NASL Championship final.
In the final they met the San Diego Toros, who had defeated the Kansas City Spurs. Again, a draw (0-0) away from home put the Chiefs in the driving seat for the return-leg, and they made their advantage count, clinching the title with a 3-0 win. Northern Irishman Peter Mcfarland, assisted by Hughes, opened the scoring and Jamaican Delroy Scott doubled the advantage before half-time. Motaung got the clincher ten minutes. Woosnam’s men were Champions: Rouse, Hughes, and Crowe all featured in both legs of the final.
Remarkably, no Chiefs featured featured in the 1968 All-Star team, although Vic Rouse was named goalkeeper for the All-Star Second XI. Kaizer Motaung also picked up the Rookie of the Year in the end of season awards, and Phil Woosnam, the man who had led his to the first ever NASL championship, was Coach of the Year – and would remain the only Welshman ever to do so.
Woosnam then left the Chiefs to, briefly, manage the US National Team and became NASL Comissioner, a position he held right-through the league’s most celebrated decade until its decline in the early-80s.
North America and NASL played a part in the future careers of his three Welsh signings, too: Vic Rouse replaced Woosnam as coach of the Atlanta Chiefs. He led his team to second-place in much-reduced league – only five of the 1968’s 17 teams participated in’69 – and remained in charge until 1972; Vic Crowe returned to Aston Villa as manager where he enjoyed a reasonable a reasonable amount of success, before returning to NASL for two spells as coach of the Portland Timbers in the mid-70s and early-80s; Bryan Hughes moved to Canada and twice coached the University of Victoria to Canadian university titles.