LOST BOYO IN TULSA, OK: (Manager, Tulsa Roughnecks – 1978 & 1981-1983)
By 1983, the North American Soccer League was on its last legs. Attendances were comparably good in ’83 -the average attendance was 13387, up on the previous season and bettered by only four of the 18 NASL seasons- but many of the star names had moved on, and TV interest was low.
On NASL’s bottom rung was the Tulsa Roughnecks. Managed by Lost Boyo Terry Hennessey, in a second spell in Tulsa, the Roughnecks had the lowest wage bill of the league’s 12 teams. The big names, such as they were, were occasional US National team goalkeeper Winston DuBose, former Luton Town and Manchester City forward Ron Futcher, and 1962 World Cup winner Zequinha, although he was 48 years old at the season’s start.
More than 18,000 were in attendance for Tulsa’s 1983 season home opener, a 1-0 win over Tampa Bay Rowdies. A season best 19,160 spectators saw the next home against the league’s marquee franchise, the New York Cosmos, a game which ended in a 2-1 defeat meaning the Tampa win was the Roughnecks only success in their opening five fixtures. A second victory was to come four days later in another home match, a 3-1 win over Montreal Impact, but this time fewer than 10,000 were at Skelly Stadium.
The next three games ended in defeats. Living up to their reputation as league undedogs, the Roughnecks ended the first ten games of the season with a record of two wins and eight losses.
Then things began to change. Tulsa won the next four and after 20 games their record was a much more respectable nine wins and 11 losses. Hennessey’s men could begin dreaming of the play-offs.
The final ten regular season games were a dogfight with Fort Lauderdale Strikers for the top of the Southern Division. Tulsa won three of their five next five matches, while Fort Lauderdale could manage just two wins. When Seattle Sounders defeated the Strikers 5-3 in their next fixture, Tulsa were firmly in the driving seat to win the division.
Speaking before his side’s 27th regular season fixture, manager Hennessey spoke confidently about the Roughnecks’ chances: “The ball is in our court. It’s up to us go out there and finish the job, and if we win our games, then we can win [the Division].”
The Roughnecks won that game against Team America 3-2 and continued their winning-streak right up until the end of the season, including a victory over Fort Lauderdale. Against the odds, and with the league’s lowest wage output, the Tulsa Roughnecks were into the play-offs.
In the last eight, they met Fort Lauderdale Strikers, runners up to the Roughnecks in the Southern Division with a 14-16 record. Tulsa won the first two matches, 3-2 then 4-2, to win the best of three series and advance to the semis.
In the next round, they met Montreal and this time the series went the distance. Tulsa took game one 2-1 in a shoot-out, but lost the second 1-0. The deciding third game was won 3-0, so Hennessey would take his men to the Soccer Bowl in Vancouver where they would face Toronto.
Neither team had been expected to make it to the Soccer Bowl. Most, with the league ailing as it was, would have preferred a final between the host city’s Whitecaps and New York Cosmos. With bigger name players and vastly larger supporter bases, this was the final that would have drawn the most interest.
Such was the desire to attract as large an audience as possible, Tulsa’s Ron Futcher had his suspension for the game overturned, as it was felt that by banning one the star players, the league would effectively be signing its own death warrant
Futcher played most of his pre-NASL career in England playing with his twin brother Paul at Chester, Luton, and Manchester City. Ron became something of a cult-hero at most of the teams he played for, combining moments of great skill with a questionable temperament.
Futcher showed both these sides in 1983. He had scored 20 goals in regular season and play-off football, but also missed several games through suspension. In the play-off semi-final against Montreal, Futcher collected a third yellow card in five matches and was set to miss the final. In a classic will-he-won’t-he, Futcher’s appeal was at first rejected by the league executive director before being upheld by the league president.
Despite the worries, 58,452 people, were in Vancouver for the final – the third highest attendance of all the Soccer Bowls. Most of the crowd were cheering for the Roughnecks, having seen their own Whitecaps eliminated at the hands of the Blizzard.
At half-time, the game was 0-0 and the restless Vancouver crowd began with chants of “Bor-ing! Bor-ing!”
Ten minutes into the second half, Tulsa were awarded an indirect free-kick on the edge of the box. Barry Wallace touched the ball to Njego Pesa, a Yugoslav-born American, described by Hennessey as the most talented young US forward in the league. Pesa lashed the ball low and hard passed Jan Moller in the Blizzard goal.
Ron Futcher added a second to seal the 2-0 win and take the Soccer Bowl back to Oklahoma. Futcher’s goal would prove to be a bitter pill for Blizzard fans to swallow, especially given his original suspension for the match.
Even allowing for the minor controversy surrounding Futcher’s participation, Hennessey’s achievement in leading his men to the title- and the last ever Soccer Bowl- was excellent. The players were a collection of, well, roughnecks: journeymen footballers with most of their playing careers behind them. Few had experience of winning before. This was Moneyball sports, long before the term had been coined.
Hennessey became only the second Welshman, after Phil Woosnam 15 years earlier, to lead a team to the NASL title. Hennessey did not, however, follow Woosnam in winning the Coach of the Year award -a prize that was awarded to Golden Bay Earthquakes’ Gregg Thompson- nor were his team honored in the playing awards, with defender Barry Wallace being the only Roughneck player in the All-Star XI.
NASL would run for only one further season, but Hennessey decided not to stick around and help his team defend their title. With the club in financial turmoil, Hennessey opted instead to head to Australia and join his son, who was playing semi-pro there at the time. Explaining his decision, Hennessey said, “I love Tulsa, but it has been a hard time here for me and my family. The last four weeks have been very taxing – winning the Soccer Bowl, then being a hair away from folding, then seeing the public come forward to keep the club alive.”
Hennessey and his Roughnecks had, though, ensured a Welsh influence on the league from the beginning to what was almost the end, and today their memory lives on in song.