Singing for (Mike) England

We stay in the city of Seattle for our next look at the Welsh who’ve featured in the first 100 years of US soccer, but we’re going back again to the 1970s and the NASL. Away from the glamour of New York and its Cosmos, a strong sense of rivalry was brewing in the Pacific Northwest between Portland, Vancouver, and Seattle. Captaining the latter’s Sounders franchise, and later to manage Wales, was Welshman Mike England

Mike England challenges Pele

Mike England challenges Pele

A look through the North American Soccer League All Star XIs of the mid- and late-70s reads like a who’s who’s of the best footballers of the day (or indeed ever). Gordon Banks (’77), Bobby Moore (’76)’, Franz Beckenbauer (’77-’80, and ’83), Carlos Alberto (’78-’80), George Best (’77), Johan Cruyff (’79, ’80), and, perhaps the greatest of all, Pele (’75-’77) are some of the biggest names to feature.

Another name that features prominently during those years is Welshman Mike England. Holywell-born England moved to the US in 1975 for Seattle Sounders’ second NASL season. England, aged 33 when he arrived, remained with the Sounders for the next five seasons and was selected for the NASL All-Star XI every season between 1975 and 1978 – a record only bettered by New York Cosmos legends Franz Beckenbauer (five selections) and Vladislav Bogicevic (six selections).

England’s career began with Blackburn Rovers. There, he was a member of Rovers’ 1959 FA Youth Cup win and turned professional that same year. Whilst at Ewood Park, England made the first of his 44 Wales caps and became his country’s youngest ever captain in 1964 – a record that stood until Aaron Ramsey was made captain in 2011 – in a match against Northern Ireland. After making 184 appearances for Rovers, England moved to Tottenham Hotspur in a £95,000 transfer to Tottenham Hotspur in the summer of 1966.

England ended his first season at White Hart Lane with an FA Cup winners medal. During his 300 appearances with Spurs, he also collected winners medals in the League Cup (1971) and UEFA Cup (1972). England later scored the opener  in a second UEFA Cup Final, this time against Feyenoord in 1974. That game ended in a 2-2 draw at White Hart Lane, but England had to be content with a runners-up medal after a 2-0 loss in Rotterdam.

At the end of his contract with Tottenham, England moved to the Seattle Sounders in the North American Soccer League. The modern Seattle Sounders have become known for their large attendances, and similarly in the 1970s they made a habit of pulling in the crowds. In England’s first season, despite lacking any truly big names, Seattle had the second highest regular season attendance in the whole league (16,826).

On the field, things went well too.The Sounders completed the regular season with 15 wins and seven losses, and also ended the season with the league’s joint-second meanest defense. All that added up to a second place finish in the league’s Pacific Division and a place in the end of season play-offs. That run was, however, short-lived. In the first round, Seattle were knocked out by Pacific Division rivals and league debutants Portland Timbers, who were managed by another Welshman, Vic Crowe. England’ returned to the U.K  for the 195-76 season and helped Cardiff City  achieve promotion from the Third Division (League One in new money), playing 40 of the 46 games that season.

He then returned with his family to Seattle for the 1976 NASL season, supplementing his football income by running an antiques shop. The Sounders gave another strong showing both on and off the field. Once again they were well-supported- their 23,000+ average attendance was the league’s best- and once again made the play-offs. This time they even went one better than in the previous year, defeating Vancouver in the first round, before losing 3-0 to Minnesota in the Last 8.

The following 1977 season was probably the most famous of the Sounders’ time in the NASL, and, indeed, it is one of the most storied of any of the 16 NASL seasons between 1968 and 1984. Sounders attendances were up for a fourth straight season and, despite a relatively poor 14-10 regular season, they were in the play-offs for a third straight year.

For the second year in a row, Seattle ended Vancouver’s season in the first round of the play-offs, and then got revenge for the previous season’s exit by defeating Minnesota. Finally, they booked their place in Soccer Bowl ’77 by knocking out George Best’s LA Aztecs.

The 1994 World Cup aside, Soccer Bowl ’77 is perhaps the most famous football match ever to take place in the US. More than 35,000 fans packed the Civic Stadium in Portland for what would be Pele’s last ever professional football match, and it was against Mike England and the Seattle Sounders. Also in the starting eleven for Pele’s New York Cosmos that day were the last two men to lift the World Cup, Brazil’s Carlos Alberto and Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer, as well as Italian striker Giorgio Chinaglia.

The Sounders, though, had not read the script, dominating the early exchanges and putting the ball in the back of the net only for the goal to be chalked off for offside. Having failed to make their early advantage pay, the Sounders soon found themselves behind thanks to Englishman Steve Hunt’s comical opener. Tommy Ord equalized four minutes later, but Pele was to get the send-off most people outside Seattle wanted. Hunt this time was provider, his cross being headed in by Cosmos anti-hero Giorgio Chinaglia.

England enjoyed limited success over the next two seasons. Seattle made the play-offs for a fourth straight year in 1978, but were defeated 5-2 in the first round, again by New York Cosmos, who were on their way to a second straight NASL title. In 1979, the Sounders ended the regular season with a poor 13-17 record and for the first time in five seasons, failed to make the play-offs.

England left Seattle at the end of that 1979 season. In his five seasons with the club, he had made more than 100 appearances, scored six goals, and made 12 assists. Individually, he was rewarded with four selections in the NASL All-Star XI (Arfon Griffiths, also of the Sounders, was the only other Lost Boyo to feature in any of the NASL All-StarXIs, his only selection coming in 1975).

England had had a huge effect on the young franchise, and their success is no doubt part of the reason for the popularity of today’s Seattle Sounders. Certainly the folks at http://www.goalwa.wordpress.com, a blog written by football fans in the state of Washington, were fans of England during his Sounders days, as they wrote, “Watching Mike England and an opposing player lift off for a header was a joyful thing. Mike controlled the ball. His opponent, however, usually ended up in heap. Mike was very gritty,” before later talking about how hard England had worked on his game to become one of Europe’s best central defenders.

England remained in the US, but after several appearances for Cleveland in the NASL indoor spin-off, he returned home following his appointment as the new manager of the Wales National Team at the age of just 38. He got off to a dream start, beating England 4-1 at Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground, and twice almost led his country to the World Cup. Wales were unbeaten in their first five qualifiers for the 1982 tournament, but winless in the final three to miss out on a spot in Spain. In the 1986 campaign, which included a famous 3-0 win over Spain and that Mark Hughes goal, a draw in the final game with Scotland saw Wales eliminated. A year later, England left the post and returned to north Wales. He never worked in top level football again.

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