Chapter one of Rock n Roll Soccer (‘Atlanta, Champions of England’), not only covers the difficult inception of the North American Soccer League in 1968 - the result of a merger between two rival professional leagues that had started up in 1967 - but also the extraordinarily gruelling tour of newly crowned English champions Manchester City to Canada, Mexico and the United States. In May 1968, City played one of the NASL’s more promising new teams, the Atlanta Chiefs, in a friendly game that caught the imagination of local fans. City lost 3-2, but when two subsequent games in Mexico were cancelled, they opted against an early return home in favour of returning to Atlanta to try and beat the Chiefs at the second attempt.
Manchester City’s assistant manager Malcolm Allison didn’t take his team’s defeat to Atlanta well. Prior to the game on 27 May 1968, he had been sanguine, while the local media touted City as champions of England and thus possibly the best team in the world – a deductive leap that, in the name of publicity, few in either camp would have bothered to dispute. ‘The stadium is a beautiful facility and the pitch is fine with us,’ Allison said. ‘It won’t make a bit of difference to us playing on part of a baseball infield. It’ll be just like playing on a frozen field in England. And we’ve played in all kinds of conditions.’ He even pre-empted excuses about City struggling after a long, hard season, because it just meant ‘we really don’t need that much practice’.
|The Atlanta Chiefs promote themselves in a city |
parade to an unsuspecting public in 1967
(Ron Newman private collection)
His players were more cautious. Tony Book, looking back at an already demanding tour (City had so far played and drawn with Dunfermline Athletic, twice, in Toronto and New Britain, and then beaten the Rochester Lancers 4–0) conceded that ‘the team is a little tired, since we’ve had to really play in these games. It seems everyone wants to beat us.’ With City missing some key players on international duty, the game could be a close one. Should that happen, he added, ‘it could be a great thing for soccer. It would be great for the game, because everyone back home and over the world is watching soccer in America. And we all want it to succeed here.’
Book’s comments reflect that City, to their huge credit, willingly co-operated in selling the exhibition game to the Atlanta public, arriving in the city a few days in advance, showing up at various banquets and receptions in their honour, and generally doing their part to talk up the coming game and soccer in general. In spite of the rigours of a demanding tour at the end of a long and extremely successful English season, manager Joe Mercer at least gave the impression that his side was taking it all seriously enough. ‘Although we don’t quite know what to expect, you can bet we won’t be complacent,’ he said. ‘I haven’t seen the Chiefs play, but I do know some of their players and what their capabilities are.’ Francis Lee also cautioned that ‘they just might give us a pleasant, or unpleasant, surprise.’
Pleasantly, or unpleasantly, City lost 3–2 in front of 23,000 raucous fans, and Allison’s reaction was far from gracious. ‘They couldn’t play in the Fourth Division in England,’ he said. ‘The boy that kicked the last goal was offside too. They played well. We played poorly. It’s as simple as that. It happens sometimes in England. The Third and Fourth Division sides come up and beat the First and Second Division teams. They just want the game more. The Chiefs had more to gain tonight than we did. We played like we didn’t really want to win the match.’