News and reviews of Rock n Roll Soccer

ROCK N ROLL SOCCER: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League, by Ian Plenderleith. This is the blog to back the book hailed as "fantastic" by Danny Kelly on
Talksport Radio, and described as a "vividly entertaining history of the league" in the Independent on Sunday. In the US, Booklist described it as "a gift to US soccer fans". The UK paperback edition published by Icon Books is now available here for just £8.99, while the North America edition published by St. Martin's Press/Thomas Dunne Books can be found here for $11.98. Thank you.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Ron Newman: 1936-2018. "When the NASL folded I was sitting in my office crying my eyes out"

I was saddened to hear of the death on Monday of former North American Soccer League player and coach, Ron Newman. Five years ago this week I talked to Ron, who granted me an extensive and entertaining interview about his time in the NASL. Many extracts from that interview ended up in Rock n Roll Soccer (he has 12 referrals in the book's index), but much of it has remained on my hard drive.

In tribute to a kind and generous man who gave so much to the game in the US, here is the interview in full:

What brought you to the USA and the Atlanta Chiefs in 1967?

Ron Newman: I was sold by Portsmouth to Orient and through the club I took over this house where [future NASL Commissioner] Phil Woosnam had been living while he was at West Ham. I used to get his post and send it on to him, though I didn’t know him. We got talking one time in the players’ tunnel and had quite a long chat. Now when I was in the army I was a drill instructor, so I knew how to handle people, and when my career started to wind down I thought I wouldn’t mind a go at coaching. Eddie Firmani was talking to me about coaching abroad in Australia or South Africa. But then I got a call from Phil and he said, ‘Don’t go to South Africa, come with me to America.’ I said, ‘America? They can’t play the bloody game over there!’But I talked about it with the kids and we ended up going, all because of that link up with the house where we’d both lived.

What was it like that first year in Atlanta?

Newman: Everything was new. Everything was huge. Right in the beginning I’d met the people from Atlanta in a hotel in London, and we had lobster. I’d never had lobster before, we couldn’t afford that. This of course was the baseball people. My son, who was about eight, had just started playing soccer and he didn’t want to go because there was no soccer in Atlanta. We told him they had hamburgers and colour television over there, so that persuaded him. When I got to Atlanta I told him we were
starting a new league. So when we got there he handed me a list of names of players of kids he’d got to know and said, 'Dad, this is my time.' I humoured him, but a couple of weeks later he gave me another list, with players added and some dropped. That’s when I realised he was serious and we had to try and get a local kids’ league going. But you couldn’t buy a ball, you couldn’t buy any soccer equipment, there were no referees, there was nowhere to play.

We put an ad in the paper and a whole load of kids showed up and I thought, 'Bloody hell, what am I going to do with this lot?' But in no time at all we started a league. But then we had to find balls, refs, a place to play and I thought, ‘What have I got myself into?’ I’d worked five or six years in the docks as an apprentice and so I was a carpenter. I used to joke that there had been two very important carpenters in history – Jesus Christ and me. So I got the job of making a set of goalposts, because there were no goals. Then Saturday morning came around, but somebody had ripped the goalposts down and broken them into bits. Anyway, we hammered in two goals in the end without a cross-bar, but that was the start of my exploits in seeing what had to be done in a country like the US. There was nothing there. Nothing. But after a year things got bigger and more kids came around, it grew and grew. When I left for Dallas after a couple of years I handed it over to the YMCA and they started the Summer Soccer League. Years later I met a taxi driver in Dallas who’d played in that very league! And that’s what I ended up doing everywhere I went in the US.

In the US we were always trying to sell the game, always trying to give people a reason why they should play it. We’d go to clinics and schools, and Phil asked me to go to one place about three hours south of Atlanta. The headmistress was so grateful that I’d come, she was telling me how fantastic it was that I’d come. Then she says, ‘You know, we’re fascinated to know, how do you guys manage to stand up on those skates?’She thought I was from an ice hockey team. You’d go to schools and they wanted you to put the ball between the American football posts like a place kicker. You’d do it with your right foot and then with your left and they’d be really impressed by that.

We hadn’t been there a week in Atlanta when they had a big parade downtown. So we put a float in the display, but we had nothing on it to say who we were, though we managed to get some uniforms, but it didn’t say on the shirts who we were. So we were waiting to start, with 1000s on the sidewalk, but no one knew who we were. So I took a ball, jumped off the float, which was an absolute no-no, and I started playing 1-2s with all the people on the sidewalk. 

Bob Bell at San Diego once said to me, ‘Every game has to appear to be important’. You’ve got to do something to make people excited about coming. Good or bad, as long as it causes a stir.Our league was divided into regional conferences, so you were never far from the top or the bottom, and any intra-conference game was important anyway. I looked across at England and they’d got it all wrong over there. You’d have two or three months of the season left and none of the games had any consequence any more if you were mid-table. Now [in England] they’ve found a way to make more positions at the top and the bottom of the league important with the playoffs and finals at Wembley with huge crowds. 

I thought the English game in the 70s was going to go belly up. The stadiums they had in England at that time weren’t anything like as good as the ones we played in over here. 

[Former Atlanta Chiefs Chief Executive] Dick Cecil and [former NASL player and coach] Dave Chadwick both told me you took the missionary philosophy from Atlanta with you and spread it across the country.

Newman: I did, and it was so easy. Selling soccer in this country was like selling five dollar bills for a dollar. Once people saw it worked, they couldn’t get enough of it. It was hard work, but easy. You’d go to a school and make a good impression, and they’d recommend you to another school down the road and you’d go there too, and it just spiralled like that. The game grew so fast. I had a little piece of paper and explained about who I was and about the game of soccer. The key was at the bottom of that piece of paper - this is a new enterprise, I need help from older brothers, parents, people to coach, referee, organise the team and so on. That was the secret – there were kids, kids, kids all over the place, but you needed the parents.

What sort of promotions did you use to sell the NASL when you became coach with the Dallas Tornado in 1969?

Newman: Parades, doing these things in schools, I had a funny accent that appealed to them all. I couldn’t juggle the ball when I was in England as a pro, but I got so much practice there doing demos that I became a good juggler. I’d explain the difference between soccer and US sports: you can come and get the ball if you want, come and kick it – it wasn’t like American football and basketball where you couldn’t really take the ball off the other team. ‘It’s all yours, come and get it if you want, anyone can try and get it.’  

I remember going to the first National Coaches’ Convention up in New York and you’d make contacts and people gave speeches and you’d buy some equipment from a bloke with a suitcase. That thing grew to enormous size. Can you imagine the first one? It was pathetic. So anyway, I was doing a clinic in Dallas, doing a demo of bending the ball and so forth. I was showing them how to elevate the ball, and to demonstrate that I’d hit the basketball board with a ball in the air. Well this time the ball went through the net without touching the sides. A Brazilian player from the Tornado who was with me started shouting, 'Pelé! Pelé!' And all the kids in the bleachers are sitting there watching and one of them says, 'Do it again!' So I was at the coaches’ convention a few years back and a guy at one of the stands stopped me and asked me if I was Ron Newman. He wanted his picture taken with me because he remembered that clinic in Dallas, and he remembered me putting it through the basketball net. And he was the same kid who’d yelled out ‘Do it again!’

What were the challenges of coaching Dallas in the early 70s and what was your relationship was like to its owner, Lamar Hunt?

Newman: I was MVP at Atlanta, and they were a very good side with some very good players. I was injured for the Manchester City games in 68 [when Atlanta beat the reigning English champions twice], but I remember the games, they were terrific. 

At that time I had just recovered from my injury and was offered this opportunity in Dallas where they’d fired the coach and called in Keith Spurgeon, ex-Tottenham, and he was in Belgium, and he was looking for someone to help him as an assistant with a little bit of experience of the US. But then at the end of the 68 season the league shrunk down to five teams, and I could have done what a lot of players did – gone out to play golf while the remaining teams decided what to do. Keith went back to Europe, but I thought, if we do go forward for another season… Lamar was a magnificent man, a great believer in the game, he wanted [his team] to play. So I went back out into the schools. 

It was a learning curve for me as a coach. At the end of the 1970 season we had no chance of winning the league, so for the last few games I experimented with the line-up in preparation for the following year, and of course we lost those games, but I didn’t think anything of it because they weren’t important. Yet the media were asking me, ‘Do you think you’ll lose your job?’ And I was thinking, I’m busting my balls here trying to keep this new franchise and league going, and suddenly you’re being asked about keeping your job. So I learned that early – you’ve got to keep your wins coming or the media will be all over you.

In 1971 we won our first championship, and it was the first championship for any team in Dallas. Then a baseball team came in to Dallas and you realised how cut-throat it was. We’d been getting good media coverage in the city newspapers, though there wasn’t much on TV. Then suddenly there’s a new baseball team coming to Dallas, and we were blown away, and I asked the journalists why we couldn’t get in the paper any more. They said, you were the only pro team in Dallas. And I’d be saying, but we draw more fans than the baseball team. And they’d say, that’s the way they do it, baseball won’t come to Dallas unless they’re guaranteed three stories in the sports pages every day. And one of those had to be on the front page of the sports section. Soccer didn’t have that power. 

In Dallas we played on artificial turf and the ball bounces differently and rolls off the field. We had a special shoe with smaller studs, they were just coming out. Before that the best way to play on artificial turf was a regular moulded stud, but reasonably worn down. When I was coach at the Fort Lauderdale Strikers [in 1977] we were playing up in New York at the Cosmos and we heard it was going to piss down with rain. So we looked into finding a different kind of shoe,  one that would be sharper and give you a better grip. I talked to this manufacturer, Pony, who was distributing shoes to the Cosmos. We go up earlier in the day and somebody came along and gave us these shoes, they were the worst shoes you’ve ever seen, made of cardboard, you wouldn’t have sold them in Woolworths. If you tried to stop in them your foot would continue out of the shoe. They were horrible.

So we had to wear our normal worn-out shoes we wore for home games, where of course it was always dry because it never rained in Fort Lauderdale – we had a roof. And our goalkeeper Gordon Banks was slipping and sliding all over the place, he couldn’t stand up, and several players were like that. We got beat 8-3. There was this English player for the Cosmos on the left wing, he was cutting and twisting and spinning like a bloody ballerina, and I cornered him as we came off, and asked him, ‘How did you do that?’ ‘It’s these shoes,’ he said. I asked him for a look, and they were made out of kangaroo leather. I’ve always thought, though I couldn’t prove it, but the Cosmos could do or say whatever they liked. My suspicion was that whoever was in charge of footwear at the Cosmos told the company not to show us the shoes that the Cosmos had. We were cheated in that game. We had no chance to change the shoe just before kick-off. I think we were done by the shoes. Poor old Banksy in goal, he couldn’t cut from one side to the other. This is just my belief. There was no way we could possibly wear the shoe this company had presented to us. I always wish I’d kept a pair as proof. They were so powerful, New York.

At Fort Lauderdale you were in charge of a team that had Gordon Banks, Teofilo Cubillas, Gerd Müller, George Best - so in terms of star names you were competing with the Cosmos.

Newman: That’s because I said to [owner] Joe Robbie, ‘We need players you can talk about.’ You can’t talk about players that came out of college, you had to go for big names. I had the smallest bloody budget in the whole league. I’d promise the players an extra ice cream after the game if they played for us. Müller was a wonderful player, but not all over the field. You had to tune your style of play to suit him, but he was a great character. Georgie came in… we were all sure we could save him from alcoholism, he hadn’t had a drink for six months. I don’t really want to go into this, because George is dead. Just for your own satisfaction, he wasn’t a great deal of help. He suddenly started drinking again. I go looking for him, it was a terrible shame, he still had a couple of years left, but not as a drunk. No one knows why it happened, he’d been six months without a drink, he was fine when he came from LA, but suddenly he disappears, his wife calls up. He came to training the next day and was in the car park stinking to high heaven of alcohol.

There was a story before that, though, when he was sober. He’d scored a goal for us in his first or second game. Now you know how hot it gets in Fort Lauderdale, especially playing in the afternoon, and we used to have to play in the afternoon a lot because of television. So we’re playing and George was having a good game but he was slowing down pretty rapidly, and then started to kick back at young players who were taking the ball off him. He’d come from LA and had to sit out a number of games for a suspension for getting too many red and yellow cards. But if he’d got another red card he’d have had to sit out another long suspension. So he’s getting redder and redder in the face, so I thought Christ, if he gets sent off now we’re in the shit. So I take him off to do him a favour, and George comes off he starts pulling at his shirt, and I was already thinking he was going to throw it at me. He’s walking along the touchline and I know what he’s going to do. He throws it at my head, and I knocked it down nonchalantly and kept on giving instructions to the team. We won the game but on my way out the media was all over me. ‘What are you going to do about that?’ Me: 'About what?' ‘About Georgie Best - you took him off and he threw his shirt at you.’ Me: 'Everybody wants one of George’s shirts, I’m no different. George knows that I wanted one of his shirts.I’m going to take it home and frame it and put it over my fire place.' I made a joke about it. I saved George’s hide, because he was in big trouble. 

In Atlanta you told the Journal in 68 that you didn’t agree with changing the laws of the game just to suit the US. Did you come to change that point of view?

Newman: I can’t believe I would have said that! Maybe they were talking about bigger goalposts or something like that. I was a big supporter of  different rules for the US, like the 35-yard line. So was Pelé, so was Franz Beckenbauer. I went to the Rowdies game here in the new NASL and it was nil-nil, but there was no shootout, which was what that game needed. It [the shootout] was magical. I remember going back to England to watch Southampton against Tottenham and it was a bloody awful game. And at the end of the game it was 0-0 and a shootout would have saved the day.

A lot of these changes were made to the laws specifically to make the game more appealing in the US. Would they have worked for the rest of the world?

Newman: Without question. The 35-yard line was mainly down because we kept playing in high school arenas and they were so long and narrow. You were fitting a soccer field inside a running track and it was hard in this country because the running track was a different shape here, more narrow, and you’d get things like a long jump pit down the edge of the field and you had to cover it up. Now of course they have soccer-only stadiums.  I hope that I had a major input in that, because I studied it and talked about it a lot. In Dallas I found out you couldn’t go to a High School field, where you’d get the atmosphere,  because the media didn’t consider that was a place for professionals to play. So we had to play in that 70,000-seater stadium in Dallas where you couldn’t get the atmosphere.I went to Fort Lauderdale where there was only one stadium, and the press used to have to get up in the High School press box and opened up the windows because there was no a/c, and they’d be given food and the rain would come in the windows and ruin the sandwiches. But the fans really created an atmosphere in stadiums like that. 

At Fort Lauderdale they had adult tickets at $5 each and kids’ tickets at $4.50. I said you can’t do that, you want kids to come and see the game. We had maybe five or six thousand seats on either side of the field. They said we can’t afford to let the tickets go for 50 cents. But we went that way and we got people, and next year we filled up the ends with seats, and then we sold out the corners, 16,000 fans, sold out and the atmosphere was tremendous. 

How did your move to San Diego come about?

Newman: We were trying to start a team in Miami in the American Soccer League, and they had me postpone the very first game because they couldn’t get into the stadium. I lost all the radio and media because of this bullshit. It was ridiculous, so I went over to San Diego, which wasn’t doing very well. It was a good club, Bob Bell was the owner, who I always thought was terrific. He drove a Rolls Royce, he’s still an old friend of mine. It was a load of different nationalities, I had no trouble getting on with them, and we managed to win. We had Kazimierz Deyna, he’d been playing at Manchester City at the time. He was a magician.He was tall enough, he wasn’t robust. They’ve got a shrine to him in Poland. It was summer-time [1989] when he died, I was in England, and he pulled over on a main road, and he was hit by a truck, killed instantly. They didn’t know who he was, but they found a ring on his finger which was a championship ring he’d won with the Sockers, and they knew who Iwas, so they called me and left a message on my machine that I didn’t get because I was in England. They wanted me to come down and identify the body. Man, I couldn’t have done that. We had one game in Chicago when he said he wasn’t feeling well, and I said to him he could raise his hand if he wanted to come off, whether it was ten seconds in or ten minutes in. Fortunately, he played and he went out there and had the game of his life [Chokes up].

You had great success with San Diego…

Newman: In 84 we switched to the indoor league, and Kaz was behind switching the rest of the players to the indoor game. Within a game or two, he was just as good indoors as he was outdoors.

Dave Chadwick said he found indoor soccer boring to play. Do you think indoor soccer helped the league’s demise?

Newman: It was all promotion, it was easy to sell, the fans loved it, they were close to the players, they could watch three games a week. When I was at Dallas I was invited to an indoor game at St. Louis and I didn’t know what to expect. It was a Hocksoc tournament, they didn’t have the in-built goal yet, this was around 1970. I thought this was great, it’s fun, you’re not cold, not too hot, the rain wouldn’t stop it. I kept trying to tell the league it was brilliant, easy to sell, that it could go worldwide. In winter we’d go and play an indoor tournament, then in 1978 the other indoor league started. All the good players were good indoor players too. I loved the game and had a lot to do with the rules and how it was played. When the NASL folded [in 1984] I was sitting there in the San Diego office. I was elated at being coach of the year, but I was shocked that the league had folded.

Was it really a shock at that point that the NASL folded?

Newman: There was something going on in Rochester, some goalkeeper came out and didn’t know whether to go for indoor or outdoor, and suddenly that team decided it would play indoor, and that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. You had to have eight teams [for outdoor NASL], and if we didn’t have eight it wasn’t going to happen. We should have gone and got another team, we switched to seven and didn’t have enough time to find the eighth one, we should have been doing something behind the scenes. It was a great league and when it went down I was sitting there in my office crying my eyes out. 

We never worked together, people were jealous of each other, fighting each other, we should have been able to have an indoor league and an outdoor league. What terrible mistakes people make.

If the NASL had survived, so you think soccer in the US today would be significantly more advanced?

Newman: Absolutely, we would be all like Seattle and Portland are now

What was it like going to coach in Major League Soccer for the Wizards in 1996?

Newman: I was the first coach recruited. Lamar Hunt was the one who hired me. When Lamar let me go in Dallas in 1975, it was time, and there were lots of reasons for it, but I was ready to go. Lamar was there with Bill McNutt, two great gentlemen. They called me in to let me know, but I already knew. They said they were going to try and recruit the top coach in the world. I said, ‘That’s a shame, you can’t do that now.’ He [Lamar] said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘You just fired him.’ Many years later I’d just won the title in San Diego and Lamar wrote me a card saying. ‘Why didn’t you tell me you were the best coach in the world?’

When you went back to coach the Wizards, that was Lamar’s team too?

Newman: Yes, I was really ready to retire. The first two years we had one of the best regular season records and people had said I couldn’t do anything besides indoor soccer. Anyway, it was very, very difficult in Kansas. Lamar was quite ill, so I had nowhere to go if I had problems. There was no training pitch, and you were always in a fight with the NFL people because we were sharing facilities. You had all these people wanting to try out for the team. There was little chance of finding a new player like that. So we turned it into  a promotion. But then we couldn’t get the field to play on. I said, ‘We can’t play on a field where someone’s granny is taking their dog for a walk.’ So how do you solve that problem? You turn to Lamar and the problem’s solved in a flash. But that was hard, getting the money to find a training ground. We did draw 20,000 for the first game, but then we didn’t play at home again for two weeks and all the hoopla was lost.

After two years Lamar offered me a second contract and I wasn’t sure, and I was thinking about going back to a team in Florida, that it might be easier to bring the crowds to. I went to Lamar and asked if I could enter into talks with Fort Lauderdale, thinking purely of the game, and he sent me back a great big NO on the letter and gave me 25 grand more. I wasn’t interested in the money, it was just that it was so difficult in Kansas to compete with baseball and Football. Of course I didn’t turn it down, but it wasn’t the reason for doing it.

Here’s another NASL story. I was coach at Dallas and we went down to Washington and they had the pitcher’s mound still on the playing field. I hated those baseball fields. You were supposed to remove it before soccer games, but they said they couldn’t do it, that there was no way to move it. I remember this one Brazilian centre-back we had would be there waiting for the attackers to come down the pitcher’s mound.So after the game I wrote to the league and complained and said I’d refuse to play there again as long as the baseball mound was there. So we go back out there for another game – no pitcher’s mound because they’d pushed the pitch across and just manage to get the mound off the field. After 15 minutes we get our first corner, and the corner flag is two or three inches away from the fence. Our player’s looking at it and wondering how he’s going to run up. Then he sees on the fence there’s a handle, so he opens it, walks up the path for his run-up, but as he turns to take the corner the door shuts and he can’t get out. So he can’t get on to take the corner kick. I always finish the story by saying, ‘He wasn’t playing that well so we left him in there’ [Laughs]. 

Ron Newman (19.1.36-27.08.18), North American Soccer League Coach of the Year: 1971, 1977, 1984.

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