The Longest Game
How Wolves beat Aberdeen to win the US title in sudden-death over-time
There were 126 minutes on the clock when Ally Shewan deflected Bobby Thompson’s cross into his own net. Wolverhampton Wanderers had just beaten Aberdeen thanks to the world’s first golden goal. The game had had everything. A hat trick for each side, a sending off, a missed penalty, two scored penalties, extra-time, sudden-death extra-time and the fateful own goal. However, neither teams’ name would appear on the trophy as this was a triumph for the Los Angeles Wolves over the Washington Whips. Think of the early days of soccer (or football) in America, and you’d be forgiven for thinking of Pelé and the New York Cosmos; George Best and the Los Angeles Aztecs and a host of other European stars of the 1960s seeing out their careers playing in the North American Soccer League (NASL) in the 1970s. Yet while NASL might be the most famous attempt to give the sport a foothold in the States it wasn’t the first. The pioneers came a decade earlier and they too came from abroad.
The 1960s saw an explosion of television ownership in America, with some 56.6m families (more than nine in every ten) owning a set by 1968, up from 3.8m in 1950. Of those, 13.7m were colour TVs, up from just 1.6m in 1964. As a major ratings draw, sport became very valuable for the TV companies and this in turn led to a series of challenges to the Big Four major leagues before, ultimately there was a rationalisation. 1967 was a key year in several respects. The American Basketball Association was set up to rival the National Basketball Association (NBA) before a merger a decade later. The National Hockey League (NHL), fearful of the threat posed by the Western Hockey League, doubled in size from the so-called Original Six teams and significantly expanded to the West coast, at the behest of TV executives who said increased geographical reach would garner a more lucrative contract. In Gridiron the NFL merged with its upstart rival the AFL, which had formed three years earlier thanks in large part to a $36m contract with NBC. In 1967 the winners of each contested the inaugural World Championship, which was quickly rebranded the Super Bowl.
With 65m viewers the game had the biggest television audience in US sports history but that was dwarfed by the four hundred million who had watched the previous year’s World Cup around the world. The Daily Mirror reported how those fans were “linked by cable, radio and that spinning, bleeping satellite Early Bird, glued, riveted, or otherwise trussed to their tellys, watching the Greatest Show on Earth.” That Early Bird, so nicknamed because it was the first commercial communication satellite, meant that the final was broadcast as-live into American living rooms just hours after the final whistle.
Sports Illustrated estimated that the audience amounted to 10m viewers, an unexpectedly high figure for a match that kicked off at 9am on the West coast. Football’s potential was underlined few months later when Pelé’s Santos team arrived in the States for a close-season tour. They set a series of attendance records peaking when they played Inter at Yankee Stadium in front of 41,598 fans.
These events did not provide the spark for a football revolution in America, but they did add fuel to an already smouldering fire. With a limited number of teams in a limited number of leagues, American businessmen and sports promoters keen to tap into the booming leisure spending had already begun looking beyond the Big Four sports of baseball, basketball, ice hockey and American football. By the time of the World Cup final, soccer was already in their sights and there were three groups jockeying for position.
The United Soccer Association (USA) was led by Jack Kent Cooke, the owner of the LA Lakers and part owner of the Washington Redskins. The National Professional Soccer League (NPSL) was led by Bill Cox, who was the owner of the Philadelphia Phillies before he was banned from baseball for betting irregularities, and a third syndicate with links to the amateur National Soccer League was led by LA Lawyer Richard Millen. The impoverished United States Soccer Football Association (USSFA) now had more groups seeking its sanction than it had full-time staff. The governing body asked each syndicate for a proposal detailing “what it would do to advance soccer in America” and after politely listening they suggested a merger to form a single league. The separate bodies declined. So the USSFA set up a committee tasked with choosing which league to sanction, with its decision to be announced at the end of June 1966.
While the USSFA was considering its options, the NPSL made a series of announcements designed to force their hand. First the league declared that it had the blessing of the Fifa president Sir Stanley Rous and would be launching its competition in the autumn of the following year. Then a week before the USSFA’s general meeting the NPSL, which had by then merged with Millen’s syndicate, unveiled its 10-team structure with kick-off moved forward to April 1967.
Perhaps as a reaction to the NPSL’s aggressive tactics, or perhaps enticed by the financial success of the World Cup in England, the USSFA demanded a $25,000 fee from each team within the league, plus 10% of the league’s TV revenue and 4% of their gate receipts. The NPSL refused to pay, dismissing the demands as blackmail, but the USA agreed, thereby gaining the all-important official blessing. The ruling meant that the NPSL became an outlaw league unable to sign players.
“The rebel league must realise that it is my duty to deal with national associations and not leagues or individuals,” Rous said. “They just do not seem to want to conform to rules and regulations.” To hammer the point home the FA sent letters to all English clubs warning that any player who signed for the rogue NPSL would be permanently banned.
Unbowed, the NPSL, whose plans were considerably more advanced than those of its rival, played its trump card: a $1m-a-year, 10-year TV deal with CBS. The Washington Post declared that the renegade league had “won the first — and possibly most decisive — battle in its world-wide war” with its rivals. They may not have had the sanction of the national governing body but they had the legitimacy bestowed by the increasingly powerful cultural institution of television. To ensure that this new audience, used as it was to high-scoring games, was kept suitably entertained, the NPSL awarded six points for a win, three for a draw and a bonus point for each goal up to three scored.
Its hand forced, the USA announced in early 1967 that it would kick off in the summer of that year instead of in 1968 as planned. To facilitate the earlier-than-expected start the league would import entire teams from abroad to represent each franchise for the first season, with each receiving a straight fee from the league with the respective franchises paying their expenses. Among those enlisted to help find suitable recruits were the England international Jimmy Greaves, the BBC commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme and the former Nottingham Forest player Roy Dwight, who also happened to be Elton John’s cousin.
The first clubs to be unveiled were the English first-division teams Sunderland and Stoke City, who would become surrogates for Vancouver Royal Canadians and Cleveland Stokers respectively. They were soon joined by, among others, Hibernian as Toronto City, Aberdeen as the Washington Whips, Dundee United as Dallas Tornado, Cagliari as the Chicago Mustangs and Den Haag as the San Francisco Golden Gate Gales. Wherever possible the teams were placed in cities that had a significant immigrant community from their respective countries. Publicity stunts were also employed to build interest. The Washington Whips boasted President Lyndon Johnson as a season-ticket holder while Maureen O’Hara, Hollywood’s Queen of Technicolour, wearing a green-and-white hooped skirt, was on hand to welcome Shamrock Rovers, a team she had grown up watching in her native Ireland.
Speaking five decades later, Alan Rothenberg, who was a lawyer working for Jack Kent Cooke at the time, told the BBC, “There were a number of reasons we turned to the UK for the bulk of the teams. England was the uppermost soccer power in the world. In addition, it was the close season in England, and their FA was very co-operative in helping us find teams to take part. It was also a time when British things were generally in vogue in the US.”
In early April 1967, with the start of the season less than two months away, there was just one franchise without a surrogate — Cooke’s Los Angeles team. The entrepreneur initially approached Club América of Mexico City but subsequently had second thoughts and so enlisted the journalist Brian Glanville to help him find a team. “English he wanted and English I found him, in the shape of Wolverhampton Wanderers who were on their way to the promotion to the First Division,” Glanville reminisced in the Times in 2003. However, his BBC counterpart Wolstenholme had other ideas. The Bolton fan confronted Glanville at Craven Cottage ahead of Fulham’s game with Manchester United on Easter Monday. “What’s all this about Wolves going to Los Angeles?” he enquired. “They won’t go. I was in their boardroom on Saturday. Can you imagine them going just after getting promotion?” It seemed that he was lobbying on behalf of Bolton, who had already bought new shirts and flags in anticipation of playing the USA. However, Wolverhampton were chosen and Cooke’s original name ‘the Zorros’ was ditched in favour of a more appropriate moniker. The Los Angeles Wolves were born.
Wolverhampton Wanderers had been one of the dominant English teams in the 1950s, winning the title three times and pioneering European football with their mid-week “floodlight friendlies” against the likes of Honvéd. However, in 1965 they slumped out of the First Division for the first time since the 1930s. The first-team coach Ronnie Allen was given the top job and within two seasons he had masterminded their return to the top flight, although defeat on the last day of the season against Crystal Palace meant that they were pipped for the title by Jimmy Hill’s Coventry. Just two weeks after signing off their promotion campaign at Selhurst Park they made their LA debut.
For the younger members of the team like goalkeeper Phil Parkes, who was just 19 at the time, it was a surreal experience. “We drew the golden ticket,” Parkes told me. “I’d never been out of England. I’d never even been to Wales and my first trip abroad was to Los Angeles for nine weeks. It was the best place anybody could have gone to really, especially in the late Sixties when you had Flower Power and the hippie revolution. LA and San Fransisco was where it started.”
The team was based in the heart of Hollywood at the Beverly Hills Wilshire Hotel, just a long goal-kick from Santa Monica Boulevard. Morning training sessions consisting of light stretching and five-a-side games were followed by afternoons during which the players were free to explore the city or just relax by the hotel pool. “It was great,” said Parkes, “the sun shone every day. Me, Alun Evans, I think he was only 17, and Paddy Buckley were the young lads. We’d finish training and we’d get a taxi down to Santa Monica Beach or Malibu Beach and spend the day there. It was unbelievable really.”
Despite a punishing schedule of 14 games in 49 days, the team took every opportunity to rub shoulders with the stars. “We met Tommy Steele and Davy Jones out of the Monkees,” Parkes said. The Wolves winger Dave Wagstaffe had gone to school with Jones, by then one quarter of one of the most successful bands of the 1960s. The pair had played street football together as they grew up in Openshaw just a couple of miles outside of Manchester city centre and so Jones invited the whole team to the Columbia Pictures studio to see an episode of the band’s eponymous TV show being filmed. Later on during the trip, Wagstaffe spotted Steele outside the Coliseum before the team’s home tie against the San Francisco Golden Gate Gales. The actor was smuggled into the stadium with the team and in return he took the players on a tour of the Warner Brothers studio where he was filming Finian’s Rainbow with Fred Astaire and Petula Clarke.
Although it was the trip of a lifetime for the players in the days before cheap and easy air travel, they still took the competition seriously. “All the teams knew that they were there to do a job,” said Parkes who also felt their time in America helped them prepare for the following season. “From my point of view it was great because it kept you fit and the pre-season was easier than if you’d been off over the summer. When we came back we had 10 days’ break and then we were into training.” Wolves’ on-pitch home for the duration of their time in Los Angeles was the city’s Memorial Coliseum, which had opened in 1923 and hosted the Olympics nine years later (as well as in 1984, when the Rocket Man stole the show at the opening ceremony). It was their home form which was the backbone of their success. They turned the Coliseum into a fortress, winning five and drawing two of the seven games they played there, including a 5-1 win over the Vancouver Royal Canadians (a Sunderland team that were a division above them in England).
However, they opened their campaign at another iconic venue — the Houston Astrodome. Dubbed the Eighth Wonder of the World, the Astrodome, which had opened two years earlier, was the world’s first covered sports stadium. With its two million dollar, four-storey tall electronic scoreboard and padded seats, the Astrodome provided fans of the Houston Astros major league baseball and the Houston Oilers of the NFL with an air-conditioned refuge from the Texan heat. Yet it was arguably just as well known for another first: its artificial grass surface, which was installed after a year when the original natural grass withered indoors. “The pitch was alright,” Parkes recalled. “It was basically just like playing in England at the end of the season when there was no grass.” It caused Wolves few problems as they kicked off their campaign in front of 34,000 fans with a draw against the Houston Stars – actually Bangu, Brazil’s reigning Campeonato Carioca champions.
The Wolves won just once on the road — 2-1 against Toronto City, managed by Bob Shankly, brother of Bill — drawing three and losing twice. One of those defeats came in a game against the Washington Whips that had to be replayed after Ronnie Allen had inadvertently used too many substitutes the first time round. It was rearranged for the day after the final round of matches in which the Wolves were away at Dallas Tornado, meaning they had games more than 1,300 miles apart on consecutive days. The travelling distance, coupled with the fact they already had the Western Division sewn up might have explained their 3-0 defeat to Washington. The result meant the Whips pipped the Cleveland Stokers (Stoke City) to the Eastern Division title and that the Whips and the Wolves would meet again in Los Angeles in just four days to contest the final.
A disappointing average of fewer than 8,000 fans had watched Wolves’ home games during the season but 17,824, the fifth-highest crowd of the whole tournament, turned up to see the final at the Coliseum. An advert in the Los Angeles Times declared that this would be “Soccer’s Super Match” and it wasn’t far wrong; the crowd were about to be treated to the most spectacular game of all. Wolves took the lead after three minutes when Peter Knowles lashed home Derek Dougan’s knock down. Just over a quarter of an hour later the Whips were level when Jimmy Smith prodded home from eight yards out. The midfielder did not have long to celebrate, receiving his marching orders just after the half-an-hour mark following a scuffle with Wagstaffe. “He spat in my face. I kicked him,” Smith told the Washington Evening Star. “I guess the referee figured things had gone far enough and tossed me out.”
Losing the Scotland international was a huge blow to the Whips but they did not succumb to their numerical disadvantage and took the lead just after the hour mark through a Frank Munro penalty. Dave Burnside quickly equalised for Wolves and the home fans were still celebrating when the Whips went ahead again when Jim Storrie side-footed the ball past Parkes from 12 yards out. Wolves levelled from the kick-off, Burnside returning Bobby Clark’s punched clearance over the keeper with interest. The Wolves began to exert their control over the game and with seven minutes left Burnside gratefully swept the ball home for his hat-trick and what seemed like the winning goal. However, with the clock at 90 minutes, Munro flicked home from close range. Extra-time was scoreless until the 113th minute when the Wolves skipper Derek Dougan slammed the ball home. Minutes later Terry Wharton, Wolves’ penalty specialist, had the chance to put the result beyond doubt only to see his spot-kick saved — it was the only one he missed of the 44 he took during his professional career. To make matters worse, less than a minute later the Whips were awarded a penalty of their own. Munro stepped up and slotted the ball into the bottom right-hand corner, beyond Parkes’s reach. The youngster’s performance so impressed Ronnie Allen that he brought him to Wolves soon after and there were no hard feelings from Parkes with whom the newcomer would share a room for the next nine years.
“I couldn’t believe it. The game just went on and on and on,” said Parkes, remembering the exasperation he and his teammates felt at the time, not least because an after-match party back at their hotel was due to start at 9.30pm. It was nearly 11pm and the game was not yet done, but their wait would soon be over. There was no penalty shootout and so the game progressed to sudden-death injury time where it would be decided by football’s first ever golden goal, although it wasn’t labelled such at the time. Not long after kick-off came Bobby Thomson’s misfortune and, after 126 minutes, Wolves were the USA champions, something they saw as just as important as a domestic success. “Every time you win a trophy it’s great,” said Parkes, “and remember this was a big tournament with teams from all over the world.”
At the trophy presentation on the pitch after the game, Jack Kent Cooke, the Wolves’ owner, left few doubts about his feelings. “When we decided to start soccer here in America, I was warned constantly that this is a dull game,” he said, before asking the crowd, “Isn’t it one of the most exciting games you’ve seen in your life?” to which they cheered approvingly. “There isn’t a writer in Hollywood, there never has been one, who could have written a script for the game tonight,” he added. So enamoured was Cooke with the team that he had borrowed for the summer that he offered $1m to buy the Wolverhampton club outright, an offer the Wolves’ board politely rebuffed.
Despite the incredible final, the league was not the success its founders had hoped. The fans the competition attracted tended not to be Americans converted to the new competition, but immigrants from football-playing countries interested to see what the new league was like. Attendances rarely reached five figures and when the Detroit Cougars (Glentoran from Northern Ireland) played the Boston Rovers (Shamrock Rovers from the Republic) at a rain-drenched University of Detroit Stadium, just 684 people were there to see the home side win.
The NPSL fared little better, even with the benefit of TV contract with CBS, managing average gates of 4,879. The generally accepted break-even figure for the two leagues was 12,000, and losses across both were estimated to have reached around $6m. It was clear that neither was financially viable and so they joined forces to form the more well-known NASL. After some mergers to ensure no two teams were based in the same city, 17 franchises moved forward. Atlanta won the inaugural competition in 1968 but it too was a financial disaster. At the end of the season 10 franchises folded and a further two dropped down to semi-pro football leaving just five teams to head into 1969.
With the league in disarray, Atlanta’s coach Phil Woosnam, a Welshman who had made his name as a player with West Ham and Villa, became the league’s executive director, immediately ordering the teams to cut their budgets to just $200,000 to ensure they remained financially viable. However, given the uncertainty over NASL’s future, the teams did not have full squads and also wanted to avoid another winter of hasty signings. The solution was to split the season into two. It started with a mini-competition called the International Cup in which each franchise was represented by a team imported from England or Scotland. So, Wolverhampton were invited back, this time under the guise of the Kansas City Spurs. They were joined by West Ham (as the Baltimore Bays), Aston Villa (as the Atlanta Chiefs), Kilmarnock (as the St Louis Stars) and Dundee United (as Dallas Tornado). This bought the franchises some time to get their squads in order but it was also hoped that the quality on the pitch would generate interest which would carry over into the second half of the season when the “real” teams took over.
“Kansas City was very different to Los Angeles,” chuckled Parkes as he recalled the smaller, more temperate Midwest city. “But, as a young lad like I was, it was just a fantastic experience to go and see another country.” In their opening match Kansas City beat a Baltimore team including World Cup winners Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters as well as a young Trevor Brooking. A little more than 5,000 turned up to watch (compared to the 25,000 who attended when the teams met in the English First Division just a couple of months earlier) but it was the competition’s highest attendance.
Brooking would go on to be the competition’s joint second-highest goal-scorer, bagging six in eight games but it wasn’t enough to prevent Wolves from winning their second trophy across the Atlantic in just three seasons. Now managed by Bill McGarry, they won six and drew two games, scoring 25 goals along the way. However, their success did little to boost the crowds. When they departed, the real Bays, who also won the second half of the season, could attract an average of only 4,200. It was the best in the league but barely a tenth of what the Kansas City Chiefs would attract to the same stadium on their way to glory in the Super Bowl that year.
“It was new wasn’t it?” said Parkes in mitigation. “It was the first time they’d ever had soccer. When I left Wolves in 1978 I went to play for the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Chicago Sting and the San Jose Earthquakes, with George Best. It was taking off then.” Wolves’ double American triumph may have faded from memory but those early leagues were crucial to the development of soccer in the United States as they paved the way for their more famous descendant.