Stoke City face Columbus Crew in Ohio on July 24th. It’s not the first time that The Potters have visited the Buckeye State…
DAVID Beckham may now be the most famous English footballer in America, but how many of you know that once upon a time Stoke City were one of the standard bearers for the game on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean?
After the 1966 World Cup – the first to be televised in the USA – several American sporting entrepreneurs formed consortiums in a bid to set up a professional soccer league in their country. The North American Soccer League was soon born, and a host of cities in the United States and Canada were handed franchises, and the task of assembling teams to begin a new league in 1968.
When a renegade league – not sanctioned by FIFA but with the backing of a major television network – brought forward its starting date to April 1967, the NASL were forced to do likewise and to get theirs up and running they decided to simply import foreign clubs to represent their twelve franchises, giving them time to build their own squads for the following season.
Stoke City – who were keen close- season travellers in those days – were one of the first clubs to accept the invitation to participate in the new league. The organisers had commissioned a panel of experts (which included Jimmy Greaves and commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme) to find clubs, and Stoke were nominated, primarily because of our “attacking play and pedigree style”!
We were soon joined by eleven other clubs from England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Eire, Italy, Holland, Uruguay and Brazil.
Stoke teamed up with the franchise based in Cleveland, Ohio, an industrial city in America’s north east. The franchise was acquired by the owners of the Cleveland Indians baseball club and their new soccer team – “Cleveland Stokers” – would play in the city’s 60,000 Municipal “Lakefront” Stadium.
The new league – renamed the United Soccer Association Championship - was to kick off on May 26th 1967 and last for seven weeks, with all twelve teams playing each other once and one of their rivals twice. The teams were split into Eastern and Western Divisions, with the top teams in each section meeting each other in an end of season play off tie to decide the title.
The new Cleveland Stokers badge, which incorporated our traditional red and white stripes helped us retain our identity but, apart from Wolves (Los Angeles Wolves) and Shamrock Rovers (Boston Rovers) other clubs had to make do with both a complete change of name and strip for a couple of months. Sunderland became “Vancouver Royal Canadians”, Aberdeen “Washington Whips”, Dundee United “Dallas Tornado”, Hibernian “Toronto City” and Glentoran were known as “Detroit Cougars”.
Italians Cagliari became “Chicago Mustangs”, Cerro of Uruguay “New York Skyliners, Brazilians Bangu “Houston Stars” while Den Haag from Holland had to make do with the long-winded title of “San Francisco Golden Gate Gales”!
Tony Waddington took a sixteen man squad to America, which included recent signing Gordon Banks, England’s World Cup winning goalkeeper. Peter Dobing, who’d scored 19 goals for Stoke that season had to miss the first two weeks of the summer season to conclude some personal business, but one player who missed the trip completely was Calvin Palmer, a popular utility player, who clashed with defender Maurice Setters in a training session as the team prepared for the summer tour.
Palmer and Setters didn’t see eye to eye, and when Setters barged Palmer against a wall in the gymnasium at the Victoria Ground, the pair came to blows. Setters later apologised to his manager, but Palmer wouldn’t follow suit and spent the rest of the summer in England as his team mates were travelling all over America.
Stoke didn’t have long to prepare for the USA Championship, and just two weeks after their final game of the season – a goalless draw at Old Trafford against Champions Manchester United – they were kicking off their American season as the Cleveland Stokers against Washington Whips in the US capital.
Goals from Maurice Setters and Roy Vernon handed the Stokers a 2-1 victory, though the Whips manager Eddie Turnbull was less than impressed with our approach to the game. “Their defensive outlook will hardly encourage our hosts to come out and see what it is all about”, moaned the Aberdeen boss.
The Stokers’ following three games hardly set pulses racing either. Mike Bernard gave us the lead against Chicago Mustangs, only for our Italian opponents to even things up in the second half, and we just about saw off the challenge of Boston Rovers when Setters nodded home Vernon’s cross for his second goal of the season just two minutes from time. A crowd of just 4,128 – five thousand down on the opening match against Chicago - saw the Stokers and Los Angeles Wolves play out a goalless draw in a game littered with missed chances, but we remained unbeaten and topped the Eastern Division with six points from our first four games.
Off the pitch, the visiting players were enjoying the American lifestyle, and were treated like celebrities wherever they went. Wolves’ players in particular were enjoying their stay in Beverley Hills and were often in the media spotlight with Hollywood A-listers. Glentoran’s little-known players spent an evening in the company of Frank Sinatra during their visit to New York.
Things were quite different on the pitch however. The competitive nature of the games took the organisers by surprise and there were constant complaints about the standard of the American officials.
Johnny Colrain, the player coach of Detroit Cougars found himself suspended for three games after being found guilty of punching a linesman whose flag had ruled out what he thought was a legitimate winning goal for his team towards the end of an ill-tempered opening game against Boston Rovers, while in New York on June 11th, the match between the Uruguayan and Italian entrants, New York Skyliners and Chicago Mustangs was abandoned when fans invaded the pitch after trouble inevitably flared between the two teams.
Detroit’s clash with Houston Stars on June 14th disintegrated into a free-for-all after a bad foul by centre forward Danny Trainor on a Houston defender. The game was abandoned after 73 minutes with Stars leading 2-0 when fans stormed the pitch and the Brazilian players began uprooting corner flags to use as weapons against their Irish rivals!
The Italians were at it again just three days later when their match against Toronto City was abandoned following controversy over a quickly taken free kick from which Toronto scored. Chicago manager Manlio Scopigno hauled his players off the pitch in protest at the decision to allow the goal and in the mayhem which followed, fans invaded the pitch and the referee and linesmen were punched and kicked.
Cleveland Stokers themselves didn’t escape the controversy. John Mahoney was sent off for fighting during a nasty clash against New York Skyliners, with the Uruguayans, according to the local press, “playing their typical game, full of bruising tackles, slices, trips, elbows and kicks”.
Trouble flared when Maurice Setters was hacked down and then kneed in the head while he was on the ground. Police were forced to intervene when a mass brawl broke out and once order was restored Mahoney was dismissed by the referee. “It was disgraceful. It was a nice day until they showed up”, said an angry Setters after the game.
Despite all this, there was still some “soccer” to report. By now, Peter Dobing had arrived in Ohio and that coincided with an upturn in Stokers’ performances.
He scored twice on his Cleveland debut – a 4-1 victory over San Francisco Golden Gate Gales and was also on target, along with Harry Burrows and Eric Skeels, in another 4-1 success, this time in Texas, as Cleveland easily saw off the challenge of Dallas Tornado.
In between times, the Stokers had thrown away what looked to be an unassailable lead in the return game with Washington Whips. Leading 2-0 with just fifteen minutes remaining thanks to goals from Dobing and Eastham, they allowed their Scottish opponents back into the game, and would eventually be left to rue Jimmy Wilson’s last minute equaliser…
Despite that setback, the Stokers seemed to be well on their way to topping their section and with 11 points to their name were four clear of Washington, their nearest rivals. However, two defeats in as many days, the first in that bad-tempered encounter against the cynical New York Skyliners, knocked us out of our stride.
The second came in another trip to Texas, this time to face Houston Stars at the magnificent Houston Astrodome, which had been opened just two years earlier. Billed as the “Eighth Wonder of the World”, the Astrodome was the first stadium in the world to have a roof and had also installed astroturf. The Stokers struggled to adapt to the conditions and more cynical South American defending and went down 2-1.
The season was now a month old, but having played eight games and travelled the length and breadth of America, many teams were starting to feel the effects of their gruelling schedule. Though it was an experience of a lifetime and undoubtedly helped to foster team spirit, some players were beginning to tire while others were feeling homesick.
After a good run of results which had seen them move to within a point of Cleveland Stokers, Toronto City’s weary squad called a meeting in which they apparently discussed their plans to throw their next game (against Cleveland Stokers!) and avoid the prospect of extending their stay.
Sure enough, two goals in three second half minutes from Dobing and Burrows gave the Stokers a comfortable victory in their last match at the Lakefront Stadium, meaning we needed just two points from our remaining two games to qualify for the final.
The first of those points came in another ill-tempered match featuring Detroit Cougars, in which full back Tony Allen was sent off for fighting with Danny Trainor (yes, him again!) and goalkeeper Paul Shardlow was forced to leave the pitch with a fractured shoulder. The Irish part timers gave us a real scare, missing three open goals, and we had to rely on a magnificent late save from Gordon Banks to deny the Irish part timers a shock victory.
The Stokers’ final match of the season involved a 5,000 mile round trip to take on Vancouver Royal Canadians, who were managed by a young Bobby Robson. Washington Whips’ 2-1 defeat to Boston the previous day meant that the Stokers just had to avoid defeat in Vancouver, but, despite Peter Dobing’s seventh goal of the trip, we went down to a 3-1 defeat.
The Stokers still led Washington in the Eastern Division on goal difference with all twelve games now completed. However, following protests by the bleating Aberdonians, the organisers had decided that their game with Los Angeles would be replayed if the outcome of the league depended on it. Wolves had made three outfield substitutions when only two were permitted during the 1-1 draw on June 20th, so were forced, very much against their will, to make the 2,500 mile journey for the rematch.
Not surprisingly, the Whips won the game 3-0 to qualify for the final where they met Wolves – in Los Angeles – four days later! An exciting encounter in the LA Coliseum ended in a 6-5 extra time victory for Wolves.
Some consolation for Stoke came when forwards Dobing, Eastham and Vernon were named in the All Stars Team, not bad for a team criticised for it’s defensive outlook!
Though the Potters had enjoyed their experience it had been a demanding trip. Including their flights across the Atlantic, they had covered over 20,000 miles in under seven weeks with just a couple of months rest in the middle of two demanding First Division campaigns.
Cleveland Stokers would last just one more year before folding, appearing with a revamped squad in the newly named NASL in 1968, though it did include goalkeeper Paul Shardlow – sent on loan by Tony Waddington. Shardlow figured prominently for the Stokers who finished top of their division, but lost in a two legged play-off to Atlanta Chiefs. Stokers’ season also included a thrilling 2-1 friendly victory over Santos, captained by the great Pele.
Shardlow (pictured) saved a penalty in that game and was given a tumultuous ovation by the Cleveland crowd. Tragically, he was unable to fulfil his undoubted potential as he collapsed and died from a heart attack on Stoke’s training ground at the age of just 25 in October 1968, less than a month after his return from America.