The Man From Belfast
How I ever came to be playing in a reunion game for the Portland Timbers against the San Jose Earthquakes in the early 90's is beyound me. I'd never played for Portland during their NASL days, yet there I was looking across the halfway line at Goerge Best. My first sighting of Mr Best was that morning in the hotel bar during breakfast. He ambled in carrying a copy of James A. Micheners novel 'Alaska'. There was a hush that decended as one might expect with the arrival of Soccer royalty. The book might have been for effect, but I was impressed. Like most of the great players I have met, he was smaller than I imagined but had that presence. The unkept hair, the full beard and that mercurial Irish accent. A real gentleman who stopped to say hello to everyone, even if he had to pretend to recognize old teammates and opponents. I'm sure he had been out on the town the previous night visiting old haunts, but showned no sign of it as one might expect from someone with his renowned reputation for the nightlife. I only remember three things from the game itself. Not the score. One was 'Crazy George' banging on his drum, then scoring a tap in from a Clyde Best cross and most vividly, having George Best standing next to me in the box on a corner. I wouldn't say he was marking me as I was like a deer in headlights just staring at him, bolted to the ground. The post game festivities were replacing the liquids and George held court. Never refused an autograph or picture, didn't seek to be the center of attention but happy to shoot the breeze and polite to a fault. I can't say enough good things about the man from Belfast and even though it was only a reunion game, priveledged to say that I saw George Best play in person, was on the same pitch. Special memory for me.
I've worked for, interacted with some truly atrocious people in the world of Soccer. Phil Rawlins is not one of them. In fact, Phil is the North Star that everyone should aspire to. Originally from Stoke in England, Phil is a former Director at his beloved Stoke City and found his way to the US after selling a medical software company he built from scratch. My first interaction with Phil was at a USL convention in Tampa, Florida. I had just been appointed GM for Umbro Soccer and was introduced to Phil by one of our employees. After five minutes of conversation in the lobby of the Tampa Hyatt I felt like a candle next to a light bulb. What struck me was Phil's presence. He was a hundred percent present in our conversation, radiating energy and a sponge for information. Wasn't so much interested in hearing his own voice. When he spoke he was a man to be listened to. The USL at the time was a struggling third tier professional soccer league, very much still finding it's legs and I recall vividly what Phil said to me years later as we sat next to each other in a massive hotel ballroom in Denver waiting for the USL Board of Govenors meeting to start "Rich, remember when we could fit everyone attending this meeting in a taxi, now look at us". I didn't tell him at the time but truth be told he was a major factor why the USL was in that massive ballroom and where it had evolved to. He was the Leagues head evangelist and his success had inspired many. As a side note sitting on the other side of me that day was the new, young owner of the Portland Timbers. He introduced himself as Merritt Paulson. The second time I met Phil Rawlins was in Austin, TX. The Austin Aztex of the USL had their offices in a strip mall, was sparsely decorated and couldn't have been more than two thousand square feet in size. Non descript to say the least. We sat across from each other in what constituted the conference room and became business partners. Umbro became the 'Official Kit Sponsor' of the Austin Aztex. A two year deal (2010 and 2011). I definitely overpaid and Phil ran rings around me as we worked out the terms. I probably would have paid much more had I been pressed. I was there to invest in Phil, he was the Austin Aztex and Phil was somebody who reeked of ambition and excellence. Thankfully, he proved me right many times over. Biggest challenge that Phil and Aztex had was a credible home field. They eventually settled on House Park. Owned by the Austin Independent School District. Artificial turf that had more stripes than a zebra. Prone to flooding and it's only redeeming quality was it's close proximity to House Park BBQ where the Aztex supporters group gathered before each match and marched from. Ironic that the same issue that plagued Phil and Aztex back then, lead to the current franchise owners suspending their participation in the USL until an adequate Soccer facility can be built in Austin. Phil through his Stoke connection had enlisted the former English pro, Adrian Heath as his Coach. Austin was where I first met Adrian also, he became and still is a good friend. Prone to bouts of animation I remember one night he knocked a bottle of red wine all over me at dinner. Didn't miss a beat completing his story as I tried to salvage my shirt and before I knew it a replacement bottle was on the table. We spilt a few beers at Fado's Irish bar in Austin during that year. I loved to drag stories out of Adrian about his remarkable career, the games and the personalities. Privately, I referred to Phil and Adrian as 'Butch and Sundance', they were a great partnership and did evertything with guns blazing. I really enjoyed the time I spent in Austin visiting with them and looked for every excuse to be in their company. It came as no surprise to me when Phil announced in 2010 he was moving his franchise to Orlando. Bigger market and Phil had done his homework identifying a key geography that was on Don Garber's radar as a prospective MLS market. Phil had a vision and the end game was an MLS franchise. When I eventually got around to asking Phil how he decided upon moving and subsequently Orlando it was a quite simple expaination. He knew acquiring an existing team in a minor sports market came with baggage and he needed a clean start. Sitting at his kitchen table one night with family and close friends he took a blank piece of paper and jotted down what the components of a successful soccer club would be if you started one from scratch. Then Phil asked his good friend Gary Mellor at Beswick Sports in Stoke to identify the market in the US that had the highest probability of being awarded one of the next MLS franchises. I recall what Phil said to me after he got the call from Mellor on what market it had to be. "I was in my car and Gary called. I pulled over and before he could say a word I said something like; just tell me it isn't Florida. There was silence and Gary said it's Florida, it's Orlando". I never asked Phil about how hard it was to leave Austin. He is a man who is very active in any community he has lived and it must have been a difficult period. Yet true to form, Phil did it with grace and professionalism. I won't dive too much into the Orlando City birth and subsequent success because it's well documented how the club has evolved into one of the most valuable franchises in the MLS. One night I do recall was the 2011 USL Pro Final that saw Orlando play at home (Citrus Bowl) versus Harrisburg. Orlando were terrible for a good part of the night, scoring a late equalizer to earn a 2 - 2 draw and then after extra time won on PK's. I presented the trophy that night. No way Orlando should have won, but Phil is a man of destiny and it was as so many things have been on this ride, just 'meant to be'. Recently I read that Phil is to step aside from running the day to day operations at Orlando and become 'Life President'. The scope of work and achievement is incredible and done in such a short time frame. When he needed help, he sought out the expertise and was not afraid to sell a financial stake or let his ego stand in the way of progress. A realist who embraces and lives life to the full, he's probably got another spectacular adventure in mind. I'm very honored to have been in a small way involved in his journey. A truly exceptional, infectous and class individual.
Sir Robert William " Bobby " Robson CBE
I met Sir Bobby shortly before his death. I was sitting at a round table in the Chairman's Lounge at SJP enjoying the pre - match meal before the Tyneside Derby between Newcastle United and Sunderland. This was 2009. Mike Ashley, the owner of Newcastle United was sitting on my right and to my left was John Pratt, a good friend. Mike was always nervous before any game and with the stakes being so high that afternoon was lost in his own thoughts. Suddenly the lounge went quiet and then applause broke out. A man sitting in a wheelchair with a full head of white hair, wearing a large fedora hat, heavy coat, a Newcastle United scarf and with a travel rug covering his legs was wheeled in. Sir Bobby Robson had arrived. In August 2008 Sir Bobby had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and his response was " I am going to die sooner than later. But then everyone has to go sometime and I have enjoyed every minute ". He died just under a year later. Sir Bobby was wheeled over to our table and inserted directly next to the right of Mike. What first struck me about Sir Bobby at that moment was not his frail body but his strong chin and radiant smile. Mike and Sir Bobby exchanged pleasantries, clearly they had met many times before. I sat there with my mouth wide open humbled to be in this man's presence. " Richard, pleased to meet you " I muttered. Sir Bobby nodded. He had played for and later manged England taking them to the semi-final of the 1990 World Cup. Our best run in the World Cup since 1966. Close to 600 club appearances for Fulham and West Brom. As a manger he won many trophies not only in England but in Netherlands, Portugal and Spain. Not many people will know that in 1967 he accepted a 3-year deal with Canada's Vancouver Royals as player-manger but that ended as soon as it started when Fulham offered him a contract to be their manager. Born in 1933 in Sariston, County Durham he was a 'Geordie' first and last. You may have thought anyone facing the challenge he was, probably so full of medication might not have had the greatest appetitie. Not so. A plate was put before him with a hearty steak and all the fixings. Sir Bobby devoured it. Between bites Sir Bobby was chastising Mike about his handling of the club, rapport with 'Toon Army' and offering up advice on 'the way forward'. Mike Ashley who is no shrinking violet sat there and was fixated on Sir Bobby, listening to every word as though his life depended on it. Nodding every once in a while, with the odd " Yes, Sir Bobby ". I was transfixed and the only move I made in those twenty minutes was to put my mobile on silent. Niall Quinn, the Chairman of Sunderland came over to pay his respects to Sir Bobby and he also got a few choice words of advice. Presently, Sir Bobby indicated he was done and wanted to take his seat for the match. In unison those not standing, stood and applauded. Possibly the greatest 'Geordie' of all time took his leave, raising his hand in acknowledgement. If I recall it was a 1 - 1 draw that afternoon. I remember nothing of the game, but I remember every second of those twenty minutes two seats away from an icon. For all of you fans who support your club week in week out, through the good and bad times, let me leave you with a few more choice words from Sir Robert William " Bobby " Robson CBE " What is a club in any case? Not the buildings or directors, or the people who are paid to represent it. It's not the television contracts, get out clauses, or the marketing departments or executive boxes. It's the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city ".
Adrian Heath is truly one of the good guys. I can talk to Adrian all day and night about his life in Soccer. A storied career in England with clubs such as Stoke and Everton saw him win the top honors that the game offered. You can hear the passion flow through him as he recalls certain games, moments of sheer madness and the personalities he played with. Playing days over there was never a doubt that Adrian would pursue a managerial career. Although I'm not sure he ever thought that would involve a team in Austin, TX and then a relocation to Orlando, FL to be the Head Coach of the Orlando City Lions. Adrian will coach those Lions in the MLS. We will watch him pace the sidelines, be wildly animated and contest every tackle as though he were on that field. No doubt he will wear his customary black pants and white shirt. Never asked him if that is superstition. He is one of the games characters and I am very proud to call him a friend. As a player you never wanted to play aginst him and as a coach you want to play for him. He can be fiery, but that's because he loves the game that has given him so much and he won't stand for anyone to give anything less than their best; himself, players and even referees. As we roll into 2016 I can only see even more success on the horizon for the man from Newcastle - Under - Lyme and his stature in the game this side of the pond matching the marker he put down in England.
Joe Kinnear - Part 1
I first met Joe during the 2012 / 2013 season, a home game against Southampton. He'd been the Toons Director of Football for a few months and had managed to keep a relatively low profile after his disasterous interview where he announced his own appointment on BBC Sport . I was late to the game, missed the pre match meal and socializing in the Chairmans Lounge. It was an uneventful first half, typical Pardew tactics of 'wait and see', don't loose the game early on. The half time whistle blew and off everyone scrambled back to the Chairmans Lounge. Joe was already appreciating a nice glass of red wine, coming across as more of a sommelier than a Director of Football at one of the most hallowed clubs in England. I was 'officially' introduced to Joe who eyed me up and down once he realized I worked for his boss, Mike Ashley. "Nice Drop this, put your nose in that" he said offering up his glass. "Drop of the Gods", I responded and looked for my Guiness. We started to disect the first half and I offered up that I thought the Toon should have had a penalty to which Joe drained the last of his vino, rolled his eyes and in that cockney accent which seemed so out of place in the Northeast said " Went down like a labrador in front of a fire". Thankfully my Guiness was sitting patiently on the table otherwise it would have been sprayed everywhere. So, that was how I met Joe. Now whenever I see a labrador I shout "Penalty". Much more to come on Joe and how for a couple of years I wished I was a Geordie.
Joe Kinnear - Part 2
Hatem Ben Arfa was out of favor with Pardew and he had one year left on his contract. Hatem was useless doing the dirty work, tracking back when Newcastle lost the ball. In the modern game I suppose he is a 'luxury'. Joe asked me what I thought of Hatem and I said he was the type of player that was great to bring on in the last 20 minutes to run at tired defences. Feeling very pleased with Myself for what I thought was an astute analysis I asked, "What do you think Joe?" As I waited for some profound and profetic words from Newcastles D of F he offered " Could nutmeg a horse in a telephone box". And that's why he gets the big bucks. Joe is as blind as a bat, but refuses to wear his glasses and only to examine a bottle of wine. I was told the following story by someone relaible inside the club. Joe went down to St Andrews to scout a few Birmingham players and was rather impressed with the left back that night. Sitting next to his counterpart from Birmingham he made a favorable comment and asked if he would be prepared to send the player out on loan to Newcastle. To which I am told his counterpart politely pointed out that said player belonged to Newcastle and was out on loan to Birmingham. Not really one for the details Joe and his downfall in the end.
Warren Barton - Forever a Geordie
I first met Warren at a garden party believe it or not. British Consulates residence in LA. Part of Britweek I believe it was and one of many invitations over the years from Andrew Lewis MBE who became and still is a good friend. Somehow I found myself in a group of people that included Patricia Heaton (Ray, Malcom in the Middle etc), Julian Stone (General Hospital), Warren and a scruffy English guy who said he did something with 'Games'. 'Call of Duty' I thought Warren whispered in my ear or was it 'Duty Calls'. Pointing, I pipe up, "Just through those doors to the right". Thought he was excusing himself to go to the restroom. Turns out that 'Call of Duty' was the name of a game this fella had released two days earlier and already sold 100M copies! Became and believe is still the best selling 'Game' of all time. Who knew. Warren started in the mailroom at Arthur Anderson while playing in the English Fourth with Maidenhead until Joe Kinnear splashed 300K to bring him to join the 'Crazy Gang' at Wimbledon. I always pointed this fact out to Geordies who railed on Joe for not getting any transfer over the line at Newcastle."He discovered Barton" I exclaimed and then the classic Geordie humor would kick in, "Even a squirrel finds a walnut once in a while". From there 'Super Kev' who was putting together 'The Entertainers' at Newcastle paid a British record transfer fee of 4M for a defender. Warren was a right back, one who bombed forward at every opportunity. Not the norm at the time. Typically right backs were there to fill in the teamsheet and kick left wingers to stop them crossing balls for the 'Big Man'. That was when teams did embrace true wide players and a mountain at number 9.To this day you mention the name Warren Barton on Tyneside and there is instant name recognition and you hear the respect in the voices of the 'Toon Army'. He is featured as part of the 'Legends of Tyne' beer collection, a recognition he is probably more proud of than his 170 apprearances for Newcastle and his 3 England caps. I jest. Now the only runs Warren makes are to the touch screen monitor in the Fox Soccer studio. Bet he didn't learn how to work one of those at Arthur Andersen. He's an astute analyst, not the typical 'Parrot' you get on Soccer broadcasts and shows over here who repeat what they read or heard. Warren seeks to tell you something you don't know. Was gutted when Fox lost the EPL to NBC. And what a great job NBC have done. Now Fox have to raise the ante again and I'm really looking forward to seeing their new format and set production as they launch coverage of the MLS and US National Team in 2016. As a player Warren left everything on the pitch, every game, wherever he played. I still don't think we've seen the best of him on the box. I told him that last time we talked a few months ago. That was just before Warren mentioned he was looking for an agent to represent him and I offered my services. "I can't afford a pay cut was his response" and that is when I truly knew he was a 'Geordie'.
Bill Wash - Mr 49er
"Running a football franchise is not unlike running any other business: You start with a structured format and basic philosophy and then find the people who can implement it" - Bill Walsh. How many books on self motivation and leadership have you read? Well this is the only ONE you need to read fom cover to cover. Bill Walsh was a transformative figure in the history of the NFL and his advanced leadership concepts transformed the San Francisco 49ers from the worst franchise in sports to a legendary dynasty. Filled with anecdotes from throughout his career Walsh gave a series of interviews prior to his death that have been captured in this book. Walsh's journey was an arduous one, but his dream was big. From the Oakland Raiders and the San Jose Apaches to the Cincinnati Bengals, San Diego Chargers and Stanford University until his dream came true as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. His ferocious competitive instinct, and his singular brilliance as a strategist, organizer and team builder produced historic results. The blueprint for his kind of leadership is revealed in this book. Regardless of if you run a Pro Franchise, a Fortune 500 company or a convenience store his final words of wisdom will inspire and enlighten you. Enjoy!