How a teacher became a football player and then took the game across the Atlantic: Phil Woosnam, who has died aged 80
When the United States beat Honduras in the semi-final of the Concacaf championship in Dallas on Wednesday night, ensuring their appearance in Sunday's final against Panama, Jürgen Klinsmann's players were setting a new record. No US soccer team had ever won 10 matches in a row. Despite David Beckham's tearful recent farewell to Major League Soccer, the game continues to make progress in its most resistant major market. Yet neither Beckham nor Klinsmann might have been given the platform on which to perform had it not been for the efforts of Phil Woosnam, who died last week, aged 80.
It's safe to say they are unlikely to make any more like Woosnam. An international footballer who put his university degree first, then began a teaching career and didn't turn pro and become a star of England's top tier until he was 26, he later emerged as one of the visionaries paving the way for an invasion that, almost half a century later, remains a work in progress.
It was Woosnam who, with the former Daily Express journalist Clive Toye, established the real beachhead in the US when, just as England was celebrating the 1966 World Cup victory, they crossed the Atlantic to exert a powerful influence on the birth of the North American Soccer League. Woosnam served as the NASL's commissioner during the boom years of the 1970s, and remained heavily involved in the sport even after being voted out of the job in 1983.
His departure from the UK had left fans of West Ham, Aston Villa and Wales cherishing the memory of a gifted inside-forward with a pronounced football intelligence. He might not have been the quickest thing around the park, but in those days speed of thought rather than speed of foot distinguished the great creative players. His contemporaries included George Eastham, John White, Alex Young and Jim Baxter: not a bad standard against which to be judged.
"A wonderfully skilful player" is how Rodney Marsh remembers him. Marsh, who played for the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the late 1970s before spending several years as their head coach and then chief executive, knew Woosnam well during their years in the US, but they had first met when Marsh was 14 years old and attending a coaching session for promising schoolboys at West Ham's training ground. Woosnam was one of the senior players who came along to help out.
His entire career in the old First Division was played out in claret and blue: first with West Ham from 1958-1962 and then with Aston Villa from 1962-66. Although Marsh never played against him, he watched him often enough to be an admirer. "He was two-footed, he could go past a defender on either side, and he was a wonderful passer of the ball," he told me on the phone from his Florida home this week.
Marsh struggled to identify a player of a more recent generation with whom to compare him. "A slim Matt Le Tissier – that might be as close as you'll get," he said. "Not a quick player, but with a fantastic football brain."
Born in the village of Caersws in Powys in 1932, Woosnam won international caps for Wales at schoolboy and youth levels before studying at Bangor University. During his national service he played for the Army alongside Manchester United's Duncan Edwards and Eddie Colman; he won 15 amateur caps for his country and appeared for Manchester City's reserves, although a contract was not forthcoming.
He moved south to embark on a career as a maths and physics teacher at an east London school, while playing for Sutton United and Leyton Orient as an amateur. He was voted England's amateur player of the year in 1955 and the first of his 17 senior caps came in October 1958, just after Wales had returned from reaching the World Cup quarter-finals in Sweden and shortly before he signed his first professional forms with West Ham.
He scored 29 goals in 138 appearances for the Hammers and 24 in 106 for the Villa, but his real contribution was the assistance he gave to his high-scoring centre-forwards: Malcolm Musgrove at Upton Park and the oft-maligned but hugely prolific Tony Hateley at Villa.
Then he made his big move. Despite the famous win over England in Belo Horizonte in 1950, the United States remained terra incognita for football and Woosnam appeared to be taking a lunatic gamble when he joined the Atlanta Chiefs as player-coach in 1966. They were playing in the unsanctioned National Professional Soccer League, but two years later that body amalgamated with the Fifa-recognised United Soccer Association to form the NASL. The Chiefs won the new league's inaugural championship, with Woosnam named coach of the year. His reputation was made.
A brief term as the head coach of the US national team ended when, in 1969, he was appointed commissioner of the league, overseeing its growth from the original five teams to 24 in 1978. By that time it had welcomed Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff, Giorgio Chinaglia, Charlie Cooke, Gerd Müller, Bobby Moore and many others, and was at the peak of its popularity.
Marsh credits Woosnam and Toye for recognising that the game needed to be modified in order to appeal to US audiences. "Toye was the promotion and marketing man, while Woosnam was the ex-player who had a great knowledge of football," he said. "Phil was part of the group that persuaded Fifa to waive its rules and permit the use of the 35-yard line for offside, with shootouts to settle draws. All the world-class players who came said it was the best thing they'd ever done. They loved it."
Overexpansion was among the factors that led to the NASL's collapse in 1984, but Woosnam remained active in attempts to relaunch the game. He became a US citizen and played a part in the successful bid for the 1994 World Cup, which served as the launch pad for today's MLS.
"Phil was a pioneer, a pied piper if you like," Marsh said. "He was a highly intellectual man who could talk for days on a wide range of subjects – but football was what he really loved. He was a very engaging man, too.
"If you were a fan having a half of shandy in a bar after a game and you asked him what he thought of it, he wouldn't blank you like they would today. He'd spend the next 10 minutes talking to you about it." A football man, then, first of all. And a football missionary with a place in the history of the global game.