#WFC1982 – Ross Jenkins & Washington Dilpomats

Major League Soccer
DC United v Colorado Rapids
Sunday, 17th August 2014, 7pm
Robert F Kennedy Memorial Stadium
Entrance $45, Programme $free
Distance (from Vicarage Rd) 3711 miles, Attendance 12814
Rattling about inside the Robert F Kennedy Memorial Stadium, DC United clearly look out of place. There is no doubt they have an exceptionally talented squad, nor that their passionate fans want to take the club forward but in Washington, football – and I mean soccer – still feels like “the other sport”; a distant cousin.
???????????????????????????????Host to some fantastic matches at the 1994 World Cup finals, the colossal RFK Stadium is situated east of the city centre, in a spacious, purpose built setting, with great transport links. It’s big enough to cater for any capacity gridiron crowd however, unfortunately when the Redskins moved out in 1997, what remained wasn’t really made perfect for MLS. In fact, it’s hard to see that much has changed since the NASL – North American Soccer League – last put is its professional roots down in the capital.
Back in 1981, the very last NASL incarnation of the Washington Diplomats graced the RFK Stadium.  Though the original NASL Diplomats side had folded a year earlier, in the close season of 1980, the Detroit Express relocated to DC and renamed themselves after their predecessors. With attendances slipping away, what followed was a single high profile season, sadly finishing without any great success.
Chaired by Jimmy Hill and managed by former Watford boss, Ken Furphy, the new Diplomats started the season promisingly with “everyone on the squad, all on board the team effort” then Dips PR Director, Ken Droz, informed me. By mid-season the squad was also bolstered by the return of Dutch master Johan Cryuff. “I was hugely thrilled as the press coverage was sensational.” Ken continued “at that time there was no baseball team in DC, so we had front page stories of every game.”
Dips 81 Head Ross JenkinsRecounting the side Ken told me “We had some good players, and also had a tremendous victory over the Cosmos, at a home night game, that had something like 35,000 fans at.” By coincidence it was against NY Cosmos that season, that Ross Jenkins would score what he has since described as his “best goal ever; a half volley from the edge of the area”.
Having broken his ankle against Swansea in December 1980; when the injury didn’t heal quickly, Jenkins met Hill in London and was soon heading across the pond “to “get some football in and, get [his] fitness back.”
In a lengthy conversation about American soccer back then, Ross explained how the games were “not as strenuous” which afforded him the time to “blow the cobwebs away”. A traditionalist at heart – there are many nuances he’d rather hadn’t entered the modern game – Jenkins saw the then NASL end-of-game shoot-out as little more than a gimmick. That said, Ross talked of enjoying his US experience “immensely”; he also singled out the likes of skilful Trevor Hebbard as a real force within their Dips squad, and a pleasure to play with.
Dips 81 Home TeamAway from the pitch the younger members of the squad regularly hung out in bars like the capital’s Sign of the Whale or, Tramp’s Discotheque out in Georgetown. Determinedly professional to his sport, Ross however was always more of a family man. Living across the river in Virginia, the Jenkins’ family would spend much of their free time exploring their new country. Ross jovially added, “It’s hard enough to look good on a football field, let alone look good at a disco.”
At the end of the American season, the Dips had narrowly missed the play-offs and within a month Jenkins was back in the starting eleven for Watford’s 3-1 win at Chelsea.
Steve Winter, PR consultant to the Diplomats for that season, summed up the season “The same financial mismanagement that killed the team in Detroit, did them in here in Washington.  The team needed to win its final regular season game in Montreal to make the playoffs, which would have provided the owners with one more home game and likely enough money to keep the team afloat but they lost and never played another game.”
With some humour, Ross described his time in American as akin to The Jetsons. Comparing the NASL and MLS, both Ken and Steve also pointed to some incredible highs but, went on to surmise that the then model was simply unsustainable. Steve explained “I absolutely loved the NASL because it was exciting and dynamic.  The Soccer was fun to watch, the players friendly, personable and accessible and the European stars loved being treated like royalty without having to deal with mobs of fans… but the beauty of MLS is that they are here to stay.”
Clearly soccer in North America has come a long way since Ross’ rehabilitation; youth coaching has doubtless improved but, the question now is have Joe public really embraced it?
Like Ross I wouldn’t have wanted to find out without my family so, settling into our seats in the RFK Stadium, my son Nicolas and I engaged in an evening game of spot the difference.

140817 MLS DC United v Colorado Rapids (207)w

With little riding on the game, the crowd was much smaller than usual however; across the pitch from us, a boisterous ultra-style crowd weren’t going to let anything dampen their spirits. They began the evening unfurling a banner reading “EVERY WASHINGTONIAN DESERVES A HOME” and concluded by singing devotedly throughout the next ninety minutes. In return, DC United repaid them with a fantastic winning performance.
140817 MLS DC United v Colorado Rapids (209)wWith Talon the mascot dancing atop the old dugouts, the home side were one up within 15 minutes. Luis Silva slipped his marker and collected a superb defence-splitting through ball. Cutting inside the last defender, he then coolly chipped the keeper. With every other chance of the half spurned, the heart-warming interval saw former United star, Clyde Simms – who retired due to kidney disease – campaigning for the National Kidney Foundation.
???????????????????????????????Once the tractor watering the playing surface behind Clyde had finished its business, the teams broke from their huddles and renewed hostilities. Six minutes in – whilst Nicolas distracted me with food requests – Dillon Serna stole in and equalised for Colorado.
Convincing everyone about us the lead had been restored, when almost immediately, Silva hit the side netting. Some divine skill soon saw Fabián Espíndola strike the crossbar with a deft lob and, Silva was flagged fractionally offside before driving the ball home. As fierce complaints rang out about us, across the way the reaction was even more animated. Dead rubber or not, this game clearly mattered to the home support.
Sean Franklin then first shot wide before – moments later – setting up Silva for his second of the night. With the end-to-end game really hotting up; ten minutes from time, persistent Taylor Kemp beat three down the left before driving a low ball across the penalty area for the onrushing Chris Rolfe who, sliding in with enough force drove the ball home, gave himself such bad cramp he was soon substituted off. In the dying minutes, Espíndola hammered home a fourth in on the break and saw his next effort well saved by Clint Irwin, before a back post header from visiting Deshorn Brown brought some parity to the score line.

140817 MLS DC United v Colorado Rapids (194)   140817 MLS DC United v Colorado Rapids (221)

Eventually turning to leave, we noticed on the wall to our right, plaques reminding us all of the rich yet short history of this MLS club. Amongst other silverware, having won three of the first four MLS Cups, the foundation for this Washington club couldn’t have been better.
Debating our experience on the train back to our hotel, it was acknowledged that the food sellers and constant conversations about certainly made this soccer game closer a baseball experience than those of the Baseball Ground however, to the loyal soccer fans inside the RFK Stadium, DC United matter.
140817 MLS DC United v Colorado Rapids (111)wSoccer in the US is no longer a game of gimmicks and glamour but more one of familiar sporting endeavour where chants were sung with gusto, tactics debated in bars and, the chap at the counter understood the importance of us having a real ticket to keep.
Assessing soccer now Steve concluded, “With European-sized stadiums (18,000-22,000) they [MLS] found the formula that has worked; they have grown steadily but cautiously and the US soccer fan has grown and matured with the league.  While the US fan truly understands that MLS is not Serie A or Premier League, there is a place for MLS and it’s the right place.  It’s a solid league with a strong base of support across all its markets and most important of all, the fact that teams own and manage their own buildings – most of them anyway – makes easy team financially viable, stable and successful.”
One truly hopes DC United can soon find their own home and build on from there… if nothing else their fans, players and staff deserve it.
Final score: DC United 4-2 Colorado Rapids
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Because these articles are initially appearing in the 2014-15 Watford FC matchday programmes, they will consequently have a delayed publication on here.
Ross Jenkins programme (1)   Ross Jenkins programme (2)
Posted in #WFC1982, 2014-2015, Major League Soccer | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

#WFC1982 – Neil Price & Walton and Hersham FC

Pre-Season Friendly
Walton & Hersham FC v FC Egham Town FC
Wednesday, 5th August 2013, 7.45pm
Stompond Lane
Entrance £5, Programme £none
Distance (from Vicarage Rd) 24 miles, Attendance 35 (headcount)
Twenty years ago – in leafy middle class Elmbridge, Surrey – Neil Price was preparing for his second full season in football management. His first had been a huge success but – having emerged from some high profile pre-season matches with praise – the big question was now ‘where do we go from here?’

140805 PSF Walton & Hersham v Egham Town (64)w

Three seasons earlier, as one of the experienced Staines Town players, Neil had first been approached about taking on coaching duties. Admitting he’d not really sort out such a post, Neil described his fortune “I sort of fell into the role”. Whilst he inherited the group of players, Neil told me he “really wanted to push the club forward”. At the time Staines sat mid-table, one division below the Conference. Such investment however was not made available and so, seven months later – in a “thanks-but-no-thanks” parting – Neil walked away.
140805 PSF Walton & Hersham v Egham Town (1)wTaking this experience on board, 18 months on Price entered Stompond Lane far better equipped to deal with the rigours of management. Discussing this Neil spoke thoughtfully of the “huge tradition and history” at Walton & Hersham. Expanding further Neil told how even though support was low and “there wasn’t much money”, he felt an instant affinity for The Swans.
Ever the ambitious one, Neil was convinced he could get this club – who had finished mid-table for what seemed like an eternity – going forward again. There wasn’t a exact goal however, Neil was adamant that with hard work and loyalty he could bring success back to a club that boasted both, recording breaking back-to-back league titles and the infamous graffiti “Walton & Hersham 69”, which bequeathed the name to Jimmy Pursey’s punk band.
Before that 1993 pre-season, not even contemplating failure, Price described how he’d “used all my professional and non league contacts to build a team”, affably revealingly he resorted to “beg, borrowing and stealing”. Whatever his efforts entailed, the result was certainly impressive.
140805 PSF Walton & Hersham v Egham Town (102)wWithout knowing what had inspired their success, the current club’s Senior Vice President, Mervyn Rees, recounted how Price was “a very good manager” before detailing, “During Neil’s first season we went out of the major cups straightaway, which I think helped in our eventual promotion. The team was young and hardworking, with a few experienced heads, and they ground out results without being spectacular.” In that season Nigel Callaghan was one of those experienced heads, helping out his long-standing friend; a year later Steve Terry, Francis Joseph and even Neil’s brother Josh would be instrumental.
When I asked Neil where his inclination for management came from, he hinted that Sam Ellis at Blackpool had had some influence but unquestionably, two others had given him everything else.
Arriving at Vicarage Road a green 14 year old, in 1977, Tom Walley was the man who led him to adulthood. Neil describes to Tom as both his “mentor” and “the biggest influence over my career”. Though admitting he once fell out with Graham Taylor – the other notable figure – he recognises that like most of us in headstrong youth, he didn’t always see the bigger picture. Explaining now how, “You couldn’t fail to be touched by such a man. He was a genius.”
140805 PSF Walton & Hersham v Egham Town (140)wHaving found it distracting to both play and coach at Staines, Neil wouldn’t contemplate playing at Walton. Instead he exhausted himself on the touchline, “kicking every ball” in those two great seasons. Making himself popular with the fans, in the first season they won promotion to the Isthmian League Premier Division; finishing the second safely in mid-table, Walton & Hersham remarkably swept all aside before exiting the FA Cup to Swansea City, in the 1st Round Proper.
Walking round Stompond Lane – from former ball boys and fans to club volunteers – everyone I spoke to fondly recounted two things of that cold November day; that the crowd was far bigger than the one declared and, that the (Elmbridge) Swans had played fantastically well. Narrowly losing to two goals “in the first and last minutes”, Walton & Hersham’s small squad were knocked out with heads held high. As his star rose further, inside their young manager so did his ambition to take the club onwards and upwards. It wasn’t to be. As befor,e the club couldn’t support Neil’s ambition, so in disappointment he walked away.
Watching the current crop of players’ warm-up – for this their final pre-season game – it was eerie how the club once again finds itself at a crossroads. Standing in the sports ground on Stompond Lane one easily senses the feelings Price had upon entering. It’s an arena that feels grand and imposing and steeped in history. Clearly it’s also a ground that could once again hold large crowds for fantastic matches but sadly, the local council don’t want this.
140805 PSF Walton & Hersham v Egham Town (10)Situated in a very affluent neighbourhood of Walton; the residential value of Stompond Lane is astronomical. The council know this all too well and, by not investing in its maintenance, they’re forcing the issue of a move – including that of other tenants, Walton Athletics Club – to waterside, to ground share with Swans local rivals Walton Casuals in a new, but as yet unbuilt, stadium.
Stompond Lane has been a sporting institution for well over a century, and though the athletes would clearly like a new track, no one appears to be jumping for joy at leaving.
140805 PSF Walton & Hersham v Egham Town (23)wLooking at the footballers going through their paces – past runners training on the track – many similarities raced through my mind. Like Price, current manager Tony Reid is passionate about their success. Sending the majority of the first team off “to train at the park”, tonight was all about trialling new talent.
In a 1-0 win, the outcome was evidently successful. Tonight Gary Ross, Marvin Farrell, Ashley Thompson, Charlie Stagg, Josh Bonnett and Louis Glace-Palmer were the experienced heads. All were big and strong, and each knitted together youngsters looking to impress both staff and supporters equally.
140805 PSF Walton & Hersham v Egham Town (115)wThey’d begun with a huddle, as Reid expounded the aims for the game. Finishing, they’d been congratulated by returning first teamers and coaches alike. During the match, shouted instructions had echoed about the tree-lined stadium; on the pitch, pride filled the void. Throughout, Reid and his assistants gave clear instructions to their charges; as substitutions were made praise was heaped on their efforts. As Mervyn had said of another era “The team was young and hardworking, with a few experienced heads”.
As Egham were restricted to long range efforts, Ross wasn’t busy, however LGP worked hard in the middle whilst, Bonnett impressed on the left. Looking only about fifteen, one youthful new face – playing at number 8 – was a very exciting prospect too. Whilst tonight I’d struggled for names without a team sheet; The Swans faithful are striving for their future.
Sportsmen and women of all ages enjoy their time here, local schools use the facilities too but, Stompond Lane isn’t in the best of health. Pointing opposite the main stand, Mervyn told me he’d “spent many happy days under there in my youth” but, now the wonderful covered terrace has now been boarded up by the council. Surviving on small crowds is still a struggle, especially as only its loyal volunteers – filled with pride of family connections, local ancestry and nostalgia – are working to keep this club going.

140805 PSF Walton & Hersham v Egham Town (67)w2

Like the tenets “all or nothing” Neil Price brought to Stompond Lane, one can still witness such ambition and loyalty willing this grand old club on. As with the “well connected” young man who strode through the gate twenty years back, one really hopes they succeed.
Final score: Walton & Hersham 1-0 Egham Town
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Because these articles are initially appearing in the 2014-15 Watford FC matchday programmes, they will consequently have a delayed publication on here.

Neil Price programme (1)   Neil Price programme (2)

Posted in #WFC1982, 2014-2015, pre-season friendly | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment