FC Seattle captain Dennis Gunnell is greeted by Sunderland’s Gary Bennett. The referee shall remain nameless. (Courtesy John Hamel)
FC Seattle captain Dennis Gunnell (R) is greeted by Sunderland’s Gary Bennett. The referee shall remain nameless. Photo courtesy of John Hamel.

Frank MacDonald’s series on FC Seattle’s UK tours in the late 1980s concludes.

Honeymoon in Bournemouth

It was the opportunity of a lifetime, only to be trumped by something still more momentous.

Just after learning FC Seattle owner Bud Greer would be rewarding his team with a season-ending excursion to England, all-league midfielder Geoff Wall realized there was a problem. Wall was to wed his high school sweetheart a few days earlier. When the players would be boarding the plane for London, he planned to be honeymooning in Hawaii.

As the season progressed and the departure date neared, Wall experienced a change of heart. He and Ellen would still be married, all right. But much of the honeymoon would be charged to Greer. The newlywed Walls would be going with the team to Bournemouth instead.

“We talked about it,” recalls Wall. “We weren’t swimming in money; (the team) offered to pay for part of it. She knew a number of the guys from our teen years, so she fit right in. So we decided to go.”

Of course, Ellen wasn’t the only wife on the two-week trip. Jeff Stock and Greer were accompanied by their spouses as well. “She fit right in. Absolutely, she was a good sport,” Wall declares, adding, “It really was a proper honeymoon. It was a real fun trip with some good friends.”

No fun in Sunderland

In 10 matches over two tours, in 1987 and ’88, the Storm earned three draws and proved competitive in the losses. Yet one defeat was more bitter than the rest. In the penultimate stop of the ’88 tour, Seattle played second division Sunderland at Roker Park. It was a comparatively big and boisterous crowd, and as if Black Cats needed more help, the referee was obliging.

Two debatable penalties were awarded, but it gets worse.

On the first spot kick, Seattle keeper Jeff Koch made a diving save, only for Sunderland to convert the rebound. Strangely, while Koch lay sprawling on the ground after the goal, the penalty taker screamed at him.

“He was a big, hairy monster and he got in my face, swearing at me, and I wondered why he was so angry,” Koch says. “At the postgame party, someone told me he hadn’t missed a penalty in like five years. Evidently I’d screwed up some kind of streak.”

A little later came another penalty call. Koch saved it again. Then a whistle. The referee claimed Koch moved–a call that can be made on just about any penalty, but rarely is. The Monster made good on the second attempt and Sunderland was on their way to a 3-nil win.

At full time, as the teams left the pitch, Seattle forward Peter Hattrup unloaded on the officials. “A few of us had some choice words,” confirms Hattrup. Says Jenkins: “The referee was a nightmare. I really can’t blame him.”

Aghast that this American dared question his officiating, the referee then summoned Hattrup to the officials’ dressing room. “I was called in. I apologized for my language, but not the direction of my rant,” relates Hattrup. “They threatened to report me to the authorities in Seattle. But who were they going to call?”

“There was no way we were going to win that game,” Jenkins concedes.

Back-up plans

Without the luxury of a full squad and with the Storm playing matches every other day, fielding a proper lineup proved problematic by the second half of the tours.

“I was the only goalkeeper (on the trip),” notes Koch. “If I had a stinker, there was nobody to replace me. Fifteen minutes into our last game I dislocated my thumb. The ball was real hard, and their shots were much, much harder on a consistent basis.

“Anyway, I couldn’t do anything,” he explains. “It was killing me. We had nobody, so they shot me up with Novocain, and I played the rest of the game and later ended up in a cast for six weeks.”

At QPR, Seattle was thin at central defense due an injury. David Gillett, once a centerback for the Sounders, was along on the trip.

“So I asked Dave, ‘Are you up for playing?’ Great. Just do your stuff and kick some people,” says Jenkins. However, Gillett strained his groin during warm-ups, forcing Jenkins to do some last-minute shuffling. Jenkins just asks him to deliver some words to the team in the pregame huddle.

“He disappears and comes back about 10 minutes before we come out,” says Jenkins, “and he’s got a glass of whiskey in one hand and a smoke. So he puffs and his hand flies away to the side, very dramatic.

“So with the drink in one hand he says, ‘Boys, I’ll be up in the directors box so don’t spoil my f****** day.’ That was his talk to the team. I was expected some encouraging words or something. It was so funny. Anyway, we didn’t spoil his day; we drew 2-2.”

Amongst the crowd

The 1987 tour ended with a night match at Portsmouth. Earlier in the day, however, the Storm planned to see the sights, first the Crown Jewels up in London, followed by a stop at Stonehenge en route to Pompey.

Peter Fewing says it was a tense atmosphere, given it was a friendly.

“Their field had barbed wire, a moat and then a second fence,” says Fewing. I thought that was pretty cool. But a policeman there told us, ‘No, you don’t want to go there.’

The Storm didn’t endear themselves to the Pompey fans. Stuck in a traffic jam outside of Stonehenge, the team bus was running more than an hour late, finally rolling up to Fratton Park near game time.

“We were all changing in the coach and got off the coach in our uniforms,” recalls Jenkins.

“We came right through their crowd, from the parking lot, through the gate and onto the field,” adds Fewing. “I remember saying my mom’s from Manchester and a guy spit at me.”

After an abbreviated warm-up of 20 minutes, the match ensued. Two Americans scored–Goulet for Seattle, John Kerr for Pompey–but the Storm fell, 3-1.

Fond remembrance

Nearly 30 years on, a discussion of the overseas tours brings on a flood of memories. Of the then-artificial turf surfaces at Oldham and QPR. Of a chance airport encounter between baseball superstar Reggie Jackson and Stock, whose father once was a coach for Jackson’s Yankees. Of spontaneous midnight talent shows in the hotel lounge. Of going to the old Wembley to watch England vs. The World, featuring Diego Maradona in his prime.

With each passing year, the players, now approaching middle age, further realize how these were experiences that can never be replicated. Back then, Americans were akin to aliens. Now they are regularly playing in Europe and appearing in World Cups. It was all new, for Seattle players and the Brits who watched and opposed them.

“They probably figured they could get 10 goals pretty easily,” figures Koch. “But it didn’t happen that way.”

Says Jenkins: “What I didn’t want to happen was to go out there and get beat 6- or 7-nil. But that never happened. We were competitive in every game. It was such a good experience we decided to go back.”

For certain, in a small yet significant way, FC Seattle gained American soccer a measure of newfound respect. For those Britons such as Jenkins and Gillett, who had first ventured to the U.S. to play, then stayed on to coach and develop players, it was validation.

Soon enough, says Gillett, the British clubs knew they would be tested. “They’re not going to waste a preseason game, selling tickets and doing everything for a real game and waste it on a group that was shit.”

Most of all, there is a profound sense of gratitude for their owner, Bud Greer. For seven summers he kept outdoor professional soccer, however modest, alive in Seattle. Yet his most precious gift was that of exploring a new world, or more appropriately, the Old World.

“It was unlike anything we had encountered before,” claims Rick Blubaugh. “We were grateful and knew the invaluable experience gained transformed us into men.”

“Those trips for me were the top,” Koch confirms. “It was uncharted territory at the time.”

“The trip of a lifetime,” comments Fewing.

“God bless Bud,” remarks Jenkins. “It cost him a fortune. It’s a shame he was 30 years too early. He was a very generous man.”

What Greer provided went against a rushing tide that was sweeping pro soccer from the U.S. landscape at the time. The NASL was dead. The MISL was beginning to shed teams. When everyone else was retrenching, FC Seattle was stepping forward, planting a flag for the future.

“To be lucky enough to play for Bud who wants to take a team to England, to sponsor the entire trip for the experience of it, and for us to be in the right place at the right time,” recounts Hamel.

“We knew we were fortunate and we knew it was an opportunity,” he affirms. “It’s something that makes you want to get back in the game, because the game’s been good to you.”

A version of this article first appeared at the Frank MacDonald blog on October 15, 2015.

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