Interview with Clive Toye

Clive Toye
Clive Toye. Image courtesy of The Soccer Apprentice.

When it comes to talking about the most influential people in U.S. soccer in the last century, Englishman Clive Toye would be comfortably ensconced in the Top 5. Along with Welshman Phil Woosnam, he saw the potential for soccer stateside when few other people cared, and the two of them almost single-handedly kept the NASL alive during its early years. Through hard work, determination, and an overwhelming desire to force the beautiful game on to the consciousness of the American people, they succeeded in making the league a success and bringing soccer to millions.

Toye was instrumental in almost all of the defining moments in the NASL. He was there at the start in 1967 as the GM of the Baltimore Bays, in 1969 when only five sides would compete after short-sighted owners pulled out. He brought Soccer back to New York City with the Cosmos, and brought the financial muscle of Warner Communications into the game. He chased down Pele over 5 years and eventually signed him, as well as Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto, George Best (almost), and an Italian striker who will remain nameless… He was there when the Cosmos, the team he had built, turned into a Frankenstein’s Monster of a team, and shamefully forced him out. He worked wonders and built successful teams in Chicago and Toronto, and was there when the NASL finally bowed out in 1985, despite his best efforts to save it.

He was there arranging coaching clinics for thousands of school kids, he was there when they painted the pitch with green paint for Pele’s debut, and he was there when one of the biggest draws at a Cosmos press conference was a chimpanzee on loan from a New York zoo.

Even after the NASL folded he still wanted to make Soccer a success, and set up a new incarnation of the American Soccer League so the game still had a base in America. He brought the likes of Flamengo, Juventus, and America Cali to the country to play games, and finally he worked for CONCACAF, helping nurture Soccer over all of North America, Central America, and the Caribbean.

As a Rosbif, I doubt whether any player, coach or administrator could match his achievements in the late 20th century. He convinced Pele to come to America by saying that “if you go to another country, you can only win a cup or league, if you come to America, you can win a country”. Pele came and conquered, but I think it is only fair to pay tribute to one of the key men who made it possible, and who laid the foundations for the MLS, and for the future of the game in America.

How did you go from being chief Sports Writer for the Daily Express to General Manager of the Baltimore Bays in the NASL? 

Clive Toye: My life’s ambition had been achieved on the Express – and we sold 4.5 million a day then – the World Cup won and another 32 years to a gold watch and farewell. No, I could not stand the thought, there must be something else.  English clubs were very badly run in those days from the PR and marketing point of view and I made a proposal to Chelsea which the chairman Joe Mears and his son Brian approved but the other three board members said no. So, I had met Bill Cox when the Express sent me out to North America in ’61 and he was the leader in the pro soccer movement and I helped Bill a lot – just to get the stories – and then got more involved and then said bugger it, we’ll go for a couple of years, get soccer started and learn about us marketing etc.

What was the standard of football like in the early days of the NASL?  wasn’t too complimentary during his CBS commentary?

No, it wasn’t great. Danny gave no thought to the fact that everything was put together in no time at all, what the hell did he expect?

When you and Phil Woosnam were sat in your office in the locker room at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta you both seemed to share a vision of how to out soccer on the map in America?

Not sure we had time to share a vision. As I said in my book A Kick In The Grass’ Phil – a Welshman – had this feeling of mission in life. I just had the feeling of ‘you bloody well will like soccer’.

What was your blueprint to try and achieve this?

Get the kids playing. Get soccer in everyone’s backyard. Get a league and grow it gradually. Get the World Cup here asap. Get owners in New York with money, and get Pele.

Was there any time in those difficult early years where you thought about returning to the UK? What kept your spirits up?

At one point I was offered the job as General Manager of Leicester City– then in Division 1 with Len Shipman, Chairman of the league, as Chairman. I was very tempted but Lamar Hunt asked me to hold off – and wrote to Len Shipman about it – for a few months to see if we found the right New York owners. We found Warner Communications, I became GM and that was that.

The NASL was based on a lot of imports from England and around the world. Do you feel that American talent was given enough space to play? Especially when the imports tended to be only on loan deals.

Americans were not yet playing the game. If anyone had said Americans would be playing in top euro clubs, they’d have been carted off to the loony bin. But we had a rule – three Americans must be on each team on the field at all times. And slowly they came through. More than the MLS has now!!!!

Attracting fans and journalists to the games was one of the major challenges for teams in the NASL. What methods did you use to get people to give football a go?

In short – confronting them at all times in all ways. Not letting a PR opportunity to go to waste – not letting a school go without a visit – not letting a community miss the chance of a coaching lesson – not letting a day pass without creating a moment of contact.

How did you find Steve Ross as an owner? He seemed to be someone who started something on a business level but gradually became infatuated with the game – sometimes at the risk of losing perspective?

I want to get Pele, I said. Who’s he, he said? Ok, go and get him he said, so I did. But Warner Communications wasn’t just Steve Ross…..there were the Erteguns (Ahmet & Nesuhi) and all was not rosy in the garden. One day Jay Emmett, Ross’ number 2, said “go and talk to Nesuhi, he’s feeling left out, talk about the players for next year”. So, having already made up my mind about needing two, I went to see Nesuhi and he said he had a list of about 11 players. I thought I would keep him happy with a chat about it. He looked at the list, said we’ll sign him, him, him, him, and him. Trouble was, three of them were left backs. Then Steve Ross became enamoured with that blank-blank-blank Chinaglia and lost all perspective on all things at all times. Ludicrous. I had great support for six and a half years, then it all became idiotic. So I said “I’ve run this club for all those years on my terms; we either continue that way or there is no point in my staying”, and Steve Ross said ok then, off you go.

How much of the blame for the failure of franchises could be laid at the owners’ feet? A lot of them didn’t seem to have a long-term vision about their teams?

All of it was the owners’ fault, the owners who didn’t have a bloody clue and wanted the obvious – TV and franchise fees – and the traditional American ways of doing things.  The good guys like Lamar Hunt, Bob Herman, Sonny Werblin, George Strawbridge and Walt Daggett were overwhelmed by the jackasses.

Prior to Pele, you came close to signing George Best, even calling a press conference to announce his arrival. Why didn’t Best end up at the Cosmos?

I had a verbal agreement with George. Went to Old Trafford and did a proper deal with Man U – Tommy Doc (Tommy Docherty – United’s manager) and Les Olive, the secretary – 10,000 quid for every game George was available to play. So I went to see George to finish it off and could not find him. Tommy Doc sent Pat Crerand with me to all of George’s haunts but we could not find him. So I left a message – I’ll be at Ringway (now Manchester Airport) at 11 am tomorrow, see you there or else. Well, a year later he had signed for the Los Angeles Aztecs and we played them in a pre-season game in Tempe, Arizona and there was George, lining up for the national anthem. So I went up behind him, wrapped my arms around him and said, so that’s where you got to, you little bugger. He turned around and said oh, hello Clive and we smiled and that was that. I was able to get in one of my better lines when I signed Pele and one of the media asked….”what about George Best?” I said “why sign George Best when you can sign the best?”

You were famously the man who brought Pele to America after many years trying. Can you tell us about how it all came about?

Phil and I decided that had to be done way back in 1969, all we had to do was find the New York owners with money and then persuade Pele. First meeting was in Jamaica in 1971, before I’d even signed one player for the Cosmos.  The conclusive meeting was in Brussels in 1975 which is when he finally said he would sign. I have his signature on a piece of hotel stationery, two years he said for so much money. A few weeks later we met again Rome and I put the final offer to him…..less money for three years; I needed him in 1977 when Giants Stadium would be built. “Clivee”, he said, he always pronounced the final e….”Clivee, my English is not good”….”yes it is fine”, I said….”no”, he said “in Belgium I said I would sign for two years, you offer me less for three years. My English is not good”. Anyway that was it, he signed in Hamilton,Bermuda a few weeks later.

At the risk of sending your blood pressure up to dangerous levels, can you tell us a little about Giorgio Chinaglia and his influence on the Cosmos?

Shithouse. Lying bastard. Human garbage. How about that? And as Jay Emmett said to me years later – what was it between Chinaglia and Steve Ross? Buggered if I know, said he, choosing his words carefully.

After you left the Cosmos in 1977 you became President of the Chicago Sting. How did the Sting compare to the Cosmos? They seemed to have problems attracting fans and getting the right stadium.

We didn’t have a stadium, which was part of the problem. Soldier field was undergoing renovation, so we had to move between the two baseball stadia, Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park. We did ok, got crowds up in the 30s, but I didn’t like Chicago and the owner Lee Stern wanted to do things his way. That was fine, Lee was a decent guy….as I said to him the other day….you’re the only person I ever worked for that I still speak to.

Were you in any way bitter about your exit from the Cosmos? It seemed that as someone who had been there from the start you had become sidelined by factions within the team, that had turned into something of a circus.

Bitter? I could have shot the bastards.

Did you feel that Phil Woosnam’s policy of expansion for the 1978 season was a good idea? Many people feel that this decision was one that unwittingly set the NASL on a downward spiral.

Yes, Phil and I had many agreements and some disagreements. Expansion was one of them. I was totally against it, as were some of the owners…..but not enough of them. So the good guys in ownership were soon to be outnumbered by the idiots, and just because you’re a millionaire doesn’t mean you’re not an idiot.

During your time in the states you signed and saw a lot of English players. Which players stood out for you, both on the pitch, and in making a contribution off it?

English coaches first…….Gordon Bradley, Tony Waiters, Bob Houghton, Rodney Marsh, Ron Newman as player and coach. Then, dear me, so many did something to help….Barry Mahy, Steve Hunt, David Fairclough, Trevor Francis, Matt Dillon, Richie Blackmore, Bobby Moore, Gordon Banks…..

After 2 years at the Sting you quit and moved to the Toronto Blizzard? Was it more of the same problems, or was football in Canada a different proposition?

Toronto was great, We had crowds as high as 40,000-plus. Also, it was only an hour’s flight from my home in New York and Cuban cigars were legal. We worked on Canadian players, ended up reaching the Soccer Bowl – the final – in 83 and 84, playing as many as eight Canadians. They were the same players who qualified for the World Cup finals in 86, Canada’s only time.

By the early 1980’s the indoor game had seemed to have stolen a march on outdoor soccer. How did you feel about the indoor game? Initially you seemed quite supportive?

Yes it was bad that it came….caused us to pay attention to a load of rubbish.

What in your opinion caused the collapse of the NASL? Too rapid expansion? The failure to get the 1986 World Cup?

Too much expansion, too many idiot owners.

After the death of NASL league President Howard Samuels in 1984 you stepped into the breach at a crucial time. How difficult was that time trying to keep the league afloat, and what was the substance of the 43-page report you issued to help keep the game alive?

A hopeless situation. Howard Samuels had messed up some important legal and financial timings, Cosmos ownership had allegedly gone from Warner Comms to that Italian player we mentioned earlier and there wasn’t anything there to save.

When the NASL collapsed in the spring of 1985 did you think that Football’s time was up in North America?

By no means, We had built a huge foundation for the game as a game. Millions of kids playing, girls as well as boys. People knew about Soccer, about the World Cup, about the great clubs. They saw it on TV, they played it in the parks. When we started people asked….”what’s the World cup?”

In 1987-88 yourself and Chuck Blazer were integral in the establishment of the American Soccer League. With the collapse of the NASL what steps would be taken to ensure the ASL survived?

We started a semi-pro league so that something would be happening. I also formed Mundial Sports Group and we promoted really big tournaments all over featuring teams such as the US national team, Juventus, Colombia, Flamengo,Benfica, America Cali etc etc etc.

What do you feel about the state of football in America in 2011? Is it time that the MLS changed its single-entity structure and gave owners the ability to invest at their own levels, or are owners still too inclined to take risks?

It’s now an American game. I’ve Just driven home with my grandson and three friends with them having a big discussion about Barcelona and Messi. Also these days the country takes it for granted that Friedel and Dempsey and a host of others play professionally in top leagues. Of course the US should have the World Cup again. Today there are so many games are on TV you could spend all day watching, compared to back in 1970 when Phil Woosnam and I could not find a single bloody TV station to carry the 1970 World Cup games for which we had paid the huge sum of $15,000 for the rights.

Being a CONCACAF Hall of famer, and also having worked for CONCACAF as special advisor how do you feel about the current situation with FIFA and the involvement of Jack Warner & Chuck Blazer in corruption claims?

I shake my head at that question. I know that Chuck did what he knew was right – the rest is still a right bloody mess as I write this and I do not know how it will end. I do know that I was Sir Stanley Rous’ ghost writer when he was president of FIFA and, as I said in my book ‘A Kick In The Grass’, as far as I’m concerned he was the last honest man in that position. I am no fan of ‘Septic Bladder’ and won two law suits against Bladder and FIFA some years ago.

You seemed to be a lot more pragmatic than Phil Woosnam who was prone to hyperbolic statements about the NASL. How would things have turned out if you had become the NASL commissioner, and he had gone to launch the Cosmos?

Disaster. I could not have stood the owners all day, Phil could not have put up with all the public presence and media attention we needed. That was one advantage I always had – as an (ex) journalist, I always got on well with the media, didn’t think of them as enemies, as so many people do. And I knew what they needed….stories. And I knew stories! So I told them, I fabricated them, I gave the media a good, warm welcome and reason to come and see us.

There are many stories regarding the Cosmos – can you tell us a little about Harold the Chimp, painting the pitch for Pele’s debut, Shep Messing’s unique way of attracting press via VIVA magazine, and “the Italian” threatening to throw the NASL lawyers out of the window when the Cosmos weren’t admitted to the 1985 NASL season?

It wasn’t long before the media would turn up in strength any time I said we’d be having a press meeting so we mentioned a new signing and there, in uniform, was Harold the Chimp, signed for the day from Jungle Habitat. He did a great job until the call of nature caused him to pee all over the pile of press releases.

Shep was his own PR man. Posed nude for Playgirl, I think it was, and had to put up with much locker room sniggering over his attributes. Then he sued me, for $1500 I think over some contract dispute. Got lots of media media attention, of course. He got free legal advice, from his father, and when we had the meeting to get the depositions I recall it ended in great hilarity. We bump into each other occasionally and always have a good laugh about something. Not quite the same legal meeting when whatshisname failed to come up with the Cosmos legal guarantees/performance bond etc for the 1985 season. When we had the formal meeting required by law to throw the Cosmos out of the league, he threatened to throw the lawyer out of the window, rather high up it was, too. Until then, there was a chance of the league surviving – I had owners ready in Charlotte and Houston and was, in fact, in a meeting with new Vancouver owners when the wire service story came through suggesting the Cosmos were not going to post the bond. End of Vancouver interest.

Why did the teams seem to stop using the tried and trusted methods for attracting fans, and start using gimmicks? Ron Newman worked so hard in Atlanta, yet when he was Coach at the Fort Lauderdale Strikers they were the most gimmicky team around (entrances, concerts after the games)?

Disagree totally. We all used every “gimmick” we could think of but we called them promotions. Concerts afterwards – The Beach Boys, the Fifth Dimension, big names I forget now. We had armadillo races, parachute landings, stagecoach races, half-time kicking contests for a new car. Anything and everything to get a mention, to get attention, to get someone to come to the game and enjoy themselves so they might come back again.

A version of this article first appeared at the Les Rosbifs website on June 7, 2011 and later at NASLHistory on November 22, 2011.

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