by Doug Thiel / Catch up on earlier Original Sounders stories HERE.
Watching Mike England and an opposing player lift off for a header was a joyful thing. Mike controlled the ball. His opponent, however, usually ended up in heap. Mike was very gritty.
Ditto watching Davey Gillett or Adrian Webster check or tackle a player. Few opponents were thinking payback.
I relished those special occasions observing these three go about their work. It was somewhat akin to watching bumper cars crashing together.
With Mike in the game, players and fans alike felt warm and fuzzy. Jimmy McAlister mentioned, “You look over at Mike, and he’s calm; he looks like he’s going for a stroll in the park. He makes the whole team calm.” And the beat goes on.
Before coming to Seattle, Mike played for England’s Tottenham Spurs and was, among other laurels, recognized as one of best center backs in the world. No one was likely to beat him in the air: few forwards could get by him on the ground.
Even as a young, Welsh schoolboy he began winning honors: a habit that followed him as a pro with the Hotspurs.
One afternoon as Mike was discussing the playing styles of different countries, he stopped in mid sentence and took off on a different subject.
“Soccer to me is without a doubt the greatest sport played today. But I’m biased,” Mike chuckled, “because I earn my living playing soccer.
“And now (1977) Americans are learning what a great joy soccer can be. You can be an ordinary guy (Mike is 6′ 2″); you don’t have to be a giant or a fantastic athlete. You can be a little guy like Steve Buttle and go out against a 200 pounder. The size difference appeals to people.”
“Soccer is basically a very simple game, but the players and coaches complicate it. The ball is played from one person to another as quickly as possible. That is the pure joy of soccer.”
“Movement creates movement in soccer. A good team moves constantly in unison creating, in effect, something out of nothing.”
Mike signed his first pro soccer contract at age 17 and played for twenty years, 17 in England’s top division. During a successful year a team like the Hotspurs would play 76 to 80 matches a year and be on the road much of the time.
“People used to say, ‘Oh, you professional soccer players have about three or four months a year off,’ similar to basketball players here in the States. But different kinds of competitions were eventually introduced so that we were playing two games a week.”
“You play two games a week for nine months a year, then you have a six-week training period to get in shape before the season begins; therefore you had only five or six weeks rest during the whole year.”
“By the time that the season ends you’ve had it. I had hollow cheeks and looked like I’d been out all night. I was so tired and drained emotionally from the big competitions.”
“But winning it all, that was everything. The more games and competitions you won, the more money you earned. Soccer was how I made my living so I had to win.”
Even as a young boy Mike studied the movements and habits of opposing players. It didn’t take him long to realize that his skills were as good as those of the best offensive players.
And by watching other good defenders he learned how to mark the best forwards he played against.
From that experience he made this discovery. By concentrating on the ball and not the movement of a player’s body few players could fool him. Soon afterwards he started keeping book on each center forward he faced.
On the matter of skills, defenders must be very well grounded to defend against the forwards who everyone thinks have all of them.
Mike smiled, paused then said, “In order to settle arguments as to who were the best kickers, forwards or defenders, we’d go to the gym that had a target painted on the wall. We, the defenders, fired shots at the ring on the wall and held our own. That was personal pride.”
“Then after afternoon practice we’d go back to the gym and train for another hour or so whacking the ball against the wall, left and right foot, left and right foot, heading the ball until we were just sick of it”.
The hallmark of a good defender like Mike is that he makes things look easy, or he gives the impression that he has time.
His job depended on efficiency, not flash. In fact, unless you watched him closely, you may not have noticed that he wasn’t doing much at all. A good defender makes it look that simple.
During his 20 year career Mike played against many superb center forwards. Some he hated to play against and a couple he didn’t like personally.
During TV interviews he’d be asked, “Now, which center forward gives you the most trouble?”
It was a fool’s question followed by Mike’s response, ”I would never commit myself. If I told them who gave me trouble, it would be a psychological boost to the guys who did give me trouble. So I used to say that I’d tell them when my career was over.”
But Mike liked playing against Geoff Hurst because, “He never used to score against me.”
That would be Sir Geoffrey Charles “Geoff” Hurst, an English soccer legend. He is still remembered for making his mark in soccer history as the only player to score a hat-trick in a World Cup final.
“He only scored once against me in all the times we played one another. After each game I used to write down in my book what each center forward’s strong points were, what he didn’t like; what he did well; if he was right or left footed, and if he had scored.”
As an aside you may also favor knowing that: Sir Geoff Hurst scored six goals for West Ham in their 8-0 thumping of Sunderland.World Cup winning Sir Geoff’s 6 goals came from scoring hat tricks in both halves. Now reread the previous paragraph.
“At the end of the season I’d tally up their goals. One year only about eight center forwards scored all season, which meant I was doing a good job.”
The name of the game is soccer. It may be simple or not. Never mind. Mike was the best and all Wales, and even England, knew it.
goalWA.net is very pleased to feature an ongoing column that allows writer Doug Thiel a forum to share his memories of our “Original Sounders,” the North American Soccer League (NASL) club that played in the Emerald City from 1974 through 1983. Doug is the author of the 1977 Sounders season highlight book “All the Best,” as well as two new books for youth soccer players, coaches and parents called “The Winners Way.” Click www.cowanparkpress.com to purchase one or both books.
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