MLS: And The New Red Bulls Head Coach Is… Lester Piggott?

Written by Ian Thomson
Andy Roxburgh and Alex Ferguson, teammates at Falkirk in the early 1970s

The familiar dread that engulfs New York Red Bulls fans on a seemingly annual basis has begun flowing earlier than usual this year.

It has been over 10 weeks since the Major League Soccer franchise’s former head coach Hans Backe was informed that his contract would not be renewed after a third meek play-off exit in succession. Former Scotland midfielder Gary McAllister and Portuguese counterpart Paulo Sousa have been linked to the club, yet former Red Bulls player Mike Petke remains as interim coach as pre-season camp begins in Florida.

“We don’t want to rush to judgment here,” said Andy Roxburgh, the club’s sporting director, on a media conference call Monday. “We just need to be patient a little bit longer.”

New York fans should be grateful that the 69-year-old Scot has not been pressurized into blurting out a name, as Sir Alex Ferguson would undoubtedly acknowledge.

Ferguson and Roxburgh became teammates at Scottish Second Division side Falkirk in 1969. The two Glaswegian forwards quickly formed an understanding that fired the club toward the championship in their first season together. That success brought promotion to Scotland’s top tier and an invitation for Falkirk to appear on the 1970 series of the BBC’s “Quiz Ball” television show.

“Quiz Ball” comprised teams of four contestants representing British soccer clubs competing in a knockout competition to determine the game’s gurus of sporting trivia. Players answered questions to construct passing sequences that led to scoring opportunities, and the team converting the greatest number of chances into goals progressed to the next round.

Falkirk’s line-up of Ferguson, Roxburgh, midfielder Bobby Ford and comedian and celebrity fan Chic Murray eliminated English Second Division winners Huddersfield Town 1-0 in the quarter-final through Ferguson’s goal to set up a last-four clash with Everton. The English champions’ quartet boasted manager Harry Catterick, striker and future F.A. Cup-winning manager Joe Royle, England’s 1970 World Cup defender Brian Labone, and BBC Radio 1 disc jockey Ed Stewart.

Ferguson was again on target, and tensions in the television studio escalated as Everton held a slender 2-1 lead with one question remaining. It was directed at Roxburgh – Who was the winning jockey in the previous year’s Grand National?

The National is Britain’s most famous horse race, attracting bets from millions of people who otherwise never gamble. It is run over four miles with horses required to negotiate 30 fences.

Ferguson was an ardent fan of horse racing. He followed the form guide every day and enjoyed more than the occasional flutter. An equalizing goal for Falkirk was a racing cert, he presumed. Only there was a problem – Roxburgh knew nothing about the sport, and his teammate’s agitated attempts to whisper the answer further unnerved him.

“Lester Piggott,” blabbered Roxburgh, prompting Ferguson to turn a disbelieving and blistering shade of red.

Piggott had been named as Britain’s flat racing champion jockey seven times in the 1960s. He is one of the most successful and most famous jockeys of all time, but he rode in flat races. Piggott rarely entered steeplechase events like the Grand National. Roxburgh had missed a sitter. Falkirk were beaten. Ferguson fumed.

“He was incandescent with rage,” said Falkirk’s club historian and “Quiz Ball” audience member Michael White, according to Ferguson’s biographer Michael Crick. “It was embarrassing how angry Fergie was.”

Roxburgh’s shame was far from over. Falkirk fans serenaded him with chants of “Lester Piggott” throughout the club’s next home game at Brockville Park.

So fear not, Red Bulls fans, if a name is not forthcoming from Roxburgh’s lips. He is trying manfully to avoid another humiliation.