No team in English football could boast more championships than Sunderland when the Roker Park side lifted its sixth league title in 1936. By 1967, when the Wearsiders were invited to participate in the inaugural United Soccer Association tournament under the guise of the Vancouver Royal Canadians, only Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal had edged past them with seven titles each.
Yet Sunderland’s glory days were slipping. Financial irregularities dogged the club in the late 1950s, its chairman and three directors were suspended for making illegal payments to players, and a first relegation ensued in 1958.
Top-flight soccer returned six years later and Scottish head coach Ian McColl took the reigns in 1965 with the goal of leading Sunderland back into contention for silverware. McColl’s signing of maverick midfielder Jim Baxter from Glasgow Rangers led to a deep division in the side that shone brightly during the club’s North American adventure.
Baxter had produced the signature performance of his colorful career just weeks before the team’s departure for Canada when Scotland trounced England at Wembley Stadium to shatter the reigning world champions’ unbeaten run. The 3-2 scoreline masked the extent of England’s humiliation. Baxter gleefully assumed the role of tormentor-in-chief with an array of flicks, tricks, backheels and ball-juggling.
It took fewer than 24 hours for Baxter to announce that Sunderland’s participation in the USA league was nothing more than a holiday for him and George Kinnell, his hard-drinking cousin and Roker Park teammate. The duo snubbed the team’s breakfast on their first morning at Vancouver’s Georgian Towers Hotel to stock up on crates of Bacardi, Guinness, whisky, champagne and beer to get them through the two-month tournament.
Drinking competitions soon took place, inebriated players tried to knock out the lightbulbs in the hotel’s neon sign, and Sunderland’s physio was summoned to Baxter’s room one morning to help the silky midfielder out of bed. Baxter could not put his feet on the ground because of the broken bottles and glasses strewn across the floor.
Vancouver’s first two games took place without McColl as he stayed in England to recruit players for the 1967-68 campaign. A 6-1 mauling at the San Francisco Golden Gate Gales (ADO Den Haag from The Netherlands) and a 1-1 tie at the Detroit Cougars (Northern Irish part-timers Glentoran) brought scathing newspaper reports in the northeast of England. The head coach was hurriedly dispatched for the Royal Canadians’ home opener against the Dallas Tornado (Scotland’s Dundee United).
McColl’s presence did not deter some of his players from mingling with their opponents on the eve of the game – particularly as an up-and-coming 17-year-old singer-songwriter called Little Stevie Wonder was performing at Isy’s Supper Club a few blocks along West Georgia Street from the team’s base. Baxter, however, was not among them, much to the despair of Dallas inside-left Jackie Graham.
“I’m sorry, pal,” Kinnell told the crestfallen Glaswegian youngster who was anticipating a late night in the company of his hero. “We had to put him to bed.”
Baxter’s natural gifts meant that he was still capable of dictating a game although his flagging attitude and physical condition made those occasions increasingly rare. The 10,053 fans that arrived at Vancouver’s Empire Field on June 7, 1967 were treated to an extravaganza.
Former Hibernian striker Neil Martin continued his knack for scoring against Jerry Kerr’s Dundee United by putting Vancouver ahead on 15 minutes. Tornado inside-forward Billy Hainey brought the visitors level seven minutes before half-time after outmuscling teenage defender Colin Todd and driving the ball past goalkeeper Derek Forster.
The second half belonged to Baxter and Vancouver. Colin Suggett edged the hosts back in front within two minutes of the restart and George Mulhall, another Sunderland player capped by Scotland, grabbed two more goals in the final 20 minutes to seal a 4-1 rout against a Dallas team that had started the summer season with two shutouts.
“The traveling kills you,” Baxter told reporters afterward, perhaps omitting a few other reasons for his disappointing performances in San Francisco and Detroit. “We had a rest, played at home and you saw the difference.”
It wouldn’t be long before the Empire Stadium cheers turned to jeers of disgust as Baxter’s heavy drinking and questionable effort became apparent.
“Summer Of ’67: Flower Power, Race Riots, Vietnam and the Greatest Soccer Final Played on American Soil” by Ian Thomson charts the story of the 1967 USA tournament. Former Sunderland striker Neil Martin is among the players from eight teams that recall the capers, the gimmicks, the celebrity brushes and the games that provided them with the trip of a lifetime.
The book is set for release through Amazon.com in July 2013. For further updates, follow @SoccerObserver on Twitter or ‘The Soccer Observer’ on Facebook.
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