Stoke’s Skulduggery Blown Away By Baxter’s Brilliance

Written by Ian Thomson

Stoke City, playing under the guise of the Cleveland Stokers, took to the field at Vancouver’s Empire Stadium on July 9, 1967 knowing that a win against the Vancouver Royal Canadians, represented by fellow English First Division side Sunderland, would guarantee them a place in the inaugural United Soccer Association championship game.

Sunderland's Scottish midfielder Jim Baxter
Sunderland’s Scottish midfielder Jim Baxter

Vancouver could finish no higher than 10th in the 12-team standings. Their campaign had been undermined by boozy shenanigans involving Scottish midfielder Jim Baxter and a clutch of his fun-loving teammates. Their lack of remaining incentive led some players to pursue ulterior motives for the final game.

George Kinnell, Baxter’s cousin and Sunderland teammate, had spent three seasons playing for Stoke in the mid-1960s. The sociable Scotsman had been a drinking companion of Potters captain Maurice Setters and striker Roy Vernon during his time at the Victoria Ground. They met up for a few beers on the eve of the game along with Baxter and his rabble-rousing contingent.

Stoke’s players had been generously compensated during the summer with spending money and bonuses provided by Cleveland franchise owner Vernon Stouffer on top of their regular wages back in Britain. A week’s holiday in Fort Lauderdale was assured if they qualified for the championship decider. Kinnell and his teammates made an offer to Stoke’s self-appointed spokesman Setters – Vancouver would take it easy and allow Cleveland to win in exchange for a cut of the Stokers’ bonuses.

“Setters and company came back and all our lads agreed that we’ll give them a few quid,” said former Stoke winger Terry Conroy. “So we went into the game the next night thinking that it was going to be a dawdle.”

Jim Baxter’s reputation for goading and humiliating the English had been forged by his two goals at Wembley Stadium during Scotland’s 2-1 win in 1963 and by his impudent ball-juggling act four years later as the Scots destroyed the world champions on their own hallowed turf. Baxter’s days of genius were increasingly fleeting as his vices wrecked his fitness, but lying down to the English played no part in Baxter’s ethos.

The former Rangers midfielder had been subjected to jeers from the Vancouver crowd during his languid, insipid displays throughout June. It was his time to take center stage.

Baxter brought the 6,012 fans to their feet after 25 minutes with a scorching long-range drive that whistled past Stokers goalkeeper Gordon Banks. He toyed with the title-chasing visitors, splitting them apart with his precision passes and keeping the ball from them with his nonchalant footwork. Baxter, with his socks languishing around his ankles, doubled Vancouver’s lead seven minutes before half-time with his second goal of the game.

Cleveland midfielder Alan Bloor quickly handed the visitors a lifeline and the interval gave Tony Waddington’s men a chance to regroup and re-strategize. The Stokers took control after the restart and Welsh midfielder John Mahoney fired the ball into Jim Montgomery’s net for what appeared to be the equalizer on 62 minutes. Canadian referee Dan Kulai disallowed the goal as he had blown for an earlier infringement.

Vancouver promptly surged down the field and regained their two-goal advantage when 18-year-old forward Colin Suggett beat Banks after another piece of Baxter wizardry created the opening. The Royal Canadians had won for the first time in eight games and had finally given the British Columbia public a performance befitting a top-flight English side.

“Baxter was unplayable,” Conroy recalled. “Jim just put on a show for everybody and left them wanting more, and unfortunately that was it for us. We were kidded.”

Cleveland’s third loss in five games meant that qualification for the United Soccer Association final now lay outside of their control.

“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. It recalls the capers, the gimmicks, the celebrity brushes and the games that provided its participants with the trip of a lifetime.

The book is available in Kindle and paperback formats via Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and in other countries.

 

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