Dave Wagstaffe, Early U.S. Soccer Champion And Icon, Dies At 70

Written by Ian Thomson

Dave Wagstaffe, the man who almost became North America’s first marketable soccer icon, has died at the age of 70 following a short illness.

The fiery English winger seems an unlikely figure to have been pinpointed as the potential face of American soccer. Yet that outcome so nearly occurred in 1967, four decades before David Beckham’s arrival in Major League Soccer, after Wagstaffe and his Wolverhampton Wanderers teammates became the country’s first professional soccer champions.

Wolves, like Beckham, had landed in Los Angeles. They were competing in the inaugural United Soccer Association league under the guise of the L.A. Wolves franchise. The players were attending a pre-tournament exhibition game at the Memorial Coliseum when a burly bodyguard approached Wagstaffe’s seat.

“Mr. Jones would like to see you,” the minder said.

Mr. Jones happened to be Davy Jones, the English lead singer of the Emmy Award-winning pop band “The Monkees.” Jones had grown up playing street soccer with Wagstaffe in Manchester and had recognized his old friend when the Wolves team was introduced to the crowd during half-time. The pair chatted briefly and Jones suggested that the entire touring party visit the Columbia Pictures studio where he was filming the band’s television show.

Who better to market soccer around than a player with friends in Hollywood? And real friends too. This was no Tom Cruise or Will Smith relationship.

“David Wagstaffe was just a fantastic player, but he was also great in the dressing room,” former Wolves defender Les Wilson told The Soccer Observer earlier this month. “He always looked after the lads. He introduced us all to Davy, who enjoyed our company so much that he virtually camped out at our hotel.”

Rubbing shoulders with celebrities became a regular occurrence for the largely working- and middle-class players imported from Europe and South America to participate in the USA league, especially for Wagstaffe and his L.A.-based teammates. Yet the Wolves players never neglected their main task of winning games.

The West Midlands club wrapped up the USA’s Western Division title and progressed to a championship showdown with the Washington Whips, represented by Scottish club Aberdeen, at the Coliseum on July 14, 1967.

It remains the greatest soccer final played on American soil.

Los Angeles and Washington had already met twice during the eight-week summer league and previous feuds quickly resurfaced. The Whips’ Jimmy Smith wrestled the combustible Wagstaffe to the turf in the opening minutes as they pursued a loose ball, and defender Jim Whyte chased the tricky winger over the running track and partly into the stand at one point as their battle escalated.

“The crowd went daft because of this,” Whyte’s defensive partner Ally Shewan said during an interview for the book “Summer Of ’67: Flower Power, Race Riots, Vietnam and the Greatest Soccer Final Played on American Soil.”

“They really thought this was fantastic.”

Both teams had found the net during a tempestuous opening half-hour when referee Richard Giebner wielded his authority to reduce the visitors to 10 men. Smith quarreled with Wagstaffe once again and Washington’s goal scorer was sent off after lashing out with a forceful kick.

“Dave Wagstaffe and I had been jostling each other,” Smith told reporters after the game. “Then when he came upfield, he spat in my face. I kicked him. I guess the referee figured things had gone far enough and tossed me out.”

Los Angeles was now heavily favored to become America’s first soccer champions, particularly with Wagstaffe rampaging down the left wing. He peppered Washington’s penalty box with crosses aimed for his talismanic center-forward Derek Dougan. Wolves scored four times, but the short-handed Whips matched that total in the closing seconds to force extra-time.

Washington even forced sudden-death overtime with another last-gasp goal on 120 minutes before Shewan’s heartbreaking golden own goal settled the outcome in Wolves’ favor. USA Commissioner Dick Walsh’s post-game presentation concluded when Wagstaffe, Wolves’ No. 11 and the last player to step forward, received his individual winner’s trophy.

Wagstaffe receives his trophy after winning America's first pro-soccer championship with the Los Angeles Wolves.
Wagstaffe receives his trophy after winning America’s first pro-soccer championship with the Los Angeles Wolves.

“He was something special,” former Aberdeen forward Ian Taylor told The Soccer Observer. “What a player he was.”

So what about the possible marketing deal?

Cooke, a cable television magnate who also owned the Los Angeles Lakers and a 25 percent stake in the Washington Redskins, sensed a forthcoming demand for soccer jerseys and cleats. He initially approached fellow Canadian Les Wilson, Wolves’ young defender who had been signed after the Molineux club spotted him playing for a Vancouver All-Stars XI during its 1963 tour, to join his potential business.

Wilson, who turned 20 on the week of the USA final, politely declined given his youthfulness and his focus on establishing himself in head coach Ronnie Allen’s starting line-up first.

“So he asked David Wagstaffe if he would be interested,” Wilson told The Soccer Observer. “It just goes to show how these men had the foresight to realize how much money could be made in soccer equipment.”

Cooke told Wagstaffe that he would be to soccer what Fred Perry was to tennis, the winger revealed in his autobiography Waggy’s Tales, and that he would be a household name in America within two years. Wagstaffe decided not to pursue the opportunity after returning to Wolverhampton for the start of the English season.

A fourth-placed finish during the 1970-71 campaign saw Wolves qualify for the following year’s revamped UEFA Cup competition. Wagstaffe and Dougan inspired Bill McGarry’s side to the final where they were beaten over two legs by Tottenham Hotspur. The veteran attacking duo also featured in Wolves’ League Cup Final win over Manchester City in 1974 before leaving Molineux in the twilight of their respective careers.

Wagstaffe’s fierce temper never subsided. He became the first player to be shown a red card in England while playing for Blackburn Rovers on the day that cards were introduced in October 1976.

“Everyone at Wolves was desperately saddened to hear of Dave’s passing,” the club’s chief executive Jez Moxey told Wolves’ official website.

“Our sincere condolences go to Dave’s partner Val, their children, Gary, Mandy and Scott, and Dave’s wider family.”

 

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