North America’s Forgotten Soccer Pioneer

Written by Ian Thomson

Keller, Balboa, Lalas, DeMerit, Beasley, Harkes, Ramos, Reyna, Jones, Wynalda, Donovan and Dempsey – a starting 11 and substitute that commonly attract the description of North American soccer “pioneer” or “trailblazer.”

One name that never makes the list is Les Wilson, yet the Vancouver native forged a reputation as an invaluable member of one of England’s most storied teams and won a North American soccer championship before many of the players listed above were born.

Canadian defender Les Wilson during his Wolves debut at Middlesbrough on Dec. 18, 1965 (Photo courtesy of Les Wilson)
Canadian defender Les Wilson during his Wolves debut at Middlesbrough on Dec. 18, 1965 (Photo courtesy of Les Wilson)

Wolverhampton Wanderers, English champions three times and F.A. Cup winners twice after World War II, were on a summer tour of the United States and Canada in 1963 when the team’s legendary head coach Stan Cullis and assistant Joe Gardiner spotted Wilson playing for the Pacific Coast Soccer League’s All-Star team in Vancouver. Cullis invited the 15-year-old to train with his side at Brockton Oval in the city’s Stanley Park and he extended the offer to a one-month trial back in England.

“The one problem was my dear parents,” Wilson told The Soccer Observer. “They would not let me go as they insisted I had to graduate from high school at the university entrance level the following year.”

Cullis sent another invite the following spring and Wilson arrived at Molineux for pre-season training on July 15, 1964. He shared lodgings on Newhampton Road with Wolves’ rising star Peter Knowles, a familiar face from Wilson’s short training stint in Vancouver. He soon impressed the coaching staff by outrunning his roommate Knowles, England national team full-back Bobby Thomson and renowned fitness fanatic Dave Woodfield in a cross country race.

An immediate setback arrived for Wilson on the afternoon of Sept. 15 when he answered his front door to the Wolverhampton Express & Star newspaper’s soccer reporter Phil Morgan. Cullis had been sacked after 16 years in charge, Morgan said. Wolves had finished in England’s top three in eight out of nine seasons before tumbling to 18th in the 22-team league in the 1961-62 campaign. A disappointing 16th place in 1963-64 and another slow start the following autumn saw Molineux attendances dropping below 15,000.

“Peter Knowles told me that he had heard on excellent authority that Mr. Cullis and the Wolves coaching staff were going to sign me to a professional player contract,” Wilson said.

“Five days later, Wolves general manager Jack Howley called me into his office and I signed as a very proud professional player.”

Seventeen-year-old goalkeeper Phil Parkes signed for Wolves on the same day as Wilson. It was to be the beginning of a long relationship between two men that were born four days apart in July 1947.

* * * * *

Relegation to the Second Division could not be avoided after Cullis’ shocking departure, though Wolves regained their top-flight status in May 1967 before moonlighting as the Los Angeles Wolves during that summer’s inaugural, and ultimately only, United Soccer Association tournament. The North American summer league offered Wilson’s parents, English emigrants from Manchester, and his brother Garry a chance to see him in action.

Wilson’s family drove for 26 hours to watch the Wolves’ 1-0 loss to the San Francisco Golden Gate Gales (represented by ADO Den Haag from the Netherlands) at Kezar Stadium. Wilson remained on the substitutes’ bench for most of the evening after his side’s uninspired 1-1 tie with the Boston Shamrock Rovers (represented by the Irish semi-professionals) three days earlier.

Fortunately, Wilson’s family continued their long journey south to see him play a full role in the Wolves’ 2-0 win over the Gales at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum two days later.

North America’s first professional soccer championship decider ended with Wilson picking up a winner’s trophy after Los Angeles beat the Washington Whips (Aberdeen from Scotland) by 6-5 in sudden-death overtime. It remains the greatest soccer final played on American soil.

The next three seasons saw Wilson becoming a valued member of the Molineux roster. He became the first North American-developed player to score in England’s top division during a game against Everton at Goodison Park in September 1967, and he earned a second North American winners’ medal when Wolves returned in 1969 to represent the Kansas City Wolves in the North American Soccer League’s International Cup.

“We were the real trailblazers who started professional soccer in North America,” Wilson said. “Guys like Lamar Hunt, Jack Kent Cooke and Steve Stavros were visionaries and they had the money to help at that time.”

Cooke, a former owner of the Los Angeles Lakers and Washington Redskins, invested by initially bringing Wolves to Southern California. His legal adviser at the time was a young lawyer called Alan Rothenberg – the man later tasked with re-establishing American pro-soccer after the 1994 FIFA World Cup in his capacity as the United States Soccer Federation’s president.

* * * * *

February 21, 1970 is a date that is etched in the encyclopedic mind of Les Wilson. The Canadian had made 40 appearances for Wolves during the 1968-69 campaign and earned the moniker “Mr. Versatility” for his ability to provide cover in every outfield position. Yet his time at Molineux was soon to sour after an uncharacteristic incident.

Manchester City, en route to League Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup glory that season, arrived in the West Midlands boasting Stan Bowles, Francis Lee and Mike Summerbee in their forward line. Wilson was trusted with the challenging task of man-marking Colin Bell, the “King of the Kippax,” in midfield to match the City player’s famed stamina.

The visitors were leading 1-0 when the late Wolves legend Dave Wagstaffe took off on a trademark dribble down the left wing before whipping a teasing cross into the penalty area. Wilson’s running jump saw him soar above Bell to head the equalizer. 1-1.

City had edged in front again with 20 minutes remaining when Wolves assistant coach Sammy Chung summoned Wilson to the sideline.

“You’re coming off,” Chung told the 22-year-old defender.

“You’re fucking joking, Sam?” replied a stunned Wilson, who then flicked a contemptuous V-sign toward head coach Bill McGarry in the directors’ box as he left the field.

“Even to this day I don’t know why I did it,” Wilson confessed. “I guess I was so involved in the game and I thought I was doing well.”

Wilson, also nicknamed “The Reverend” by teammates for his exemplary behavior, was banished to the reserves for the next few weeks and he struggled to regain a regular place in McGarry’s side.

Wolves team photo ahead of the 1971-72 season. Wilson is furthest left in the middle row behind legendary striker Derek Dougan. (Photo courtesy of Les Wilson)
Wolves team photo ahead of the 1971-72 season. Wilson is furthest left in the middle row behind legendary striker Derek Dougan. (Photo courtesy of Les Wilson)

Ipswich Town manager Bobby Robson, who replaced McGarry at Portman Road, made three bids to sign the out-of-favor player. McGarry was unwilling to sell to his former club given his uneasy relationship with Robson that dated back to their playing days. Second Division Bristol City ultimately became Wilson’s next destination in 1972 before he moved to Norwich City a year later.

Robson had played alongside Wilson’s Molineux teammate David Burnside in the late 1950s and was the godfather of Burnside’s son. Burnside suggested that Wilson give the talented young head coach a call when he arrived in Norfolk to see if there was still interest from the Canaries’ East Anglian rivals.

“I will buy you, Les,” Robson told Wilson during a telephone conversation. “But you will not be starting regularly for me. I’ve got a young Scottish boy, he’s 17, he’s in the first team, and he’s better than you.”

The boy, George Burley, went on to play over 400 games for Ipswich, earning F.A. Cup and UEFA Cup winners’ medals along the way. Wilson soon returned home to sign with the nascent Vancouver Whitecaps of the North American Soccer League.

* * * * *

On Sept. 2, 1979, the Vancouver Whitecaps returned to Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. to contest the NASL’s Soccer Bowl one week after ousting the New York Cosmos in arguably the league’s most dramatic play-off series. Two goals from former Ipswich striker Trevor Whymark gave the Canadian franchise a 2-1 victory over Rodney Marsh and the Tampa Bay Rowdies. The Whitecaps were North America’s champions.

Les Wilson was not on the field that day collecting his third continental winners’ medal. The artificial surfaces used at many NASL venues played havoc with his Achilles tendons and restricted Wilson to a handful of appearances during the 1976 and 1977 seasons.

“I was in agony after the games,” Wilson said. “In the end, I decided that I could not perform up to my best and I decided to go into coaching, management and administration.”

Wilson sat on the sidelines as a member of the Whitecaps’ coaching set-up alongside head coach Tony Waiters and fellow assistant Bob McNab, a defensive linchpin in Arsenal’s famous double-winning team of 1971, as the Canadians completed the hat-trick of being NASL Western Division winners, National Conference champions and kings of the Soccer Bowl.

“We had a good staff,” Wilson said. “And we had a bloody good team.”

Veteran English World Cup winner Alan Ball controlled the Caps’ midfield with support from ex-Chelsea man Ray Lewington and current Vancouver president Bobby Lenarduzzi. Scottish national team winger Willie Johnston and former Oldham Athletic youngster Carl Valentine supplied the ammunition for a trio of English strikers – Whymark, Kevin Hector and Derek Possee. Worries about the goalkeeping position were resolved when Wilson called upon an old friend from Wolverhampton – Phil Parkes.

“Lofty” Parkes was already a familiar face to fans in Vancouver. Wilson first called his old Wolves boss Bill McGarry in 1976 to land the 6-foot-4-inch shot-stopper for the summer NASL season. The West Midlands native returned for another stint two years later, and again in 1979.

“Just about that time I got a phone call from Ron Atkinson, who was managing West Bromwich Albion at the time,” Wilson said. “He said he had a young goalkeeper from Rhodesia that he couldn’t get a work permit for.”

The Whitecaps ended up boasting the 1979 Goalkeeper of the Year in Parkes and an understudy, Bruce Grobbelaar, that would go on to win six English league titles, three F.A. Cups, three League Cups and a European Cup with Liverpool.

Wilson puts the shackles on Pele when the New York Cosmos visited Vancouver's Empire Stadium in 1976 (Photo courtesy of Les Wilson)
Wilson puts the shackles on Pele when the New York Cosmos visited Vancouver’s Empire Stadium in 1976 (Photo courtesy of Les Wilson)

* * * * *

Les Wilson’s accomplishments continued as an administrator with the Canadian Soccer Association when the original NASL was discontinued after the 1984 season. The Maple Leafs qualified for the 1986 World Cup under his watch and they lifted the 2000 CONCACAF Gold Cup by beating Colombia in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum where Wilson had earned his first taste of victory with the Los Angeles Wolves in 1967. He even helped to found the Vancouver 86ers franchise that won four Canadian Soccer League championships after the original Whitecaps met their demise.

The absence of an official role has not blunted Wilson’s desire to aid the development of North American soccer. A couple of teenage brothers from the remote British Columbia village of Midway were due to arrive at Wilson’s house as he spoke with The Soccer Observer earlier this month. The elder boy receives tuition from Wilson’s wife, and Wilson offered to give the younger brother some soccer training if he also made the trip.

Scholesy, Wilson’s dog, greeted the guests with canine exuberance as the doorbell sounded, prompting his owner to wrap up the conversation.

“I’m going to take the boy up to the wall,” Wilson said. “I don’t think North Americans quite get it right here, but that wall, when you work against it, it’s amazing how it improves your touch and your passing.

“In the space of an hour you get so many touches, so many passes, that it’s the equivalent of playing five games.”

Fifty years have passed since Killarney High School pupil Wilson spent his spare time engaging in the same activity, honing the skills that were to impress Wolves head coach Stan Cullis and earn him a move to England’s top flight.

Fifty years on, there are not many of North America’s soccer pioneers who can rival Wilson’s accomplishments.

 

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