Their Finest Hour: Vancouver Whitecaps 1979 Soccer Bowl winning season (Part Ten – June and July – Alan Ball arrives, there’s a brawl in New York, and long road trips take their toll)

Their Finest Hour: Vancouver Whitecaps 1979 Soccer Bowl winning season (Part Ten – June and July – Alan Ball arrives, there’s a brawl in New York, and long road trips take their toll)

Our recapping of Vancouver Whitecaps’ 1979 Soccer Bowl winning season was on a brief hiatus the last few weeks as we sorted out a few other things, but as the 40th anniversary date of the greatest day in ‘Caps history approaches, we’ll ramp our review of the season back up again as we look at how the Whitecaps fared in what was a very eventful June and July.

We last left the team in June after a 1-0 home loss to Houston as they were about to embark on a grueling three game road trip. Nothing much changes when it comes to horrible schedules for the ‘Caps!

June was to prove to be the ‘Caps least successful month of the season. They followed that defeat to Houston with a 2-1 win at Tulsa Roughnecks on June 7th, but three games in a week was to prove too much for them to handle, subsequently going down 1-0 Minnesota Kicks and then suffering a 3-2 shootout loss to the California Surf on June 13th, with the American replacing their keeper Mike Mahoney in the dying seconds of ‘overtime’ to bring in penalty specialist Dave Jokerst. Seven rounds of penalties later, it was a move that clearly worked.

Three defeats in four matches certainly wasn’t the best form to be in for one of the most eagerly anticipated matches of the season, with the mighty New York Cosmos heading to town on Saturday June 16th. The game sold out in advance for the first time in Whitecaps history and the 32,372 in attendance at Empire weren’t to be disappointed as Vancouver destroyed the much lauded Cosmos 4-1.

Goals from Kevin Hector, Jon Sammels, and Carl Valentine had the ‘Caps three up by the 38th minute mark and the Cosmos didn’t know what had hit them. Derek Possee made it four in the second half as New York frustration boiled over, leading to an altercation between teammates Antonio Carbognani and Giorgio Chinaglia, where the latter literally gave the Argentine a kick up the ass. That would be a three or four game DisCo ban nowadays. Chinaglia added a late penalty, but this was a statement win for the Whitecaps.

There was a growing belief that the ‘Caps could do something this season and if the win over the Cosmos was a statement, a further statement of intent was delivered on June 22nd when they announced the signing of England World Cup winner Alan Ball from the Philadelphia Fury. Ball made his debut two days later at Empire in the 2-1 overtime win over California Surf, setting up the first for Willie Johnston (his first goal of the season) and scoring the last minute winner from the spot on a retaken penalty.

What a debut! And what an influence Ball was to be for the remainder of the season, scoring 8 goals and adding 17 assists. Imagine signing such a difference maker in the summer. Or at all! Times have certainly changed in Vancouver in that regard.

The Kick Magazine program for the Surf match featured an interesting interview with Whitecaps forward Kevin Hector, who was coming off a 1978 season that saw him score 21 goals and add 10 assists, continuing the form that made him a legend back in England with Bradford Park Avenue and Derby County.

His talents were much in demand but he chose Vancouver and the NASL and explained why.

“I had other opportunities with other clubs in England,” Hector told Kick. “But I felt that I had done everything I wanted and that it was time for a new challenge. I’ve found that here, and looking back there is no doubt I made the right decision.”

He goes on to explain that being away from the recognition he gets in England has been refreshing for him and his family and he feels like a “real person” again. Vancouver was delighted to have him.

Another three game road spell loomed as they ‘Caps headed into July, and again it took its toll on the team and their results suffered. They managed a 3-1 win at Atlanta Chiefs but went down 3-2 in a shootout loss to George Best’s Fort Lauderdale Strikers and suffered a 2-1 defeat in Toronto at the hands of the Blizzard.

It was their fifth defeat in nine away games, but the best thing to lift spirits was to beat Cascadian rivals Seattle and they did that at Empire on July 7th with a 3-1 win, thanks in part to a brace from Ball.

The Kick Magazine program for the Sounders game featured an interesting five page article entitled “Kids and Sport: Soccer their first choice now”. The sidebar proclaimed that “Soccer is the new game in town. If the hoola hoop captured a prior generation, soccer has mesmerized young people today. But unlike the hoola hoop, this is no passing fad – the numbers and enthusiasm prove it’s here to stay.”

Ironic considering the league folded five years later, but the growth of youth soccer has been consistent. The article poses the question as to why it’s taken so long for the previously “obscure sport” to catch on in North America, without being able to provide any answers.

It is actually quite an eye opening article as to how the game was viewed in the US in particular 40 to 50 years ago. One 17-year-old player in Illinois explained that his friends thought he was “a sissy” for wanting to play soccer and not one of the mainstream sports, and the National Youth Coordinator of the USSF lets us know that the game was thought of as a second class sport, only fit for athletes who couldn’t play the likes of American football, baseball, and basketball.

But the article exudes the joy kids get playing the game and it’s not going anywhere. All these years later it’s the biggest participatory sport in many sectors, there’s professional leagues all over North America, but how much have those opinions of your average American changed towards it really?

LA Aztecs came to town four days later and many in the 28,764 crowd headed to Empire to see one man in particular, Dutch legend Johan Cruyff. The Whitecaps outshot their visitors 15 to 7 but it was the Dutch master who got the only goal of the game as the Aztecs came away with the 1-0 victory.

Two road games out east produced split results with another impressive win over the New York Cosmos, this time by a 4-2 scoreline in front of 48,753 fans at Giants Stadium in a humdinger of a match. A Carlos Alberto own goal had the ‘Caps ahead early and that was how it stayed till half time. Kevin Hector fired home a cracker two minutes into the second half to double Vancouver’s lead before a Johan Neeskins free kick got New York right back in it. Ray Lewington restored the ‘Caps two goal lead three minutes later before Chinaglia reduced the deficit to one again

Then an incident with Willie Johnston front and centre saw all hell break loose and the game held up for 14 minutes as both teams, including their benches, got involved. The ‘Caps players wound up the Cosmos players and fans, and there was a pitch invader who couldn’t take any more and tried to get to Phil Parkes. Even Pele ran on from the sidelines to get involved!

The end result was four players got sent off! Two from each side, with Johnston and big John Craven seeing red for Vancouver and Chinaglia and the main instigator, Iranian centre back Andranik Eskandarian, seeing red for New York. The Johnston/Eskandarian incident was a hangover from Scotland’s disastrous World Cup campaign in Argentina the previous year and Johnston tells a fun story about how Eskandarian tried to continue things in the tunnel before Craven arrived and “took care of business”.

When the game did restart, Bobby Lenarduzzi scored his first of the season to secure an infamous 4-2 victory.

That drama was followed three days later by a 2-1 loss to the Washington Diplomats, making it four defeats in their last six matches, but any doubts that were starting to creep in to the ‘Caps fanbase was soon dispelled when Vancouver won six of their last seven games to round off the regular season in style and most importantly, in form.

Revenge was had over Toronto at Empire with a comfortable 3-0 win on July 21st, with goals from Ball, Sammels, and Whymark.

The Kick Magazine program for this one featured an interview with John Craven, who broke his leg during the 1978 season and had been plagued by injuries for this one, missing the majority of the matches so far.

Craven became a cult hero in Vancouver and was such an important part of the ‘Caps backline that lifted the Soccer Bowl. His career saw him play virtually every position on the park apart from goalkeeper, but as a centre back, his no nonsense stopper approach made him loved by the ‘Caps faithful, but it almost made him prone to injuries.

“Sometimes on the field you have to put yourself into situations,” Craven told Kick. “Desperate situations where you don’t think about the consequences of what you are going to do. My game is a pretty aggressive one, and so that means contact on the field. When you hit, you take the chance of being hurt.”

Craven and ‘Caps coach Tony Waiters had went a long way back, playing together at Blackpool and then playing under the manager Waiters at Plymouth and then Vancouver, a place he and his family loved.

“It is one of the best things I have ever done in my life,” Craven said of the move to Vancouver. “I have never enjoyed playing so much as I do now, and the family loves it here. I couldn’t think of any nicer place to live and work.

“The future of this sport in North America, if handled properly and in the right manner, is indeed great. Someday, I would like to be the best coach in North America.”

Sadly that never happened, with Craven suffering a fatal heart attack in California in 1996 aged just 49.

The final home game of the month saw a 1-0 win over Tulsa Roughnecks, thanks to a Whymark winner.

The month rounded out with a dramatic 3-2 sudden death overtime win in Portland thanks to a goal 71 seconds in the extra period by Ball.

With one month to go the Whitecaps needed two wins to wrap up a second straight National Conference Western Division title, but injuries were starting to mount.

We’ll be back with the tale of that month on Saturday.

You can catch up with all of our “Season To Remember” articles from the Whitecaps 1979 NASL Soccer Bowl winning season HERE.

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Authored by: Michael McColl

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