Monday, June 2, 2008

Tampa Bay Rowdies vs Manchester United, 5/28/78

Last week in Moscow, Manchester United outlasted rival Chelsea in penalty kicks in a thrilling UEFA Champions League final. As a result of winning the game -- the equivalent of our Super Bowl for fans of European soccer around the world -- the renowned club owned by Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer captured its first Champions League trophy since 1999.

Thirty years ago this week, however, the stakes were considerably lower as Manchester United made its first-ever trip to the United States -- the only time it has ever visited Tampa -- for a "friendly" (known in the U.S. as an exhibition match) against the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the NASL on May 28, 1978.

As Americans prepared for the impending rise in the cost of postage stamps from 13 to 15 cents, Rowdies Coach Gordon Jago tried psyching up his lads, struggling with a 5-6 record, for the challenge of facing Manchester United. Prior to the game, Jago praised the British squad known as the Red Devils, calling it "the finest team that has ever been to Tampa" and said "it may be some time before we have a team of this caliber in our area again."

By the late 1970s, Manchester United could boast of a pedigree not unlike today's squad. In 1968, "Man U" became the first British team to win the European Cup, and the Red Devils were the proud owners of four Football Association Challenge Cup championships -- awarded to the best team in England's top league -- with its most recent in 1977.

The evening prior to the game, the aura and mystique surrounding Manchester was only enhanced when a British youth team of 14- and 15-year-olds known as the Manchester Schoolboys throttled a squad of their peers from Temple Terrace by a score of 20-0.

Then on Memorial Day weekend in front of more than 15,000 at Tampa Stadium, the Rowdies simply shocked every fan in the house. To nobody's shock, however, Manchester United opened the scoring at the 16:04 mark of the first half. Stuart "Pancho" Pearson, one of the team's best strikers, took a crossing pass from Stewart Houston and put it in the back of the net to make the score 1-0 in favor of the Red Devils. Pearson, a colorful figure in English soccer once ejected for calling a linesman a "bloody onion," celebrated the goal in his trademark style with a single raised right fist.

Anyone expecting Pearson's goal to be the first of many for Manchester United, however, would be sorely disappointed. Pearson had a chance for his second of the game at the 20:28 mark, but Rowdies goaltender Paul Hammond made a spectacular save to keep the deficit from doubling.

Trailing against a potent offense and in need of some firepower of their own, the Rowdies got much-needed contribution from their new acquisition, Mirandinha. Purchased from Sao Paulo of Brazil for $250,000, Mirandinha was Tampa Bay's largest cash deal to date and certainly came with credentials to match. The striker played for Brazil in the 1974 FIFA World Cup, and as a member of the Sao Paulo club, led his league in scoring from 1971-74. Just prior to joining the Rowdies, Mirandinha also helped guide Sao Paulo to the Brazilian Championship in February 1978.

His arrival came at the perfect time and the Rowdies got an almost immediate return on the investment. As the first half neared its conclusion, Mirandinha leaped to receive a high pass from midfielder Wes McLeod, settling the ball on his right thigh. He then flicked the ball to Mike Connell, who beat Manchester United goalkeeper Paddy Roche from 15 yards out to even the score, 1-1, at 41:11.

Connell later said he was "surprised to get the ball, but a soccer player is supposed to be ready for anything."

Tampa Bay forward Dave "Big Red" Robb was ready for his moment in the sun when a scoring opportunity presented itself at 71:56 of the second half. Steve Wegerle's attempt at a crossing pass resulted in a collision between Roche and Manchester defender Ashley Grimes. Robb, who entered the contest with seven goals in 11 games on the season, took possession and easily put away the loose ball to give the Rowdies a 2-1 lead.

The Rowdies spent the remainder of the game concentrating on defense, and thanks to the afternoon's blazing sun and the 87-degree heat, were able to wear down and hold off the fatigued and red-faced Red Devils.

Afterward, Rowdies players strived to keep the outcome in perspective while still taking satisfaction in the win. Noting that Manchester United played without its starting keeper, Alex Stepney, as well as four others preparing to play for Scotland in the World Cup, Robb said "it would be foolish to think we're world-beaters." He added, however, that "we should take some credit. Our younger players showed they could play a first-division English side and beat them."

Looking back at the contest today, Mike Connell cautions against anyone equating Manchester United of 1978 with the powerhouse team that just won the Champions League.

"Manchester United was big," Connell says, "but not nearly as big as they are now. While it was an upset as far as the score, these tours that clubs made through the United States were really vacations for the players. They treated it like just another game at the end of a season."

He believes, however, that the outcome still went a long way in boosting Tampa Bay's reputation overseas.

"The victory was of great value to us and towards the stature the Rowdies already enjoyed in Europe. Playing in this game was a great opportunity for us to show that we were a quality team. The result definitely got the attention of people in Europe and helped establish that we were a serious and committed club."

1 comment:

  1. I was there and I still have the programme from that day..i was seven, and loved every minute of it