Monday, September 1, 2008

Catching Up With Rodney Marsh, Part I

Rodney Marsh will be forever linked to the Tampa Bay Rowdies. For many years, Marsh was the team’s most recognizable face and a fan-favorite. The one-time captain of the Manchester City Football Club and member of the English national football team, Marsh played for the Rowdies from 1976-79, and then served as head coach from 1984-86. Marsh also spent more than a decade in the team’s front office, serving as the club’s chief executive. Today, Marsh is enjoying retirement and proud to still call Tampa his home. He recently sat down to talk about his career and time with the Tampa Bay Rowdies. The following is Part One of my interview with Rodney Marsh.

Q. You were an established star in England before you came to play for the Rowdies. What brought you to America?

A. At the time, I was the captain of Manchester City, who are the big rivals of Manchester United. I was 30 years of age and coming to the end of my career, I thought. Then I was traded because of an argument I had with my coach. It was within the English League, but I didn't want to do that. The other options I had were to go to Belgium or come to America. During that time in my life, I was going through some emotional problems, having a bit of a breakdown. The furor that surrounded the trade with the papers and TV really worked me over, so I had an emotional breakdown in my private and professional life. I wanted to get as far away as possible. I'd never even heard of the North American Soccer League. I got a phone call from Elton John's manager. He said, "We've heard what's going on in England. Elton's got a private plane at Heathrow ready to leave for Los Angeles." He was investing in the Los Angeles Aztecs, and he wanted me and George Best to join the team. So we went out to Los Angeles for five crazy days, mostly alcohol- and cocaine-fueled. I wasn't doing cocaine, but it seemed like most everyone else was. Elton John gave his longest version of "Rocket Man." It lasted for 12 minutes. I don't think he knew where he was, really.

Q. So how did you go from Elton John and L.A. to the Tampa Bay Rowdies?

A. During the time that I was there, I got a call in my hotel room from the owner of the Rowdies. He said, "I heard you were in the country. Don't sign with anyone yet. I'll send you a ticket to come to Tampa. Spend a couple of days out here, look around, because we'd love to sign you." My first thought was, "where's Tampa?" But when I flew down to Tampa, the moment I stepped off the plane -- I don't know what it was – I just felt something. Before I even met the coach, I just knew that this was the place for me. I wanted to get as far away from England as possible to somewhere nondescript. Nobody in Britain knew where Tampa was. Hell, there were Americans who didn't know where Tampa was. Within a couple days, though, I signed.

Q. Coming from English soccer, how did you find the level of play here in America?

A. It was like Triple-A baseball. Every franchise had some fantastic players from around the world, but the majority of the teams consisted of journeymen-type players. In England, I played at the very highest level. The thing I noticed when I first got here is that I had a lot of space, but they wouldn't play the ball to me on time. It's like in basketball, when you're wide open, but the ball is passed to you too slow and someone is in your face by the time you receive it. I quickly found that the only way I would survive is to adjust to the level I was playing. Consequently, I wouldn't go looking for the ball. The ball would have to find me.
We had one player who never really got the credit he deserved, named Mick McGuire. He came here in 1978 after playing in Norwich City, England. He was a terrific player. He would give me the ball exactly where I wanted it, not too late, in lots of space. If you give any decent athlete five yards of space, in any sport, they'll kill you. So I had a lot of space to play with.

Q. The Rowdies were a good team from their inception, winning the Soccer Bowl title in 1975, while the Bucs lost the first 26 games they ever played. What was it like to represent the community's winning team?

A. Once in every lifetime something happens where the components work out, and you don't know why and you don't know how, but things come together. I've never known this, and I'd like to ask the original owner, George Strawbridge, if this was planned or it was just circumstances. The team had a fantastic, brilliant marketing campaign. It's been copied many times by major-league sports, including the Tampa Bay Bandits. It was the name of the team: the Rowdies. It gives you the idea of going out on a Saturday night and getting into a fight and having a drink. Incredibly, and I wish I knew if this was intentional, but that's what our team did.

After the games on Saturday night, we'd go out to a place called Boneshakers in Hyde Park and mix with all the other poncers. There'd be about 100 more people shoehorned into this bar because of us. You’d have all the fans, all the cheerleaders, and then regular people as well. When the Rowdies came in, everyone wanted to buy us drinks. By the end of the night, the Rowdies would be getting into fights and next thing you know, we'd be down at the Orient Road Jail. I don't know if it was planned marketing genius, but the players fit the image. It suited me down to the ground because that was my personality. We had some Scottish lads who could really have a drink and a fight too. It was a wild time.

Q. Are the great memories from your playing days one of the reasons you, along with many former players, have chosen to keep homes here?

A. Part of that is because the team was so adored, and still is. The Rowdies were a very successful franchise. The fact is the quality of life I have in Tampa cannot be replicated anywhere else in the world that I would go. It's all those things.

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