Monday, April 26, 2010

Rowdies Post Win in Tampa Debut, 4/26/75

Last week, the most recent edition of the Tampa Bay Rowdies played their first regular season game, a 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace Baltimore. The newly formed entry into the United Soccer Federation Division-2 Pro League hopes to pick up where the original Rowdies left off, establishing a winning tradition on the field and a fan-friendly reputation off of it.

It was 35 years ago this week that the original Tampa Bay Rowdies began preparing for their regular season opener against the Rochester Lancers as an expansion member of the North American Soccer League. Preceding the arrival of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers by a full year, the Rowdies thus became the area’s first professional franchise to take to the field.

Unlike football, however, soccer had no tradition of being played or closely followed in this area. The suburbs had yet to become dotted with soccer complexes and high school football fields were still being used for one thing only: football.

Establishing soccer would take a keen marketing effort, and if the Rowdies became known for one thing early in their existence it was for their clever marketing.

“Soccer Is A Kick In The Grass” became the team’s first marketing slogan and quickly captured the attention of local sports fans. With a group of cheerleaders known as the “Wowdies,” a fan-base dubbed the “Fannies,” and even a memorable theme song, few stones were left uncovered by Rowdies owner George Strawbridge and General Manager Beau Rogers to take an unknown product and promote it to the public.

A brief two-game indoor tournament in March 1975 helped whet the area’s appetite for soccer, but before the outdoor season began players were already conducting clinics with thousands of youngsters and making promotional appearances throughout the community.
For anyone skeptical about the game, head coach Eddie Firmani promised the fans – or “Fannies” -- a fast-paced, high-energy product.

“We will give you action, we will not dilly-dally,” Firmani said. “For example, our intervals will be but 10 minutes. At Miami recently, why their interval (halftime) was 20 bloody minutes. An outrage! I say rest for 10 and then on with the game.”

Promises of good times and entertainment were all well and good, but the Rowdies also needed good players to field a competitive team. As with their marketing efforts, the Rowdies were well-covered in that department.

For an expansion team, the Rowdies were loaded with talent. Firmani, formerly an assistant with Crystal Palace of England’s second division, brought three talented players from that team with him to Tampa: Stewart Jump, Mark Lindsay, and Paul Hammond.

John Sissons, who at 19-years-old became the youngest player to score a goal in an FA Cup Final in 1964, came to Tampa Bay from the Chelsea Football Club to provide veteran leadership.

The Rowdies lucked out in the NASL draft as well, selecting Farrukh Quraishi with their number one overall pick. Quraishi won the Hermann Trophy in 1974 – soccer’s equivalent of the Heisman Trophy – as the nation’s best college player and would go on to have a stellar career with the Rowdies.

The New York Times picked the Rowdies to win the league’s Eastern Division, while the Tampa Tribune boldly pegged the Rowdies to win the league championship.
If the first game was any indication, both newspapers might be proved correct.

On April 26, 1975, in front of 12,133 “Fannies” at Tampa Stadium, the Rowdies did not disappoint. Derek Smethurst scored the first goal in Stadium history at the 13:51 mark of the first half, converting a three-on-one break to give Tampa Bay an early 1-0 lead.
Rochester answered back at 27:59 on a short-range goal by Tommy Ord to even up the score at 1-1.

The 41-year-old Firmani delighted the Tampa Stadium crowd when he entered the game with 20 minutes remaining in the second half. With some holes in the roster due to several players still being involved in playoff games back in Europe, earlier in the week Firmani added himself to the roster to give his team some depth.

Firmani – nicknamed “The Golden Turkey” – did not score, but he nearly landed the first punch in team history when he took a swing at a Rochester defender. He later admitted that he entered the game with hopes of inspiring his team.

In overtime, it took just 3:45 for the Rowdies to end the contest as reserve defender Alex Pringle beat Rochester goalie Ardo Perri for the winner.

“Defenders don’t score very often you know,” Pringle said after the game. “I enjoy it anytime I get a chance.”

His game-winner, which came on a rebound from John Boyle’s corner kick, would be the first and only goal of Pringle’s 37-game career with the Rowdies.

With a victory and better-than-anticipated crowd in hand, Tampa Bay owner George Strawbridge could not have been more pleased afterwards.

“We are thrilled with it (size of the crowd),” he said. “People thought we had rocks in our head when we said we were bringing soccer to this area. It shows what fine promotion in a fine sports area can do.”

Lessons to be learned from the past as the new Tampa Bay Rowdies attempt to reintroduce soccer onto the local sports scene.

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