Monday, September 20, 2010

Catching Up With Mike Connell

Mike Connell, an original member of the Tampa Bay Rowdies, played with the team from 1975-1984 and became one of the most popular players in franchise history. Joining the squad as an 18-year-old from South Africa in 1975, Connell earned the nickname “Iron Mike” for participating in over 25,000 minutes of play over the course of a career spent entirely in Tampa. Connell saw it all as a member of the Rowdies, and recently took some time to reflect on his playing days and thoughts on Tampa as a potential World Cup host city.

Q. What comes to mind when you think of the 1975 season?

A. That first year 1975, head coach Eddie Firmani had arranged for me to come over. My first memory from that year is getting stuck at the Miami airport because I didn't have a visa to get into the country. I was held up there for five or six hours while they sorted it out. Then I came up to Tampa, settled down at the Spanish Oaks apartments in Town ‘n’ Country. It was January, so most of the players hadn't arrived yet. We only had about eight players in at that time, mostly Americans.

At the time, not many people knew soccer in Tampa. They just knew we were these funny guys with funny accents in funny uniforms. Eddie Firmani was critical in bringing together characters who bought into the concept of being successful in Tampa. It was a one-shot deal. The success of the Rowdies really comes down to one year: 1975. If we're not successful in 1975, then the magic doesn't happen.

I remember in those first games, they only used to open up one side of Tampa Stadium. There were no end zones yet. Francisco Marcos, our Director of Public Relations, had the idea to build life-size cutouts of people sitting in the stands. So, on the empty side you had these cutouts of families, and then just one guy. (laughs) I mean when you think of where we were at that time to where we ended up, with 60,000 people at games...

Q. What were your immediate impressions of Tampa?

A. It was smaller than what I grew up in. I grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, a major city. Tampa was just a little town when I came here. The guys on the team all stayed at the same apartment complex, so we were all convenient to one another. We built our own little social group. Between the apartments, practice, the pub, the pizza place, we basically did everything as a group. I was single, young, 18-years old, so the old married guys would have me over. It was a protective gang of guys that enjoyed being with one another and playing the game. As far as the town was concerned, I knew Town ‘n’ Country, and I knew USF, and the road between. That was it.

Q. Did you get a lot of playing time as a rookie?

A. Oh yeah, I played in all the games. I broke my toe so I was out for a few games towards the end of the season, but I was ready by the playoffs. You know, at that time there were not restrictions on foreigners. We were all foreigners. I was playing with players from the top divisions of England. When we played Portland in the final, their entire team was made up of English players. As an accomplishment for me, it was good. I didn't have that chance in South Africa . At the time, South Africa was banned from international soccer because of apartheid. I never had the opportunity to play against international players until I came here.

Q. I always ask former Rowdies about the bond between the team and its fans. The level of interaction is just something you don't see anymore.

A. Well, you never see it. Again, we were a bunch of foreign guys who'd show up to after-game parties and hang out with the fans, or go to pub nights with the fans. It was the closest you could come in this country to a college fan. It's not the sport that drives them, so much as it is being part of the University of Florida , or Florida State, or Notre Dame. Even today -- and I've been out of the game 25 years -- people still remember the relationship to the team. To us, the magic was that the fans believed they were part of the success.

We started getting away from that relationship by bringing in players from other teams or professionals from Europe. They weren't used to the personal appearances, so we began to separate from the fans and tended to be a little more aloof. But when it comes to Tampa, anybody that grew up with the Rowdies will tell you about the relationship they had with the team. We run into people who are 40 years old and they were your fan, and they used to love you. When I see people or talk to people now, they remember it as if it was yesterday. When you go to a Rowdies game and people come up to you, you're stunned. One, that they've recognized you, and two, that their memory of the time is so vivid.

Q. The 1980 season, which I've written about a few times this year, was kind of up-and-down, but you had that amazing semifinal game against San Diego. You blew them out 6-0, then played to a 1-1 tie in the mini-game, and then lost in a shootout. That had to be devastating.

A. They had beaten us 6-3 before that in San Diego. Looking back, I know the exact moment that Hugo Sanchez scored the tying goal in the mini-game. I know it because I was involved in it, marking him at the time. We had won shootouts before, but this one went the other way. Losing at home was tough because it was in front of our fans.

Looking back, that really was the beginning of the change. When we didn't get to the final that year -- which is what we always expected to do -- the change came. They got rid of players, they brought in new ones, and by then we started losing our identity.

Q. What do you remember about some of the international teams you played at Tampa Stadium ?

A. The trouble with playing in America was that we were isolated from world soccer. The newspapers never covered English soccer, we didn't have the Fox soccer channel, we didn't have the Internet. When we played teams like Manchester United or Nottingham Forrest, we never really knew exactly who they were or their stature. Now you look back and go, "Oh, ****."

But for me as a kid coming out of South Africa -- and not being able to play against international teams -- the opportunity to play against teams like Manchester United was very special. I remember that game, I scored in that game, I had a fantastic game against them. But I never thought ... you know, now, I would say I want to go play for them. The Rowdies were so big at the time, I didn't have the ambition to say that. I regret it now because I think they deserved a lot more respect.

Q. You were nicknamed "Iron Mike." Talk about how you were able to stay in such condition and health to never miss any games.

A. Well, I was a smart player. I stayed out of trouble. Even as a defender, I was more of an intercepter of the ball, reading the game, as opposed to just flying into tackles and doing that kind of stuff. I was lucky, I had no major injuries. Unlike today where you watch a game and people are diving, to us at the time -- and it really doesn't matter who it was -- showing weakness is what we didn't want to do. I think maybe we tended to play through things. Our seasons were pretty evenly paced. We had one or two games a week, a practice, so you had time to recover. All those factors were important.

Q. Since you went home this summer for the World Cup, I have to ask your thoughts on Tampa as a potential World Cup city down the road.

A. To me, the gateway to soccer in this country is through Tampa. You know, 35 years ago when people mentioned American soccer in Europe, it was Tampa that they spoke about. Not the New York Cosmos, but the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Because of that, I don't believe there should be anything that happens in soccer that doesn't involve Tampa. We deserve to be a World Cup site. If they just look at it from a soccer point of view -- heritage, passion, tradition -- Tampa should be a no-brainer.

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