Phil Woosnam: Footballer who became a pioneer for soccer in the US

 

Phil Woosnam was one of the most creative football men of his generation, a visionary presence on and off the field. As a cultured, ball-playing inside-forward in the 1950s and '60s, principally with West Ham United and Wales but also with Leyton Orient and Aston Villa, he was brimming with craft and intelligence. Later he was a pioneer of soccer in the United States, a passionate and articulate advocate who arguably had a more far-reaching impact on the growth of the game across the Atlantic than anyone else before or since.

Woosnam's pathway to sporting success was not typical of his era. A schoolboy and youth international who completed his education at Bangor University, where he achieved a BSc in physics and captained the team to the Welsh Universities Championship, he went on to earn eight adult amateur international caps and be crowned Amateur Footballer of the Year in 1955. All along, though, he had been preparing for a possible professional future, signing amateur forms with Manchester City in 1951 and remaining with them until he had finished his studies. There was only one senior outing for the Maine Road side, alongside the illustrious likes of Bert Trautmann and Don Revie in a 6-0 defeat at Cardiff in February 1953, before he enlisted with Orient in 1954, having started work as a physics teacher at Leyton High School.

Woosnam's first major impact came in 1955-56, when his nine goals and plentiful assists to fellow attackers Ron Heckman, Johnny Hartburn and Tommy Johnston were major factors as the Brisbane Road side took the Third Division (South) title. He helped Orient consolidate in the second tier but found teaching and football to be such an arduous combination that he turned professional in January 1957.

Perhaps reaping the benefits of full-time training, he collected the first of his 17 full Wales caps in a 3-0 defeat by Scotland at Ninian Park in October 1958, then moved up in the club world a month later through a £30,000 transfer to West Ham, newly promoted to the top flight. The man who signed him, the Upton Park manager Ted Fenton, announced his acquisition by declaring: "Phil is so West Ham he might have been moulded by us," referring to the Hammers' reputation for attractive, precise play, and for the next four years Woosnam proved him emphatically correct.

The wirily nimble schemer with the distinctive crew-cut hairstyle was a thoroughbred performer who emerged as the brains of his new team's attack, ghosting to all areas of the pitch to find space, an expert wall-passer and a clever finisher who scored a few goals himself and set up many more for John Dick and Vic Keeble. Woosnam, who represented the Football League against the Italian League in Milan in November 1950, became captain when Noel Cantwell left for Manchester United later that month, then took joint temporary charge of first-team affairs with coach Albert Walker when Fenton was dismissed the following spring. However, the Hammers struggled; Ron Greenwood became manager in time to guide the club clear of relegation and the precociously gifted Johnny Byrne, recently acquired from Crystal Palace, took over as the chief inventive force.

Still, Woosnam sparkled intermittently alongside the newcomer and many fans were disappointed when the Welshman was sold to Aston Villa for £27,000 in November 1962. He made a promising start with Joe Mercer's side and soon he had attracted a legion of new admirers, while adding to his influence by taking on some of the coaching. But after Mercer left through ill-health in 1964, Woosnam did not get on as well with his replacement, Dick Taylor, and in the summer of 1966 Villa Park regulars were dismayed when the youthful-seeming 33-year-old was freed to start a new life in the US as player-coach to Atlanta Chiefs.

With the game enjoying an upsurge in the States, this was a new and lucrative challenge which fired Woosnam's imagination. Duly, under his guidance in 1968 the Chiefs won the inaugural North American Soccer League and he was voted coach of the year. Thereafter he came the face of the round-ball game in the US, being appointed commissioner of the NASL in January 1969 and coaching the nation's World Cup squad during 1969-70.

Given the powerful counter-attractions of gridiron, baseball and basketball, igniting American enthusiasm for soccer was a mammoth task but Woosnam embraced it wholeheartedly. Soon such stellar names as Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and George Best were recruited to the cause and Woosnam was declaring, foolhardily as it turned out, that within 10 years interest in the British game would mushroom to the extent that it would surpass the established sports in popularity.

But despite gaining plenty of adherents he never convinced the wider public and eventually the NASL imploded, mistakes were made, vast sums of money were lost and Woosnam was dismissed as commissioner in 1983. Though credited with achieving success in the league's heyday, he was accused by some critics of pushing too hard for expansion, a policy which they argued led to its demise.

It was a setback which might have broken a less resilient character, but Woosnam, who became a US citizen, was unbowed, going on to become managing director in charge of marketing for the United States Soccer Federation until 1992. Thereafter he continued in the role of soccer consultant, based in Atlanta, and put in much of the spadework which led to the staging of the World Cup in the US in 1994. He went on to excel as venues manager for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, was inaugurated into the US National Soccer Hall of Fame a year later and has been widely described as the father of the professional game in his adoptive country. Phil Woosnam, a cousin of the golfer Ian Woosnam, will be remembered not only as a fine footballer, but also as one of the game's most incisive and original thinkers.

Ivan Ponting

Philip Abraham Woosnam, footballer, coach and administrator: born Caersws, Montgomeryshire (now part of Powys) 22 December 1932; played for Manchester City 1952-53, Leyton Orient 1954-59, West Ham United 1959-62, Aston Villa 1962-66, Atlanta Chiefs 1967-68; capped 17 times by Wales 1959-63; managed Atlanta Chiefs 1967-68; married (four children); died Atlanta, Georgia 19 July 2013.

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