Like most teams in the original North American Soccer League, the Tampa Bay Rowdies saw their fair share of action against international opposition in friendly games played at home and overseas.
An eclectic mix of Santos, Zenit Leningrad, Roma, the Chinese national team, Norwich City, Manchester United and Moscow Dynamo all visited Florida, intrigued by the grip the sport of soccer had taken on the United States.
Then in 1980, the Rowdies embarked on a tour of the United Kingdom that was anything but an overseas vacation, playing an exhausting six games in 15 days, recording one win, two draws and three defeats.
In an age before not only the internet, but also regularly televised live games and the convenience of Transatlantic phone conversations, soccer fans in the UK were relatively in the dark about the American teams visiting their shores. What they did know was that a host of household names, not only from the UK but throughout the footballing world, had swarmed to America to play in this odd NASL that had seemingly sprung up from nowhere. A multitude of players were heading across the Atlantic.
The Rowdies opened on their travels with a 1-0 win away to Luton Town, a team whose star midfielder Ricky Hill would later play for the Florida club and of course take on the coaching role he holds today. South African Striker Neill Roberts shook off the after effects of a dislocated shoulder injury that had ruled him out of part of the previous season by claiming the game’s only goal.
The game program cover featured a bland action photo that was typical of the period for such match day magazines and listed the visitors as ‘Tampa Bay Rowdies (America)’ in case spectators wondered from which country or perhaps planet the team with the garish green, yellow and white uniforms had landed.
The eight-page publication that greeted fans at St Andrews, home of Birmingham City, two days later could not have been more starkly flamboyant. The front cover featured a caricature of local comedian Jasper Carrott, a Birmingham City fanatic and shareholder in the Midlands club, waving an old-fashioned wooden rattle below a bold heading in both clubs’ colors that proclaimed ‘Blues Get Rowdy’.
The opening paragraph of the program reads: ‘Good evening, or maybe it should be ‘Hi! There…’ at a time when every Brit believed every American used the overly familiar ‘hi’ as a welcome greeting rather than the formal ‘hello’ or ‘good evening’ that felt rather more comfortable back in the mother country. After all, the locals had been exposed to America not by the standards of today’s almost routine visits to Disney Land and New York for a spot of Christmas shopping, but by watching Dallas and The Dukes of Hazard on TV and listening to the Osmonds (who did all say ‘hi’ on a regular basis).
Carrott had spent a period of time exploring the NASL on its home turf to create his ‘Carrott Gets Rowdy’ movie, in which he took part in ‘Yankee-style razzmatazz,’ met a talking hamburger machine, trained with the Rowdies and danced with the Wowdies ‘glamorous and cutely-clad cheerleaders’. (That’s the term they use in the match program).
The game notes express amazement at the Name The Team contest that dubbed Tampa Bay the Rowdies, and also explained the rules of the NASL shootout, which was to be showcased for fans at halftime.
But for all its stereotypical chatter, the game program admits that English clubs, whose attendances were in sharp decline due to widespread hooliganism, would be envious of the rising Rowdies attendances that averaged 28,456 at that point. And the visit of the Rowdies and all the razzmatazz they brought in tow was used as a symbol to show that soccer could be fun and entertaining and create a family atmosphere at a time when pitched battles on the terraces were commonplace.
The game program was ultimately more interesting than the game itself, which ended in a 0-0 draw and was most notable for the moment a fan attempting to win a Mini Cooper by kicking a ball through its sunroof from almost 50 yards away came within inches of driving home with a new set of wheels.
Northern Ireland’s Linfield were the next opponents, where 5,000 curious fans braved a very unFlorida-like windswept and rain-lashed Windsor Park in Belfast and dispatched Gordon Jago’s side 3-1, with Roberts again on target for the Rowdies.
The tall striker found the net again three days later along with Peter Baralic as the travel-weary Rowdies headed northwest to Scotland and took a 2-1 halftime lead that surprised a St Mirren team the local media had predicted would provide a lesson on the pitch. But the Scots did eventually run out 4-2 winners. There was only three days of rest before a 1-1 draw at Hereford United where Oscar Fabbiani was on target.
So the Rowdies were hardly in the best of shape to face Brian Clough’s all-conquering Nottingham Forest, the reigning champions of Europe, at the City Ground to close out the UK tour. Steve Wegerle hit the target, but the Rowdies, despite keeper Winston DuBose making some spectacular saves, conceded seven goals in reply.
The cover of the game program that night oddly featured a photo of a training session on the artificial turf at the Empire Stadium in Vancouver with mountains in the background. Not quite Florida, but close enough apparently.
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