John Dexter Jones

Cymru v USA – A Tale of Two Coaches

I was there at the start of it. Dad’s American journey. He was already there. In Tampa, Fla.

I flew out to meet him. I closed the door behind me in Penrhosgarnedd and travelled alone. First to Bangor, then London, then Essex, where Aunty Gwyneth gave me a bed for the night, and Uncle Pete gave me a lift to Shenfield Station in the morning. From there to Liverpool Street and then Heathrow. Miami next, and an internal flight to Tampa. In a thunderstorm. That was a long day for a young traveller. The sky went green over the Everglades. The flight attendant asked me if I’d like a drink. I said gin and tonic because the lady in the next seat had said it. I hadn’t had one before, and I haven’t had one since. But I think it did the trick.

My Dad and Roy Rees picked me up from the airport. I walked out of the air-conditioning into the breath-sucking, sweltering oppression of a Gulf coast afternoon, and if they’d been any more matter-of-fact about it, they’d have been strolling down Bangor High Street on a drizzly autumn morning. I must have visibly and audibly gasped. They acted as though I was behaving strangely.

“What’s the matter, lad?”

“It’s… hot!”

“It’s not that bad. Just a bit sticky, you’ll get used to it, aye… ”

(Straight faces)

We got in the car and drove to the University of South Florida, home to Camp Kikinthagrass, the soccer vacation destination of kids whose interest in football ranged from avid total commitment to “coach, I wanna go home… ”. A baby alligator occupied a parking space. Small enough to get between the bars in the storm drains, big enough to make you think.

“There’s your room” he said, “canteen’s over there. You’ll be helping with the drinks on the training pitches… ”

The Tampa Bay Rowdies. The North American Soccer League. I was sixteen, my Dad was forty six. A kids camp. Run by Gordon Hill, the patient, avuncular, good-humoured, moustachioed former English Football League referee. I spent virtually every day of that summer mixing huge tubs of iced Gatorade to slake the thirst of hundreds of kids, getting tanned and fit, eating pizza at CDB’s, listening to Led Zeppelin and playing football. And playing more football. Gordon’s son Matt and I became firm friends. And played more football. And watched football.

I watched Nottingham Forest train in the afternoon sun, European Champions; watched Clough point and Taylor remonstrate. Right in front of me. Watched them stay in first gear for a nil nil draw against the Rowdies. I watched George Best training with San Jose Earthquakes and sign every autograph for every kid who had no idea who he was… until later in their lives. Then I watched him play at Tampa Stadium – effortlessly brilliant. Only thirty-three years old, In the twilight of a career…

We played games for the coaches team against the Rowdies reserves and youth players and players returning from injury. In the evenings. It wasn’t any cooler, really. Except it had always rained so it was a bit fresher. Fullback. With Roy Rees talking me through the game. And my Dad. They played as two five-foot-something centre-halves. They had so much time on the ball. I couldn’t fathom it. At half time we drank litres of electrolytes… my Dad had a small cup of water and a fag. The surface was perfect, but unforgiving. If you slid, you burned. I came home with red circles all over my knees, but in my ears, forever lodged, were the words “stay on your feet… stay on your bloody feet!” I watch the game now and if I’m moved to shout, it will often be “stand up, stand up, don’t dive in, stay on your feet.”

Writing this, I’m moved to pinch myself. I was there with them. When it started.

I came home a better footballer, a stronger character and a year later found myself in pre-season training with Bangor University. This time it was just Roy Rees. He spared me no quarter whatsoever. He knew. I knew. I’d never be anything but a spindly passenger in the game, but he hammered me into improving, and every time he might have crossed into bullying, he didn’t. He laughed and punched me on the shoulder and told me I was getting there. Roy divided opinion. I liked him a lot. He and my Dad shared a view about the game, and I think, sport in general. The pair of them covered every base as a team. Hard. Forgiving. Encouraging. Tearing strips. Arms around shoulders. Laughing like drains. First touch, space, fitness, speed of the pass, play without fear, trust your teammates, self-control. Adapt. Stay on your feet.

I only went with them that one time. It was gold, though.

One day I will drink beer and eat pizza with Matt Hill and our families, and we’ll bore them rigid about what we did, what we saw that summer. What we learned. And what happened next.

Those were the embryonic days of an era that saw Roy Rees literally and metaphorically write the book of how the game of football would be played by young footballers in the USA. I know this because I spent hours photocopying drafts of said bible. My Dad asked me if I could do Roy a favour in my capacity as Resources Assistant at the Welsh National Centre for Religious Education. I kid you not. So now you know that amongst the many educational materials prepared for the spiritual development of young minds in Wales, a book called ‘The Manual of Soccer Coaching’ was prepared for the publishers. It came out in 1987, by which time Roy was behind a number of soccer clinics in the US sponsored by Umbro. Yes, old friends, that’s where all that Umbro stuff came from.

I can still vividly picture Roy and Tommy Glyn standing next to each other watching a game. That familiar ‘thinker’ pose. The occasional pointed finger. And then an intervention. A young player gets some attention. More pointing. Nodding. Where’s the space? OK? OK, coach. Play on. And then the shouts of encouragement when the same player slides in the right pass.

With the book’s principles adopted by the soccer authorities in America, Roy’s remit expanded, and inevitably, so did my Dad’s. Those must have been wonderful times. New Mexico, Texas, Florida, South Carolina, California, Oklahoma… I heard tales from all of them. Names cropped up. Was that THE Steve Heighway who was working with them? It was. He’s still dispensing wisdoms to young players at Liverpool. He’s unearthed a few in his time. He came to our house. My uncle John went with them on one trip. He had the time of his life. And he knew what it took to play football. The highs and the lows. He played for Liverpool. Made his debut at Craven Cottage on St David’s Day. He once scored for Crewe Alexandra at Gresty Road against Spurs in the FA Cup to earn the Railwaymen a 2-2 draw. High. They lost the replay 13-2 at the Lane in front of 64,000. Was that a low? There were two Welsh left wingers called Jones in those games. John Merfyn for Crewe and Cliff for Spurs. Cliff had played all five games for Wales in the 1958 World Cup by then.

Summer after football summer, my Dad got his itinerary and flew to the States. Friend. Right hand man.

A young man from Anglesey went over as well. He played for Bangor. My Dad had put him through his preliminary coaching badges in North Wales, and he went over on a football scholarship to Furman University in South Carolina where Roy was an associate coach. Osian Roberts credits both Roy and My Dad as being big influences on his career. And what a career that’s been. From what I can see, Osian continues the cycle of their insightful coaching. He’s learned from many of the very best since, as well. And he doesn’t just coach players, he coaches coaches. Ask Patrick Viera. And so it goes on. That’s what they did, Roy and Tommy Glyn.

In 1989 Roy coached the USA U16s to a famous victory against Brazil in the World Championships. Two years later his U17s beat Italy (in Italy), Argentina and China to win their ‘group of death’. They lost on pens in the quarters to none other than, who’d have thought, Qatar, after a 1-1 draw.

They’re both gone now. Roy died in 2011 and my Dad left us only a matter of weeks ago. But their knowledge and football brilliance didn’t die with them. It’s very much alive. On Monday November 21st when Cymru take on the USA in Qatar, their fingerprints will be there – however faintly they mark the occasion – they’ll be there. On both sides of the pitch. The principles of the beautiful game that they believed in so passionately; the understanding that it was through a rounded education and good structure that young talent could be brought through to flourish; they had a hand in that. For both sides.

How they’d have loved to have seen their nations – the one that they belonged to that shaped them, and the one they adopted – face each other in a World Cup. In their absence, those of us who were part of their extraordinary journey, will watch in their place and experience the sheer joy of the biggest stage in the world. And in a bar in Turkey, where I’ll be beseeching the football gods to smile on the fortunes of the Red Wall, I’ll want another beer but I’ll hear a voice that says “take it steady lad, don’t dive in… stay on your feet!”