Phil Parkes had never ever been out of England before. Gerry Taylor described it as the best tour he had ever been on. Terry Wharton took a trip up to Vegas. Wolves pretty much signed Frank Munro off the back of it.
Wolves’ American tour of the summer of ’67 – yes Bryan Adams you were two years out – left a memory and a legacy for many of those involved which remains as sharp and powerful today as it was 56 long years ago.
Nine weeks packed with 14 fixtures, regular long distance travel from their Californian base, plenty of extra-curricular activity meeting stars from the worlds of films and music – as you do – and, at the conclusion, being crowned the first ever United Soccer Association champions.
This wasn’t Wolves’ first trip Stateside, they had headed to America and Canada to play ten fixtures two years earlier, and it hasn’t been their last. Infact, they headed back again in the summer of ‘69 – that’s more like it, Bryan – to represent Kansas City, where they once again finished as winners.
But it was the tournament played in Los Angeles that is particularly remembered as it signalled the first sustained effort from a group of entrepreneurs to bring football, sorry, soccer – to the consciousness of the country’s sporting connoisseurs.
There was a race underway to launch some form of league in America, and, with competition growing elsewhere, the NASL (North American Soccer League) had to bring their plans forward to launch in the summer of ’67.
Without any players of their own, organisers decided to import 12 complete teams from Europe and South America, who would represent the respective American franchises ahead of potentially building their own squads for the following season.
And so, Wolves joined a list comprising Stoke and Sunderland from England, Aberdeen, Dundee United and Hibernian from Scotland, Glentoran and Shamrock Rovers from Northern and Southern Ireland, Den Haag from the Netherlands, Cagliari from Italy, Bango from Brazil and Cerro from Uruguay in becoming real-life footballing exports, spreading the word about the Beautiful Game.
“When we decided to start soccer here in America, I was warned constantly that this is a dull game,” boomed Jack Kent Cooke, after an incredible final which saw the LA Wolves defeat Washington Whips, otherwise known as Aberdeen, by six goals to five after an initial period of extra time and then sudden death ‘overtime’.
“Isn’t it one of the most exciting games you have ever seen in your life?!”
Cooke was among the founders of the United Soccer Association and was one of the league’s driving forces, as well as owning the LA Wolves.
His were big words to demonstrate big ambitions. The sort of confidence often associated with the residents of the Land of the Free. And, why not?
Having just watched and marvelled at such an incredible spectacle, it is little wonder that some of the main protagonists got themselves a little bit carried away.
And yet, the story of LA Wolves and that potentially ground-breaking summer, is one which has remained, largely untold, for over five-and-a-half decades.
A few column inches, You Tube clips and Wikipedia accounts aside, there has been very little forensic analysis or deeper reflection on the launch of the United Soccer Association, and what it ultimately meant to the eventual birth of soccer as a sport to rival baseball, basketball and their own (American) football, in the good ol’ US of A.
Until now, that is.
The latest offering from Wolves Studios, Wolves’ internal production house, has seen a collaboration with leading football media company Footballco and their award-winning football publisher and documentary maker, Mundial.
‘When LA Wolves Conquered the USA’ is the excellent and hugely informative result, a half-hour journey through the tournament via those who played, those who organised, those who watched and those who have since reported.
The impressive, finished work is thanks largely to Executive Producers Yannie Makarounas (Video Manager) and Russell Jones (General Manager Marketing & Commercial Growth) on the Wolves side, and, their fellow Wulfrunians, the film’s directors James Bird and Owen Blackhurst from Mundial.
A very well-attended premiere staged at the University of Wolverhampton’s Arena Theatre last Friday included the quartet taking to the stage to chat more about the making of the documentary and the inspiration behind it.
Jones outlined how it initially originated from a ‘WV1’ series of podcasts recorded last year by Seattle-based Wolves fan Laurence Scott, one of which was an interview with Parkes, while Makarounas revealed that it was a very different experience to previous Wolves Studios documentaries such as the widely acclaimed Code Red featuring Raul Jimenez.
“With previous documentaries, such as around Raul coming back from his injury, we pretty much knew the story when we set out, but this was completely different,” Makarounas explained.
“This was a story which not many fans know too much about, if it all, so we started out knowing parts but learning more and more as we went along.”
And where better to go to learn more than from those players, with Parkes, Taylor and Wharton not only interviewed at the premiere but featuring prominently in the documentary, as did their former team-mate Les Wilson, who was filmed at his home in Vancouver.
Speaking as they prepared for their first viewing, both Parkes and Taylor reflected on what was a special time in their burgeoning Molineux careers, given both were only 19 years of age at the time.
“I’d never been out of England before, I’d not even been to Wales,” revealed former goalkeeper Parkes.
“I’d never even had a passport so needed to get one of those sorted very quickly.
“I’d only played 14 first team games, one when Fred Davies was injured, and then the last 13 of the season as we got promoted to the First Division.
“Then (manager) Ronnie Allen asked me if I wanted to go to America? Well, yes please.”
“I don’t think I’d ever been out of the country before either,” added former defender Taylor who, like Parkes, had broken into the team during the latter stages of that promotion-winning 1966/67 campaign.
“I would say that the tour, even though it was very arduous with the number of games, was the best I have ever been on.
“We had a good hotel, good flights, lovely entertainment and were looked after all the way through by tremendous hosts.”
And talking of hosts, the documentary also captured an interview with Alan Rothenberg, a top American lawyer and sports executive who would later become President of US Soccer, overseeing the 1994 World Cup in the country and establishing the MLS (Major League Soccer) in its current form just two years later.
Back in the late Sixties, Rothenberg was serving as a lawyer for Cooke, the owner of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team who was now diving headlong into the world of soccer.
“I got involved in sports business and legal activities at a pretty young age and in that era, all I knew about as a great sports fan was baseball, (American) football, hockey and basketball,” Rothenberg recalled.
“I kind of knew that somewhere out there in the world there was something called soccer, and then I ended up working for Jack.
“I was 28 years old and had never played soccer, or seen a soccer game in my life, and he basically tasked me to look after this for him.”
As the LA Wolves kicked off their fixtures travelling around America including into Canada, they attracted plenty of curiosity and interest, especially when training at the ‘Lafayette’ park, the name of which probably carried fond connotations of their trip to the famous nightclub in Wolverhampton.
And, just like they would mix football with the nightlife back in WV1, it wasn’t just about the football in Los Angeles.
Cooke invited the team to a garden party at his house in Beverley Hills, with Parkes recalling his next door neighbour was comedian Jerry Lewis, “whose house was about three miles away down the road”!
Elsewhere Davy Jones, lead singer of hugely successful pop band The Monkees, had been at school with Wolves winger Dave Wagstaffe in Manchester, and one day the group popped to see the players before later giving them a tour of their recording studios.
As for Wharton meanwhile, a couple of days off meant the chance to stretch his legs, or rather jump on a flight, to Las Vegas.
“There was me and Ernie Hunt, and a couple of Wolves fans who were from London, who said, ‘come on, let’s go to Vegas’,” the wing wizard relates.
“I think it was 42 dollars return on the plane, and we met Clint Walker, who played Cheyenne Bodie in the TV series, while we were travelling.
“We stopped at the Thunderbird Hotel, where Clint was, and he got us into this dinner that was taking place at the end of the night.
“The actress Ann-Margret, who had done a couple of films with Elvis (Presley), was making her stage debut at another hotel and we all ended up walking down the red carpet and we also met the singer Trini Lopez.
“There were all these big stars, everywhere we turned.”
With the brilliantly entertaining Wharton dropping names with the same regularity as he swept past full backs, it perhaps needed the highlights reel of the final between LA Wolves and Washington Whips, which was on loop as guests waited to go into the theatre, to bring him back down to earth! Because it kept showing his missed penalty.
Wolves FPA Chairman and former striker John Richards, and ex-Molineux midfielder and once British record signing Steve Daley, who later played in America himself, attended the premiere.
And Daley, was, as ever, at his jocular best, berating Wharton for missing that spot kick, despite being so deadly from 12 yards throughout his career.
“They keep showing this penalty, you might actually score it in a minute,” he said.
“I hardly ever missed a penalty, and now I am seeing this one over and over again,” Wharton laughed.
“It doesn’t count though, because it was abroad!”
That penalty miss, which could have seen Wolves seal victory against Aberdeen ahead of going to sudden death, was one of many dramatic moments which gave those involved that dream final, as so colourfully described by Cooke.
It was a lively conclusion to say the least, maybe befitting of what was ultimately, even on American soil, England against Scotland. The Auld Enemies locking horns, in front of a crowd of 17,824 inside the aptly named Coliseum in Los Angeles. An amphitheatre fit for a final. And a plot befitting of any a Hollywood script.
This was no ‘friendly’ end to a summer tournament, this was fiercely competitive, and Jimmy Smith’s red card for taking out Wagstaffe followed earlier dismissals for four Wolves men during the eagerly contested group stages across Western and Eastern divisions.
Wolves had seen Dave Burnside, Hunt, Derek Dougan and Peter Knowles all sent off for different reasons during the qualification games. Despite often red hot weather conditions, no one was giving an inch.
“In modern football you see a lot of the ball being passed from side to side,” says Taylor.
“But in that final, everyone was going for it, it was end to end and very exciting.”
At one point the final brought a goalscoring flurry of four goals in four minutes, the match ending 4-4 after normal time, 5-5 after 30 minutes extra time, before six further minutes of sudden death were ended when Washington’s Ally Shewan turned Bobby Thomson’s cross into his own net.
“I think even their players were congratulating Ally after that own goal as it finally meant the game was over,” quipped Parkes.
Burnside notched a hat trick for Wolves, with Knowles and Dougan also on target, whilst Aberdeen had a certain player by the name of Frank Munro who also struck a treble.
Munro’s performance caught the eye of Wolves boss Allen, to the extent that he managed to sign him little over a year later, and he went on to become a cult hero at Molineux chalking up 371 appearances across nine years.
As well as becoming a roommate and close pal of Parkes.
“He would often talk about scoring a hat trick against me but I would immediately reply that two of them were penalties,” says the keeper.
Munro passed away in 2011 at the age of 63, but prior to that, lifelong Wolves fan John Lalley had visited him at his flat and watched back highlights of the dramatic final.
“While it was such an exciting game even when looking back, Frank was just completely relaxed about the whole thing,” says Lalley.
“There was a moment when he actually threw the ball at someone in a fit of pique but it ended up hitting Wolves chairman John Ireland.
“For someone who had such a devil-may-care attitude, he was really apologetic and was like, ‘sorry Mr Ireland’ which was funny to see!”
Former Wolves correspondents for the Express & Star Dave Harrison and David Instone were both interviewed for the documentary, but, back in 1967, there were no British media dispatched Stateside to cover the event.
So, imagine this. For fans such as Lalley, back home in Wolverhampton, the only way to keep track of proceedings was via reports sent back to the Express & Star – from what in modern terms would be considered an unlikely source!
“It would be a couple of days after a match that we would find out what had gone on and that would be via updates from Ronnie Allen appearing in the Express & Star,” says Lalley.
“Ronnie, of course, actually brought himself on in one of the games, just as Stan Cullis had done when he was a manager during a tour of South Africa in 1951.
“The Los Angeles Wolves certainly created a lot of interest among fans back home, and we kept a close eye on what was going on.
“But I will never forget picking up the programme for the first home game of the following season, which ended in a 3-3 draw against Albion, and there was very little detail even though the team had won the trophy.
“There was a cursory mention along the lines of the team having been on a little trip and did quite well, and that was about it!”
Perhaps therein lies further evidence of a tale for so many years left largely untouched, but one which first ignited interest in a game of football which didn’t require the need for helmets and padding and was played over two halves rather than four quarters.
“It was the wet cement, on which all these other things were built,” concluded Kevin Baxter, sportswriter with the Los Angeles Times, who provided some excellent commentary throughout the documentary, and whose view was echoed by utility man Wilson.
“The Los Angeles Wolves was the spark of soccer on the North American continent, because the game was televised, getting it into the households of people who didn’t know a great deal about true, professional soccer – this was the beginning,” he added.
The foundations, that wet cement, had certainly been laid for what would later be a gradual growth and then relative explosion of soccer in the States, with several other Wolves players later following in the footsteps of the class of ’67, before some of the game’s global superstars then took the plunge.
From Best to Beckham, Beckenbauer to Bale, Cruyff, Pele, Messi – some of the world’s most high-profile and successful talents have since plied their trade on the American stage, making it all the more noteworthy that, 56 years ago, it was a game which boasted such an inconsequential following Across the Pond.
This documentary, also including contributions from the Aberdeen players, tells the story not only by the words from the interviews but with an evocative musical score reviving strong Pulp Fiction vibes and extremely high production values including fantastic use of drone footage. All combined, it makes for a hugely entertaining watch.
Discussions are continuing as to the distribution of the film and where it will be shown first, but at some stage in the near future it will be available for Wolves fans to digest and enjoy, bringing into their consciousness a summer which, for those involved, has always remained happily in the memory bank.
“It’s been brilliant to re-live it all, and it was an experience I will never, ever forget,” Parkes reflects.
“It was probably one of the best times of my life.”