On a sweltering August evening in 1978, Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minnesota was buzzing. The 45,863 fans were still streaming in from epic tailgate parties. The smell of charcoal briquettes and seared meat still lingered over the switchback ramps to the stadium’s upper levels. As you rose higher you could scan the Thunderbird Hotel with it’s landmark totem pole just to the north and below, 1970’s muscle cars, motorcycles and conversion vans, dotted the parking lot.
Inside the stadium, a 22-year-old soccer player, 4,000 miles from his home, took the field with his teammates. The Minnesota Kicks of the North American Soccer League were in their third year and that night they were facing the New York Cosmos in a conference semifinal match. This Kicks forward, nicknamed the Artful Dodger for his ability to pickpocket defenders for goals, had scored many in his first three years with his new American team. He had played the Cosmos previously, but like a curse, had yet to score against the fabled team of international superstars. Little did Alan Willey know he was about to have a career night and would score five goals in a 9-2 rout. Yet in the sheer joy of that night and the happiness of his performance there were moments of utter panic and self doubt.
On Saturday night, June 13, 2015, former Minnesota Kicks legend Alan Willey will have come full circle. After Minnesota United FC named Willey as the new color commentator for all 2015 home and away matches, they set aside this coming Saturday evening as Alan Willey Night to commemorate his historic soccer career in Minnesota.
“When I started doing this, (broadcast team) never in a million years would I have thought that they’d do this,” Willey recently told me in an hour long visit at a coffee shop near his Bloomington home. He’s lived in the same area since his playing days with the Kicks. “It’s really nice of them. It’s a bit overwhelming but I’m really looking forward to it.”
The tribute is fitting but the path has been long. Willey’s fear of public speaking has taken years to overcome. While a player, even having to speak to children at promotional events would cause him to pause until a teammate signed up first. He would then choose someone to partner with who was good at speaking so he could sit in their shadows, do what he knew best and juggle the ball and do football tricks. “Being from another country I was always conscious of my accent,” Willey said. “I was quiet and just didn’t like to talk.”
Willey explains that he was a shy young man who didn’t know much about the world outside of England. He made his debut in his country’s top division of football with Middlesbrough when he was only 17.
“It was September 25th, 1974 against Manchester City,” said Willey. “Rodney Marsh, Colin Bell, Mike Summerbee, all these really big players were in the game. I remember waiting for the kick off and three or four guys from City come over and shook my hand told me good luck and congratulated me. That was pretty special because you certainly don’t expect that from the opposition. We ended up beating them 3-0. It was a good day.”
Willey’s career started when he was playing for a local YMCA team and someone had seen him. Willey says there was no phone call but instead a letter in the mail asking him to trial with Middlesbrough. His father, a TV repair man, drove him down to the youth team tryout in his work van at the Middlesbrough training ground.
“They put me on this team and gave me a number 9 shirt,” says Willey. “I scored a hat trick in my first match with them. So they invited me to another game and I scored two goals in that game.”
Willey received yet another letter but this time asking if he wanted to become an apprentice with the team. He says in those days being an apprentice allowed you to lodge in the team facilities – a house with 15 rooms across from the stadium – and be part of the youth teams. But it also meant you’d have to get the equipment and uniforms ready for the team and clean and shine their boots. They were also expected to clean and paint the bathrooms, groom the fields, clean whatever needed cleaning including waiting around for the senior team players to exit the locker room as they threw their soiled cloths in heaps. The apprentices were expected to do their laundry and clean up all their messes.
That wasn’t all. At that time Middlesbrough’s stadium held about 50,000. “The day after the game we’d have to join the workers and sweep the stands of all the garbage from top to bottom.“ Willey says he earned about $10 dollars a week for all of that.
Willey says he was lucky that he only spent about 8 months as an apprentice saying some players lingered there for years. The famous English player and manager Jack Charlton was managing Middlesbrough at the time and as usual Willey was scoring lots of goals for his reserve team. Charlton called him up to the first team.
Willey spent time floating back and forth between the first team and the reserves. One of his teammates was Frank Spragan, a left back for Middlesbrough . Newly appointed manager of the Minnesota Kicks, Freddie Goodwin, had scouted and signed Spragan for this new American team. “Goodwin came to see him and the reserves were playing that night. I think I scored 5 goals and Freddy asked me if I’d be interested in coming to Minnesota,” Willey said. “My first comment to him was, where is Minnesota? I’d grown up in Sunderland and Minnesota was like the end of the world to me.”
Charlton told Willey he thought it would be good for him to get more playing time since it was basically the offseason for England. So Willey headed for America and Minnesota no less. A move that started a sea change for him. He spent 1976 and 1977 shuttling back and forth between the US and England explaining that he was young and able to keep up the pace.
Willey explains that in those days, young players, no matter how good, were left in the reserves or on the bench in favor of older and experienced players – a pecking order. As much as he appreciated Middlesbrough he wasn’t seeing a lot of first team action and was growing frustrated. After scoring another 5 goals in a reserve match and on his way to his car after the match, he heard someone shouting his name. It was another legendary coach, Jimmy Smith, who was in charge of Blackburn Rovers. There were no rules at that time on approaching players and Smith asked him if he’d like to go to Blackburn on a loan. Willey talked to Middlesbrough about the loan and it looked likely. But then there was a phone call.
“Someone answered the phone and said, it’s for you,” explains Willey. “I thought, no one ever calls me. It was Freddie Goodwin. He said, I hear you want to go on loan to Blackburn. I said yes, I’d just talked to them last night. He told me to hold on and he’d get back to me the next day. The next thing I know the Kicks purchased my contract and a week later I was in Minnesota for good. They paid about £40,000 which was about $70,000 in those days. It was a good amount back then but now that’s pocket change.”
Willey was the ultimate goal poacher, the Chris Wondolowski of his day, but perhaps more athletic. He could score with his head but more likely he’d find the right spot to exploit the opposition’s mistake, get in front of defenders on runs and always be in the right spot for a rebound or a cross. He also had a great shot and while not lightning fast, was able to turn a player, get his shot off and usually hit the corners without ever looking up.
“People ask me what sort of player I was,” says Willey. “I wasn’t really a target man even though I played that position sometimes. I always liked to play off of somebody. With the Kicks that happened to be Ron Futcher. In the air he was strong and he could hold the ball up. You have to read the play. If it was a high ball you knew his only option was to flick it on. I was always off of him by five or ten yards. I’d read the play and always tried to curl my run and read how the ball was coming in. I’d try to get a jump on the defenders.”
“I was never the fastest – if you can get a running start on the defender and they’re flat footed, nine times out of ten you’re going to beat them. It’s funny because some people called me deceptively slow. But I’d only show the defenders enough speed that they needed to see. The next time they’d only see my number and name on the back of my shirt… and someone picking the ball out of the back of their own net.”
Which brings us back to that legendary Cosmos thrashing.
Charley George scored for the Kicks just 52 seconds into the match which was a NASL play-off record for the fastest goal. The Cosmos keeper Yasin, was injured on the play with a concussion.
“They lost their goalkeeper in an injury in the first minute,” said Willey. “But the way we played I don’t think it would have mattered.”
The Cosmos Captain and German international Werner Roth, scored an own goal 18 minutes in after being pressured by the Kicks Chico Hamilton.
Willey’s first goal came at the 30 minute mark making it 3-0 at half time.
Giorgio Chinaglia got one back just three minutes into the second half. Just 5 minutes later the Kicks scored again, their 4th. This time it was South African star and fan favorite Ace Ntsoelengoe.
Then the floodgates opened for Willey as did the anxiety. “Leading up to that Cosmos game there was nothing in the books that would lead me to believe that I was going to score 5 goals,” Willey said.
Willey scored three unanswered goals in the 63rd, 70th and 78th minute.
The Cosmos scored their 2nd of the game soon after but Willey scored his 5th with just minutes left in the game as did Hamilton who capped off the evening with the teams 9th goal.
“It was right after the third goal,” says Willey. “I was really enjoying myself and then the thought occurred to me. I’m going to have to stand up in front of the cameras and do those interviews on TV and radio.” Willey says he was going in and out of panic.
“Even in front all off those people, it was the games where I felt at peace. You don’t have to talk to anyone, you’re on the field where you do your best work and you love doing it. That’s just the way I was.”
However, the moments off the field were another matter and soon that was laying heavy on the Kicks scoring legend. “When I scored the fourth and fifth I’m just thinking, wow. What am I going to do?”
“I was a kind of in a panic. It doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy that night. I did. I had time to look around the stadium and see all the fans going crazy and we were up 7-1 or 7-2, whatever it was at that moment.”
Willey’s joy can clearly be seen in this YouTube video of the evening as he was all smiles after the 5th goal, getting congratulated by his teammates.
Willey did have to do interviews and he may not have enjoyed it but he did survive. Bruce Brothers, who covered the game has Willey quoted only twice in his article. Willey simply stated, “I’ve had nothing as good as that.” He was of course correct and never had anything as good as that afterwards either.
The Kicks lost the return leg just two days later in New York by a score of 4-0. That forced a mini game immediately afterwards which went to a shootout and the Kicks lost 2-1.
Willey played outdoor and indoor soccer unitl the 1988-1989 indoor season when he finally hung up his boots. He was always a consistent goal scorer.
He says he scored 28 goals in one season, in 1981 with the Montreal Manic. He scored 21 regular season goals and 7 in the playoffs.
“That’s in 32 games,” Willey said. “So that was at a pretty good clip. In my bad years I scored 15 or 16 goals. But again, that’s in 30 games so I was still scoring in half the games. I’d never have big droughts in goals. I might go a couple of games without one but I was always able to get enough goals that I was always in the top half of the scoring charts.
In his time with the Kicks, Willey averaged .6 goals per game and officially scored 129 goal in 238 career North American Soccer League matches, the 2nd highest all time goal scorer in the original NASL.
Willey says he didn’t really get the recognition that some players in the league did and he certainly got lost in the years following his playing days when other sports celebrities in town were invited to events and talked to by the media. But some of that might have been his own doing.
“With the recognition comes the interviews. The more accolades the more interviews and I really didn’t like that. I was just a shy kid. I’m still shy today. I would have preferred to score all those goals and not talk to anyone,” Willey said.
The call came at a moment of weakness for Alan Willey – literally. He had hurt his back and was high on painkillers when he received a phone call with someone telling him – he thought – that he was going to be inducted into the US Soccer Hall of Fame along with teammate Patrick “Ace” Ntsoelengoe.
“I remember I was really drowsy when he called and I sort of forgot about it,” explained Willey. “The next day I told my wife, Lori, I think someone called yesterday… and I think they told me I was going into the hall of fame.”
He eventually received an official letter and gave a gracious speech in front of many people according to his wife, Lori in The Story of Glory, a book she wrote about the couple’s relationship and faith. Not only was the honor special for a guy who had not had much recognition for his accomplishments, but Lori, and his two young daughters who were too young to remember his playing career, also were able to celebrate his special day. Kicks defender, captain and later manager, Alan Merrick attended as did former Kicks GM and team owner Tim Robbie. “With Ace also being inducted It was pretty special, but my goodness was I scared about going up and giving that speech.”
Willey said he received a call from Minnesota United’s Brad Baker this past winter. Baker is in charge of United’s excellent video production team including all broadcasts. Baker asked Willey if he’d be interested in doing the color commentary for the team. “I told my wife Lori, I’ve never done anything like this before,” explained Willey. “She told me, you do it every week. I asked her what she meant. She said, every weekend you tell me all about the Premier League games – but I just don’t listen. Now somebody finally will.”
These days Willey is getting comfortable on the other side of the microphone as a color commentator. “It’s like the complete opposite of where I was at when I was younger, but It actually feels pretty good,” Willey says. “I was really nervous the very first broadcast. When you go live and Brad (Baker) says, OK everyone, have a good show. We go live in ten seconds. You go whoa! My mouth dried right up and I had to get a bottle of water. I kept taking drinks the whole broadcast.”
“I think it’s maturity more than anything,” continued Willey. “Back then I was in my early twenties and had never done any sort of public speaking ever. I’d get nervous when people would talk to me. After 20 years of working outside of soccer and with my wife Lori and I having done some speaking at churches, it’s gotten easier.”
Willey says another new skill he is learning is prepping for games. He spends quite a bit of time during the week researching players and coaches from the next week’s opposing team. He compliments Baker for making his job easier. He also credits play-by-play man, Chris Lidholm for his professionalism and preparation.
“Chris is just a natural at it. He has so much stuff to do. Me? I really don’t do that much.” But Willey says that’s changing also. He says each broadcast Baker is slowly encouraging him to do more, like this past week when he told Willey rather than just comment on the replays they show that he should let the the production team know what highlights he’d like to replay so he can point out tactical situations both good and bad.
“The difficult part is before the game starts. Once it starts everything seems natural. My whole life has been about soccer. People might not always agree with me, but it’s what I know.”
Willey has a son, Sam, who is 10 years old and of course never saw his dad play. On a recent car trip, Sam commented to his mom. “Dad’s becoming famous again, isn’t he?”
Willey said, “I just let him roll with it.”