By Paul Gardner
Roy Rees -- gone so suddenly, so sadly. They say he was 74, but that hardly seems possible to me. I suppose they’re right, but Roy, both in mind and body, was always a young man to me.
Here he comes, I can see him so clearly, moving swiftly toward a soccer field, short, bronzed, muscular, smiling and quiet spoken. And Welsh. Something I teased him about -- after all, I mean, Welsh? They only know about choirs and rugby -- but he took it all in good fun and gave as good as he got.
Anyway, beneath my fun-making lay a grudging admiration for the Welsh -- the Celtic outsiders in English life, the people from the “borders” -- always likely to have weird ideas, to do things differently. And, in the claustrophobic world of soccer coaches, Roy was different.
He saw the game differently. He discussed it in a way that always held my interest. Because he talked, not about fancy coaching theories and tactics, but about players.
He was, mind you, fully equipped to talk theory had he wished to do so. He had been through the FA coaching courses at Lilleshall in England at a time when they were in the iron grip of the notorious Charles Hughes, a firm believer in tactics as the most important aspect of the sport, and the staunchest advocate of the long-ball game.
I wanted Roy to tell me about those courses, just what had been taught, but he wasn’t interested. The only incident from those days that he thought it worthwhile relating was of how he and a few more coaching students had snuck up on Hughes one day and dumped him into a fountain.
More to the point, Roy never sounded like a Lilleshall graduate. Most of them -- and I’ve met quite a few -- do end up sounding very similar. Why wouldn’t they, when they’ve all been indoctrinated with the same gospel? But not Roy. He always talked to me about his players. His players with the Houston Texans, and with the U-17 national team.
I spent a lot of time with him in the late 1980s and the 1990s at various Dallas Cups, and at three under-17 World Cups, where Roy coached the USA. Those were the years when the Dallas Cup regularly featured the Bolivian youth team Tahuichi -- far and away the best youth team they have ever had there -- and Roy quickly became a fan of their skillful play.
I think their play had an influence on his selections for the national team. He was scornful of most of the player recommendations he was getting from around the country. They tended to emphasize size and strength. He told me of the coach who called him to praise a player and kept repeating “He’s a horse!" Roy had replied, “Fine. When I’m looking for an entrant for the Kentucky Derby, I’ll get back to you.”
For the 1993 World Cup in Japan, Roy’s chosen midfield featured three Latinos. That was a first -- Roy was way ahead of his time -- and, naively, I asked him what it meant. I was thinking of style and tactics, the very things Roy found it tedious to talk about. He smiled and replied, “It means our midfield is a lot smaller than anyone else’s.”
Roy did have his problems with the new generation. Basically, it was the eternal problem of all teachers -- and parents: Relating to a younger generation. In 1989 his team -- it included Claudio Reyna -- had staggered everyone at the World Cup in Scotland by beating Brazil, the first time the USA had ever beaten Brazil, at any level of soccer. The team had played well, but a dangerous overconfidence immediately developed. Roy sensed that, tried to crush it quickly, but to no avail.
Two days after its historic 1-0 win over Brazil, the USA played poorly, almost lazily, against East Germany and got clobbered 5-2. The result knocked them out of the tournament.
In Italy, just two years later during the 1991 U-17 World Cup, the same sort of arrogance resurfaced. The USA could hardly have had a better first round, winning all three of its games, including 1-0 wins over Italy and Argentina. A quarterfinal against unfancied Qatar came next. Same story -- a wildly overconfident USA played poorly and was beaten on penalty kicks.
How could that happen . . . again?
“I warned them,” Roy told me, “I did everything I could to make them aware of the danger. I showed them a tape of that 5-2 loss to East Germany, and I told them ‘Remember -- these are the guys who thought they were going to win the World Cup,’ but it didn’t get through to them.”
There was to be one more World Cup for Roy -- in 1993, with his Latino midfield. After that, he was "let go" by the USSF. Always a maverick, always the “man from the borders,” he had made some crassly undiplomatic comments about some of the USSF people involved in youth soccer, after which there had been a disciplinary problem with one of his U-17 players.
So Roy’s adventurous use of Hispanic players -- which meant, of course, a different style from the more traditional athletic game -- came to a halt. And so, for a while, did the development of young players in the USA, as coaching orthodoxy returned. A backward step for which we are still paying.
Roy believed that for the American players to improve, they had to receive better and more concentrated coaching. By the early 1990s he had already formulated a scheme for a full-time residency school, in Houston I think it was to be, with details of financing and high school attendance already worked out.
That didn’t work out -- but in 1999 the USSF’s Bradenton Program opened up ... a full-time residency school for young players.
My highest praise for Roy is that he always came over as Roy Rees, always his own man with his own ideas and opinions. He never sounded like a coach, he never spouted the orthodoxy and the pseudo-clever claptrap that now dominates so much of the coaching scene. He didn’t think much of any of that, but I never heard him badmouth another coach.
He talked about his players, their skills, their faults, their personalities. With a smile and a soft Welsh accent, he brought the game to life. He could do that, because he loved what he was talking about. That’s another quality those weird, wild Welsh are supposed to have -- wasn’t Merlin the Wizard a Welshman?