This column is often devoted to discussion of the controversies and scandals that seem to roil the game every day, but today it will instead pay tribute to an iconic figure of a bygone era.
At a funeral service in Liverpool on Thursday, the Everton community bade farewell to Howard Kendall, a longtime servant of the club as player and manager. Prior to services at the Anglican Cathedral, where former players and team officials spoke in his honor, the procession completed a lap of Goodison Park, the club’s home since 1892 and where fans had laid wreaths and scarves and jerseys in his memory.
Among those in attendance was Orlando City SC head coach Adrian Heath, whose time at the club (1982-88) dovetailed with that of Kendall’s remarkable run of titles and trophies.
“Obviously it's a sad day and last weekend when I found out the news I was devastated because nobody's done more for me in my career than this man,” said Heath to the BBC. “I'm sure there'll be a few tears but I know there’ll be some laughter this afternoon because we had some incredible days on and off the field with Howard. He was a very larger-than-life character.”
Former internationals Peter Beardsley, Graeme Sharp, and Kevin Sheedy were among those in attendance, as was Manchester United star Wayne Rooney, a product of the team’s youth programs who debuted in the Premier League at 16 before moving to United in 2004, and Sir Alex Ferguson. Ex-Scottish international and TV pundit Andy Gray, whose long playing career included two seasons at Everton, attended. Rival Liverpool was represented as well by former players Mark Wright and Phil Neal.
The Everton Web site reported that nearly 2,000 people attended the service. Hundreds of fans held a vigil outside the gate and listened to speeches and eulogies extolling his nearly two decades of life at Everton.
Not many members of the current first team who attended the service were alive when Kendall ended his playing career and took over as manager. Everton, a founding member of the Football League when it started up in 1888, had won many trophies in its long history but nothing in the decade that preceded Kendall’s hiring in 1981.
More than three decades ago, before formation of the Premier League forever changed the landscape of soccer in England and everywhere else, Kendall took on the task of transforming a club mired in mediocrity. In its own city, and around England and Europe, Everton was a distant second to Liverpool, but under Kendall Everton reeled off a remarkable record. In six seasons it won two Division One titles (the top tier in English soccer at the time) and in another year finished second (to Liverpool). In three successive years (1984-86) it won the FA Cup and lost in the other two finals (once to Liverpool).
Club chairman Bill Kenwright CBE, said Kendall was “my idol for over 50 years, and a friend for over 30 years. We loved Howard so very, very much -- he understood Everton... that's what made him great. More than anything, he was a Blue. Thank you ‘H’ for everything.”
The 1984 FA Cup triumph earned Everton a place in the European Cup-Winners’ Cup (a competition discontinued and grafted into the UEFA Cup in 1999). Everton marched through to the final and captured the trophy by beating Rapid Vienna, 3-1, in Rotterdam. Everton had also captured the Division One title – a double that is seldom mentioned -- and seemed poised for several more years of domestic and international glory.
But a week later, at the start of the European Cup (now Champions League) final at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels, Liverpool supporters attacked Juventus fans occupying an adjoining section. In the mayhem, 39 Juve fans died, and in rebuke UEFA banned all English teams from European competition for five years.
Kendall guided Everton to another league title two years later but in part because of the European ban departed the following year to coach Spanish club Athletic Bilbao. He bounced around several clubs and came back twice to Everton before retiring in 1999. Aside from an FA Cup in 1995, in the big-money era Everton has been at times competitive but ultimately not quite good enough.
During his lifetime he played for and managed nearly a dozen professional teams but because of the attractive teams he fielded and the success they attained, Kendall is forever an Evertonian. There are hundreds of men like him in the history of the English League, who may have served in many places but are bound to one club for eternity.
You think of Kenny Dalglish or Kevin Keegan, you think of Liverpool. Sir Alex Ferguson is a Glaswegian who won his first European trophy with Aberdeen, but it’s at Old Trafford where a statute of him stands. Frank Lampard is ensconced as one of Chelsea’s all-time greats even though he matriculated at West Ham United.
MLS is “only” 20 years old, which is merely a blip compared to long, rich histories of leagues in Europe and South America. Yet already there are men whose names are part of club lore and as the years and decades unfold, more will join them.
Current D.C. United head coach Ben Olsen might move on to other gigs, yet he’s forever rooted in the team’s history. Jason Kreis has left Real Salt Lake, and might not return, but you can’t separate him from the club’s rise to prominence. Same with Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales. If Jay Heaps sticks around long enough, and wins New England its first MLS Cup, he’ll be a Rev forever. Maybe.
In this country sporting icons abound and their names are synonymous with a college or team or sport. Bobby Knight -- Indiana. Larry Bird -- Celtics. Willie Mays -- Giants. Vince Lombardi -- Packers. Billie Jean King -- tennis.
I’m not saying that anybody associated with MLS is or ever will be as well-known as these individuals. Their fame reaches beyond the universe of sports and is embedded in American culture.
Yet to D.C. United fans, Olsen is one of them and always will be. Red Bulls fans feel the same way about Mike Petke, his abrupt dismissal after one year as head coach notwithstanding. If Peter Nowak had coached Chicago to an MLS Cup title instead of D.C. United, he’d have a separate Ring of Fire all to himself. Time will determine if Peter Vermes leaves such a legacy in Kansas City, or someone attains iconic status in Portland or Houston or Montreal. Who knows just how revered will be Landon Donovan among the Galaxy faithful in 2035?
Kendall might or might not have used the term "early days," as so many of his colleagues have, but in regards to MLS, that's where we are. In another decade or two or three, the players and coaches of today will take their places among the pioneers of an American professional soccer league that gave the sport permanence.