I would like to pass on my heartfelt condolences to his family and friends. In tribute to this honest and generous sportsman, who undertook a 140-mile round trip to talk to me in wintry conditions, here is the full interview from that day. I was particularly interested in the sudden and unprecedented rise in the Kicks' popularity after they moved to the Twin Cities from Denver in 1976. Retail entrepreneur Jack Crocker had initiated the move after seeing a 30,000 crowd cheer on the Portland Timbers. Thanks to clever marketing and promotion, a reputation for wild tailgating and a string of decent results, the Kicks were soon pulling in massive crowds to the 49,000-capacity Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington. Famously, they hammered the mighty New York Cosmos 9-2 during the 1978 playoffs.
Ian Plenderleith: What are your memories of how teams were marketed in the NASL?
Geoff Barnett: The majority of our team, the Minnesota Kicks, had come from England, recruited by [British coach] Freddie Goodwin. Our first game ever was in San Jose, and I’d just arrived in the country. Freddie says before the game, "We’re trying to teach the U.S. public this game, so line up in your positions on the park when they announce the teams."
Dutifully we did, then all of a sudden here comes this guy, Krazy George, on a motorized trike, weaving in and out of the players and we’re thinking, What the hell is going on here? The ref then blows his whistle to start the game and Krazy George is climbing up one of the stadium’s floodlight stanchions banging this drum. That was our first experience, followed quickly by our second game [in San Antonio] when a helicopter delivered the game ball. So a bit of a contrast after England, when you just went out to warm up for five minutes and then you started the game.
The first game we had at the Met Stadium was Mother’s Day in 1976, and they had flowers for all the women. Each mother was getting a rose. It was a blustery kind of day, as it usually was out at the Met as it was a wide open field, and there was smoke going up from the tail-gating. The Vikings were famous for it in cold conditions. This was a really nice day and we won a few hearts because we were so nice to the fans. Plus, the free parking - that was the big thing.
That first year we played the LA Aztecs and George Best. The Kicks did a promotion with McDonalds whereby you could redeem your ticket stub after the game for a Big Mac. It was the biggest redemption McDonalds ever had – there were 42,000 people there that day, and I think they had 35,000 redemptions. You couldn’t move in McDonald's that night for fans getting their free Big Macs.
Tell me about the San Diego Chicken – he’d hire himself out to different teams?
GB: He wasn’t a proud chicken. He'd turn out for whoever paid him five grand, plus expenses. In one game when I was coach, our left back David Stride had kicked one of the opposition players. The chicken had this move whereby he’d do a pirouette and then flop over playing dead with legs in the air. After this particular foul, the chicken ran on to the field and did this move right next to the player that Stride had fouled, implying that the player wasn’t injured. The referees goes nuts and comes over to me yelling, “Get that fucking chicken off the field!” I was saying it’s nothing to do with me, it was [Kicks GM] Tom Scallen’s idea.
One time they were promoting Mountain Dew, and as part of the promotion we players went out into the parking lot on golf carts to distribute it. It was the kind of thing we did all the time. Me and [English defender] Steve Litt went into the lot of one particularly boisterous fan group, and they were drunk as hell, asking what we had. We told them it was Mountain Dew and all they wanted to know was, "Does it go with vodka?"
Though for a lot of people it was a family outing, there were some who stayed out in the parking lot and never bothered with the game.
In this state, we didn’t have a drink-driving law at that time, which I don’t think came in until the late 70s. There was a pregnant girl that got hit by a Frisbee and all hell broke loose, and there was going to be a lawsuit against the city because they owned the parking lot. Part of the reason the Kicks failed was that once you’d paid the city for the parking, there wasn’t much profit. To offset tha,t they started charging for parking after all, and that went down like a ton of bricks. The Kicks had an absolute love affair with the fans, and it was reciprocated. Everyone 50 and above around here remembers the Minnesota Kicks. Taking the highlights reel into the schools really helped.
The Kicks' rise and fall was dramatic, spanning just six seasons, with the final year in 1981. What can you tell me about the new owner that year, Ralph Sweet?
GB: There was a big belief that he wasn’t the guy with the money. He did have a nice bungalow here out in the countryside, but I think he was the puppet of a guy in England. There was a guy called Jack Dunnett, the chairman of [English club] Notts County FC, he was also an MP. There was a feeling that there was some strange money knocking around from South Africa, from a guy called Dudley Sanger. It seems Dunnett had connections – you went through Sweet, through Dunnett, through another outside financial source. This source came to light on a trip when I was with Dave Ferroni, our PR guy, and he’s going, “That’s the man!” So Sweet was only a front man, and it really came to light because – it’s funny, just this morning I was talking to an old friend of mine who owns the Volvo dealership, and he mentioned Ralph Sweet and the Thunderbird. [Laughs.] You see, the club had got him [Sweet] this Ford Thunderbird. He was too excited about this Thunderbird. If you’ve got that kind of money he was claiming, a 1981 Thunderbird isn’t going to excite you that much.
It all went down to the wire. We’d been beaten in a playoff game, and we’d had to play at the university stadium against Fort Lauderdale. I’d planned a trip overseas to scout for players, and the Volvo dealership told me I could pick up a new Turbo 240 and bring it back. I pick up the car in Sweden, put it on the ferry across to Felixstowe, and I meet Sweet in his house southwest of London. I picked up my girlfriend from the airport and we go to see Ralph and he makes me a cup of tea, and then he goes, "I’ve got some bad news for you, Geoffrey. We’re folding the team." And I said, "What the fuck am I doing over here scouting for players, getting this new car?" And he just says, "That’s the way it is. It’s done."
I get back to my hotel in Kensington, and I called GM Tommy Scallen, and he confirmed it. I said I should get the next plane back, but he said not to bother, it wouldn’t happen that quickly, so we went to France for a week. Me and him [points at Alan Merrick] were fighting because he was looking after the players’ rights. They were approaching men like Rod Burwell in the city here to take over the team - a successful businessman, a great guy, we had a meeting with him, but that aside all I could do was stay at home. The only communication I had was my phone at home because they’d closed the office. I’d meet with [NASL commissioner] Phil Woosnam trying to get another buyer, and I was going down to the bankruptcy court. If the players weren’t paid in 30 days, they could become free agents, so that was what was worrying me. They got enough money to pay the players, but only for 30 days, so after that next 30 days elapsed, they would be gone – they [the players] had to look after their own interests, so even though they wanted to save the team, they had to think about their futures. It wasn’t a nice time.
There was a feeling throughout the league that if the Kicks can’t make it, with their crowds, then who the hell can make it?
The 1976 Minnesota Kicks: Geoff Barnett far left, middle row. Alan Merrick is in the middle of the front row.
Alan Merrick: And with the Kicks crowd, it was a bona fide crowd, the numbers were the real numbers, not the ‘announced crowds’ you got at other stadiums - when the numbers in the stadium were nowhere close to the official crowd.
GB: When we came in, and Alan and I were bit-part players compared with some of the bigger names [in the NASL], we thought this was it. But the first game I ever coached was down in Texas Stadium and we won 3-0, but there were maybe 3,000 people there, and at that time there were over 100,000 playing the game down there.
[Before the Kicks] I had the opportunity to sign for the Cosmos in October 1975, but I turned them down.
GB: Do you want to hear a really strange story?
I love really strange stories.
GB: My dad was ex-military. He always had this thing that, 'If you’ve got a clean white shirt and your shoes are shiny, you’re halfway towards being smart.' If you remember the rules at the time, you were the possession of the club, and they could sell you to who the hell they liked, but not if they were selling you outside the country. So me and Ken Fryatt, Arsenal secretary, drove out to Heathrow when the Cosmos were coming in to start a world tour - with Pelé and [GM] Clive Toye and Warner Brothers, and the whole travelling road show.
Everybody’s nicey-nicey, as you would be when you’re trying to sign a new player, and Clive Toye says, 'I’d like to introduce you to our coach Gordon Bradley.' I went over, he’d just got off the plane. His shirt was totally scruffy around the neck, and his shoes were dirty, and I took one look at him and thought to myself, my dad would never agree with me playing for a guy with a dirty shirt and dirty shoes. I turned to Ken and said, 'Let’s go back to Highbury, I’m not signing.' He asked me why, and I said, 'There’s just something that’s not right about this deal.' I never told him the real reason. It’s only years after that you can tell a story like that. There’s Pelé and the whole team about to go on a world tour that I could have been part of, and I’m saying, I’m not going, his shoes are dirty!
Strange things that happen in your life, and you do them or you don’t do them. When Freddie [Goodwin] came after me ... I’d asked a couple of business guys I knew about New York, and no one could give me an idea about the cost of living and the like. But when Freddie came to see me, he didn’t sell me on the concept of the team, he sold me on Minnesota. I started looking through all this stuff he left me, about General Mills, the lakes and everything, and I think the United States is a hell of a place -- all these fundamentalists and of those who hate the U.S., 99% of them would love to live here. And so I got that second chance after the Cosmos and that’s why I decided to come over, having turned down that [first] opportunity.
Did you check Freddie Goodwin’s shoes before you signed?
GB [laughs]: Freddie wasn’t exactly the best dresser, but at least his shoes were clean.
Going back to Ralph Sweet and the demise of the Kicks -- Alan told me there seemed to be some sort of money laundering going on. Why would somebody be using the Kicks for financial gain. How was that happening?
GB: This is pure conjecture. I think it was South African money that couldn’t be used for any other purpose – the two letters of credit [to the NASL], for $500,000 and $150,000, both were written on a bank in Luxembourg [in fact, Liechtenstein -- IP]. The amount we got for players and assets paled in comparison to those amounts. The bankruptcy court allowed those two lines of credit back in, which I thought was very strange.
I first got wind that things weren’t that good one time in Toronto when we checked in to the hotel, then I get a phone call from the hotel manager that the team’s Amex credit card was no good. Someone at the team managed to convince Amex that there was money on the way, because an hour later it was OK again. A year later Amex told me I owed them $45,000, because as the team coach I’d signed off on a lot of stuff.
A guy like Sweet doesn’t invest in a North American soccer club. He was a fish out of water. Has this guy traveled at all? It sticks out like a sore thumb when someone’s out of their league with what’s going on. Like with the Thunderbird.
One time we had great deals with car dealers, we were all driving great cars. All of a sudden Tommy Scallen says we have to take our cars back as we had a new car provider – we were all getting Chevettes, light blue, little tin boxes. I say to Tommy, "I ain’t driving a fucking Chevette." He says, Why not? I said, "I’m single, I play for the Minnesota Kicks, I’m kind of a star around here. You think I’m driving around the city in a fucking Chevette, what are the women going to think? My contract says if I don’t drive the car provided, you have to give me a certain amount of money to compensate." I called my attorney, and five minutes later I get a call back telling me to go and see a guy called Shel Bird, a Volvo dealer down in Minneapolis. I go down and see Shel and 20 minutes later I’m driving a Volvo. It was only $150 a month, something like that.
Didn’t the other players notice?
GB: Yes. And did I care? No. I’d gone out and done my own deal.
What was the social scene like here with the Kicks – no drink driving laws, young free and single?
GB: It was scary. It was great! It’s changed – most of the action’s in uptown and downtown. Around the airport and in Bloomington, that whole airport was called the Bloomington Strip, it’s where all the night clubs were, it’s where we hung out and the Vikings hung out. I met my wife on the Strip, we’ve been married 32 years. They fell all over you because of your accent. It went two ways, they liked us, and we liked the way they treated us, we were very approachable.
There was an area where we met the fans after the game. Our team colors came out of County Seat, owned by chairman Jack Crocker, and a guy who worked for him, Tom Dekko, and his wife Dottie – the blue was supposed to represent the blue of the denim that County Seat used to sell. We’d only been here a short time when Freddy Goodwin said we didn’t have a set dress code. I was used to travelling with the Arsenal in a suit. To this day I’ve never owned a pair of jeans. So Freddy had bought this blue leisure suit, out of nylon, something your grandpa would wear when he’s 83 years old, and he says to me, 'What do you think of this?' I almost fucking burst out laughing. I said, Fred that’s very nice, but we’d had a meeting and the players had said, 'I’m not fucking wearing that.' So I told Freddie it would probably be best if the guys continued wearing what they wanted to wear.
We were refreshing. When you look at our double team from 1971 [Arsenal was the English League champion and FA Cup winner that year], and in my time at Arsenal up to 1975, they were great times – we’re still very popular with the Arsenal, I don’t know how many dinners we’ve had at the Emirates, [former Arsenal players] Charlie George and Sammy Nelson organize it and we do these dinners for charity. It seems that the fans now look back at us because we were always approachable. The fans don’t relate to the players any more, they’re not as approachable, there’s more money. They’ve moved on to another level. They don’t have friends, they have an entourage of fucking hangers-on who don’t mean diddly-shit. Back then people couldn’t wait to put their hands in their pockets and get you a drink. We were just regular guys, we weren’t super-paid. The same with a lot of the Vikings guys back then, they weren’t making that much money.