Commentary

A Chat with Seamus Malin: Part 1 -- Harvard and UK coaching courses in the 1970s

When Soccer America published my piece about Pele's first away game in the North American Soccer League  in 1975 a couple of weeks ago, former ABC and ESPN commentator Seamus Malin  got in touch to say that he had some memories of his own from that night at Nickerson Field. He'd been working as a radio commentator for the home team, the Boston Minutemen, for 50 bucks a throw, while holding down a day job at Harvard University as an administrator and a part-time soccer coach.

"The game was wildly oversold and hence the near-disaster with the crowd," Malin wrote by email. "In addition to fans inside the ground along the touch lines, there were also people who parked their cars in the breakdown lane of the nearby elevated Massachusetts Turnpike Extension -- a four- or five-lane interstate leading to downtown Boston and the Harbor. Once out of their cars, those fans sat on the cement barrier wall, which provided a perfect view from behind one goal to the whole pitch."

The famous Pelé 'goal' that triggered the field invasion was not actually a goal at all, Malin wrote, but "turned out actually to have been a shot that rebounded off the keeper’s left post and back into play. Because of all the fans crowding around the goal area, the ref seemed initially to think the shot came back into the field of play off the inside of the metal stanchion supporting the net, and was thus a perfectly good goal. He was eventually persuaded that it came back either off the post, or a fan standing by the post!"

The Irish-born Malin, who turned 80 this year, wrote that he had a stack of further memories from his decades in the game as a broadcaster covering numerous World Cups and major European games for North America's burgeoning soccer audience. It seemed like a good idea to call him by Skype at his home in Santa Fe and see what else he had to say. Plenty, of course -- in fact, so much that I'm splitting the chat into two parts (because I had plenty to say as well).

IAN PLENDERLEITH: Your favorite English team is Aston Villa. How did a boy growing up in Ireland come to follow a club from the English Midlands?

SEAMUS MALIN: I went to a Jesuit school, Belvedere College in Dublin, the same one that James Joyce went to. If you've ever read 'Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,' that's where it's located. Joyce was persona non grata at that time -- now he's a big tourist plus. Anyway, private schools at that time only played rugby because it was considered the gentleman's game, whereas soccer was considered to be for ruffians. I enjoyed playing rugby for my school, but we played 3-on-3 soccer in the street, that's where I learnt the game. My best friend in school when I was 10 years old was an Aston Villa fan, because his father was an Aston Villa fan, and Aston Villa had a player called Con Martin who played for Ireland in the 50s, and we all loved him. So I said that Villa was my team too, and that was 71 years ago.

I try to get to Villa Park every year, if I can. I can still rattle off the 1957 cup-winning team [when Villa beat Manchester United 2-1 in the final]. I went to the 2000 final, the last one at the old Wembley. There's a bunch of us here in the U.S. who email each other about the latest news -- so I'm still an active Villain.

IP: What took you to the US in 1958?

SM: My father was a political journalist in Ireland, but he got a job offer to come and work for the Boston Globe, where he'd worked for a few months as part of a cultural exchange in the early 1950s. He was there for the first Eisenhower-Stevenson political campaign, and he wrote articles for the Boston Globe and also the Irish newspapers. He just fell in love with the country.

He played poker with Harry Truman on a train ride across the country, he sat and had beers with Richard Nixon, who insisted he was more Irish than my father, which was sort of true, actually. So, that whetted his appetite to come back, and in 1958 we sold our house in Dublin and all six of us moved to Boston. I went to university at Harvard and I played soccer for them -- that was the first time I'd played on an organized side, and the first time I'd played on a field with goals that had nets.

It was hard to keep up with the world game, so I'd go to the library on a Monday and read the London Times to catch up with the results. Eventually I bought a short wave radio so that I could listen to the BBC. I also went to a bunch of games that [Bill] Cox organized, and it was quite something to drive out to places like Ludlow or Chicopee, Massachusetts, to watch Dukla Prague play Bangu of Brazil. That was the only game in town at that level, and it was packed with people hungry for the game who were mostly immigrants. I'd also drive with my coaches down to Brooklyn to see these challenge games featuring touring teams from countries like Italy and Scotland.

I had an academic career that paid my mortgage, but I had two careers -- my soccer career was this wonderful, passionate side to my working life. There was an article about me once in the Harvard Crimson, and the headline was 'Days in the office, nights in the stadium,' and one of my co-workers scratched out the word 'days' and replaced it with 'daze.' So I was an administrator at Harvard from 1965 to 2005, but I did a lot of soccer -- I used to travel abroad a lot because I ran the international students' office, and before that I was in charge of international admissions and fellowships. I used to come to London and Paris every year for committee meetings, but I would plan them after I'd looked at the English Division One schedule -- are Aston Villa playing anywhere near London that weekend?

IP: That's how I schedule my visits home to the UK. 'Where and when are Lincoln City playing that week?'

SM: I have a Lincoln City connection! I was on an FA coaching course with Colin Murphy [Lincoln City coach in the 1980s]. I did a preliminary FA coaching course at the University of Exeter for two weeks in 1970, and I passed -- I was one of 13 out of 30 people that got the badge.

Two years later I decided to go for the full coaching badge. I had no intention of coaching at pro level, but I wanted to push myself. And it was a big step up, a serious business with ex-pros and so forth. Out of 33 on the course only three passed, and one of them was 'Murph.' I met him in Walsall of all places, the Walsall College of Education. My memory is of slogging it out in double sessions, day after day, rain or shine, and then we repaired to a pub called The Dirty Duck. We would all sit and moan about the FA coaching staff. We struck up a friendship, he was a wonderful friend and a great ally on the pitch. I have to be honest, the local Brits and our teammates were not too bemused by an American accent in 1972. Back then, you got a lot of stick, and 'Murph' was one of the people who'd step in and say to me, 'Pay no attention to that.'

There was a written exam and a practical one, with an assignment you'd get slipped under your door late at night. So I knew my day was coming up, and every night I'd wait anxiously to see if an envelope was coming. Eventually one arrived, the big moment, so I picked up the note and opened it, and the assignment was: "Coach 15 players to create space in a telephone booth." I knew it was Murphy! I went down the hall and banged on his door. He had a great sense of humor. He went on to coach in various places, and I went to one of his sessions when he was coach at Derby County. That was quite an eye-opener, in the sense of how little was done -- they had those physically draining, muddy winter pitches at the time, so the training sessions were relatively light because you left it all out on the field on a Saturday afternoon.

IP: In Jonathan Wilson's book about Brian Clough, 'Nobody Ever Says Thank You,' he describes training sessions in the 1980s at Nottingham Forest, and it seemed to involve nothing more than running around the field a few times and then playing a scrimmage. And these were the European champions.

SM: I also took a coaching course in the U.S. that was run by a guy who was assistant coach to the national team in the 1960s, Dettmar Cramer [who also lead Bayern Munich to two European Cup titles in the mid-70s]. He was about 5-foot-4, and as fit as anyone I've ever seen. And it was much more sophisticated in terms of thinking about what goes into coaching than the Brits. The English coaching courses I took were wonderful, I loved them, but mostly, I think, because of the guys I met, the fellow students. It was the era of Charles Hughes and 'how few passes does it take to create a goal?'

IP: I wrote a piece a few years ago about a book called 'Soccer Revolution' by the Austrian journalist Willy Meisl, who loved England and the English game but knew it was falling behind the rest of the world. This book came out in 1955, and he wrote even then that the game in England was out of time and completely lacking in tactical sophistication. This was after England got thumped twice by Hungary in 1953 -- the first time 6-3 at Wembley, the second time 7-1 in Budapest. But the English paid no attention, tactics was for foreigners. It's only now they're finally starting to catch up and realize that blood, guts, long balls and lots of hard running aren't the best way to win a soccer game. They lagged behind for the best part of a century. The worst thing that could have happened to the English game was winning the 1966 World Cup because it entrenched the attitude that nothing needed to change.

SM: The coaching course I mentioned earlier in Exeter was right after the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, when England went out to West Germany in the quarterfinals. They took us into a room one night to show us the 1969 FA Cup final between Manchester City and Leicester City. Man City had this fine winger, Mike Summerbee, while Leicester had this young captain David Nish, who was later controversial because his transfer to Derby County in 1972 broke the UK transfer fee record -- for a lef back!

Nish was supposed to be marking Summerbee, but he was getting skint by the winger [a Summerbee cross to striker Neil Young supplied the game's only goal after 24 minutes]. So at halftime the lights go on and the course tutors ask us, 'So, you're the Leicester coach -- what tactical adjustments do you make when you see your left back is struggling to cope with his winger?' So people are coming up with the stuff you'd expect about bringing over an extra player to cover and so forth.

Finally, there was a guy visiting who was an assistant coach at Liverpool, and he puts his hand up and says, 'I would tell the full back, next time the poncy winger comes anywhere near you, kick him into the Royal ****ing Box'. We were all on the floor laughing while the FA coaches were shifting in their seats listening to someone say how it'd be in the real world, because we were all thinking, 'That's right, it's just what you'd say in that situation.'

Part 2 of the Chat's topics will include the North American Soccer League and the evolution of the U.S. soccer fan.

5 comments about "A Chat with Seamus Malin: Part 1 -- Harvard and UK coaching courses in the 1970s".
  1. David Kilpatrick, August 10, 2021 at 10:37 a.m.

    Great interview! Way to work in Lincoln City - lol. Hope you'll chat Cosmos broadcasts in part 2!

  2. Ian Plenderleith replied, August 10, 2021 at 5:44 p.m.

    Stay tuned...

  3. Wooden Ships, August 10, 2021 at 10:13 p.m.

    Good read, thanks Ian. 

  4. Greg Gould, August 11, 2021 at 7:42 a.m.

    Very interesting. Thank you!

  5. Stephen Logan, August 11, 2021 at 9:25 a.m.

    I could listen to Seamus Malin all the live long day. Look forward to Part 2!

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