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'I was an apprentice down the shipyard so it was just a privilege to be on the same field': Cruyff and the Irishman

How Bill Irwin from the Ards Peninsula in County Down ended up playing with and against football’s biggest stars.

THERE’S NOT MUCH of a twang despite Bill Irwin having lived in the United States for over 40 years now. 

The Northern lilt is still pretty unshakeable even after bouncing around various cities during his playing career. There were stints in Washington, Dallas, San Jose and Minnesota but it’s fitting that the very first place he visited in America has ended up being home for over three decades.

“Willie Anderson, who had been at Man United, was a team-mate of mine at Cardiff,” says the former goalkeeper. 

“He went over to Portland in the mid-70s and played for the local side, the Timbers, under Vic Crowe, who’d been his boss at Aston Villa. Though he came back to Cardiff afterwards, he ended up falling out with our gaffer so he re-joined Portland in ’77. He asked me to come over for a holiday so I spent a couple of weeks there and enjoyed it. While I was there, I met the woman who would go on to be my wife for the last 40 years. But I told her, ‘I might never get to the US ever again’ because I headed back to Cardiff for preseason. She’d come to visit me and then she’d return the US and we’d communicate via letter and phone. I’d call her from a phone-box with a bunch of 10p pieces! 

Then I had a falling out with the gaffer, Jimmy Andrews, and told him I wanted a transfer. He said, ‘Where are you going to go?’ And I told him, ‘Anywhere to get away from you’. And then the Washington Diplomats came in for me. But it was a comedy of errors, really. One day the deal was on, the next it was off. Eventually it went through and the boss said, ‘Don’t tell anyone what you’re getting’. But I made the move, ended up getting married and everything took off.”

The team had been around since 1974 but had failed to really ignite in the North American Soccer League. As Pele and the New York Cosmos grabbed the spotlight, others battled for supporting slots. Tampa Bay Rowdies, Fort Lauderdale and the LA Aztecs all carried a degree of razzmatazz but everyone else was playing catch-up.  

The Dips hired ex-Cosmos boss Gordon Bradley in ’78, the same year Irwin arrived. The team also boasted two stars of Southampton’s famous FA Cup win over Manchester United two years earlier: Jim Steele, who was named Man of the Match at Wembley, and Bobby Stokes who’d grabbed the game winner. 

“As was customary at the time, the FA gave Stokesy a Golden Boot award for his winning goal,” Irwin says. 

Soccer - FA Cup - Final - Manchester United v Southampton Bobby Stokes, right, kisses the FA Cup after grabbing the winner in the 1976 final for Southampton against Manchester United. He'd sign for the Washington Diplomats two years later and become a team-mate of Bill Irwin. Source: PA Photos

“He kept that in the bank but still wore the cup medal around his neck! What players him and Steeley were – incredible. But there were more strong English lads like Paul Cannell and Mike Dillon and some young American and Canadian guys too. But then Bradley started to bring in some Dutch players – Guus Hiddink, Wim Jansen, Thomas Rongen. And all of a sudden, Cruyff showed up.”

After seeing much of his fortune evaporate owing to a misguided partnership with friend Michel Georges Basilevich (which included an infamous investment in a pig farm), the icon was broke and was forced into scrambling together a new plan. The old one – retirement – didn’t seem fiscally responsible anymore so, when the LA Aztecs called and offered him $500,000 per year, he gladly signed up.

Unsurprisingly, he flourished under his old club and country boss Rinus Michels and his debut was a sign of things to come. Despite being jet lagged, Cruyff scored twice in the first seven minutes. He’d finish the campaign with 14 goals, 16 assists and lead the side to the conference semi-finals. And, just for good measure, he was voted the league’s MVP.

But the Aztecs changed owners and they cared little for Cruyff’s salary. Meanwhile, Washington had come into some new investment and lingered. They paid a million dollars to sign him and also kept him on the same wages.

And that’s how Bill Irwin from the Ards Peninsula in County Down ended up playing alongside Johan Cruyff.   

“You were pinching yourself, playing alongside guys who had been at World Cups,” he says.  

American Soccer - NASL - Washington Diplomats v Philadelphia Fury Cruyff had been with the LA Aztecs but newly-minted Washington signed him in 1980. Source: Peter Robinson

“And then you were facing Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia, Carlos Alberto, Johan Neeskens, George Best, Rodney Marsh…I mean, Jesus! I’d been playing in the Second Division in England with some very good players and I’d played against the great Leeds team a few times – Giles, Bremner, Sprake, Charlton. But, I don’t think playing consistently against that calibre of talent would have happened if I stayed in England. I have several jerseys probably tucked away in a box. My kids find them every once in a while. I have a few Cruyff shirts and one from Willie Donachie, who played with the Timbers alongside me.

It was a phenomenal six years: 1978 to 1984. After games you’d sit there and think, ‘Shit, I just played against guys that won the World Cup’. And even somebody like Bestie was just unbelievable. He always knew who I was and would always have time to sit and talk. I have a couple of pictures of me and him together. Sometimes people will post stuff online and I’ll watch it back, like the clip of him against Fort Lauderdale and weaving past all those defenders. And there are all the stories of fellas saying, ‘I bet you can’t beat everybody in the 5-a-side and score’ and he’d go and do it. But he was such a down to earth person and I’m just sorry he didn’t fulfil his greatest potential, like Cruyff and Beckenbauer did. To be honest, I don’t think MLS gives the NASL enough credit for what it did in terms of breaking ground for soccer in North America. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of great players right now but we had Pele, Cruyff, Beckenbauer and they helped paved the way for where soccer is today.”

There are many stories about Cruyff’s disruptive behaviour during his brief spell in Washington, particularly the tension that arose between him and Bradley, an old-fashioned coaching mind. 

“After a team talk, Johan would walk to the blackboard and erase all Bradley’s formation and notes,” Thomas Rongen said later.

‘’We’ll be doing this very differently, of course’, he (Cruyff) would tell us. And then he’d tell us how we’d actually be playing.”

The atmosphere at the Dips wasn’t exactly a secret either as Cruyff’s team-mates would chat openly to beat reporters about their grievances. Stokes gave some memorable copy about the superstar and what he was like as a team-mate. 

“When the board bought Cruyff they should have gotten a few bales of cotton too – to stick in our ears,” he told a local journalist. 

Irwin admits Cruyff didn’t get on with everyone but says that’s just commonplace in football dressing rooms: some personalities will always clash.

“There were times when there were arguments at half-time but I think that was natural,” Irwin says.  

American Soccer - NASL - Philadelphia Fury v Washington Diplomats Cruyff divided opinion in the Washington Diplomats' dressing room. Source: Peter Robinson

“He wanted to play football. He wanted to win. He was approachable and you could talk to him but with some players and him it was like oil and water. He had his ideas and they had theirs. Johan knew who was the boss but he had his ideas and Gordon had his. Were there arguments? Of course. But he respected the manager. 

I remember in one game and I’d made a save. He’d come back and was in the box, maybe even on the six yard line. And he just said, ‘Give me the ball’. I said, ‘No’. And he went, ‘Just give me the ball’. So I gave it to him and said, ‘Just don’t lose it’ and off he went. At RFK Stadium, our field was beautiful and he always wanted to play. But another time we were in Tulsa and the pitch was the old astro-turf – basically a ragged carpet – and was not a nice surface. And he came to me and said, ‘Kick the ball as far as you can up the other end’ because that’s what the conditions warranted.”

We went on an Asian tour at one stage and I was sitting with him. I asked him, ‘What do you think is your best attribute?’ and he said his vision. And it was phenomenal. He’d be on one side of the field and he’d smack it with the outside of his boot into space where somebody was supposed to be. If they weren’t he’d be screaming at them ‘ ‘Why weren’t you there?’ He was the quickest thing I ever saw over five yards and I learned a lot from him because he’d tell you what he was looking for from a goalkeeper. I’m thinking, ‘Oh, I never thought of that’. How he’d look to beat a goalkeeper, what’s going through an attacker’s mind and it was great to get a forward’s perspective, especially somebody who could do phenomenal things with a ball. But after that tour, the club folded so there was no team to come back to. His locker was full of boots so all the boys were in getting souvenirs. He had them specially made by Puma so I’m sure many of them have little Cruyff mementoes.”

For Cruyff’s only campaign with the Dips in 1980, he struck 10 goals and registered 20 assists but his time there was still classed as a failure. It was a harsh judgement, especially considering he’d subsequently return to the Eredivise and win three league titles and two Dutch Cups with Ajax and Feyenoord. 

American Soccer - NASL - Philadelphia Fury v Washington Diplomats Cruyff only stayed in Washington for one season but he left a lasting impact on Irwin. Source: Peter Robinson

In Irwin’s three seasons with the Dips, they reached the play-offs every time and he still struggled to properly get to grips with the cultural transition. 

“All of sudden you were getting on a plane to fly from the coast to coast,” he says. 

Back in the UK, you would’ve been on a bus or a train going from Cardiff to London. That was the era and how it was done. But then I landed in DC and thought, ‘What the hell am I doing here, in the capital of one of the most powerful countries in the world?’ It was a culture shock. When I was in digs in Cardiff, I had to go to a pay phone to call my parents because the digs I lived in they didn’t have one. We had a black and white TV. But in DC, you had all the luxuries. Everyone had phones in their houses. We were given cars to drive, an apartment to live in. We had tremendous gates too. At RFK, we sold out against the Cosmos. I’m not sure what the capacity was, maybe 56,000? I think in one game against them – which was live on ABC, Cruyff scored with his head – maybe the only one he ever got – but the referee disallowed it and we ended up being beaten in a shootout.” 

“Now, you got the impression that the switch could’ve been flicked at any stage because the contracts we were given weren’t worth the paper they were written on. In DC, I think I had a two-year deal which could’ve expired at any minute, really! But, I’d gone from Bangor to Cardiff and spent eight years there and loved every minute of it. I was an apprentice down the shipyard, which I didn’t like, and then suddenly you’re playing full-time, which is every young boy’s dream. It’s the nature of the beast that you sign with a club and then move on. In the US, I didn’t really think about playing with and against all these incredible players and then you went home and saw your buddies and they’d be pestering you with questions.”  

Screen Shot 2019-02-28 at 17.32.13 Irwin (seventh from the right in the back row) with his Washington Diplomats team-mates in 1979. Source: NASL

Irwin enjoyed stints with the likes of Dallas Tornado and Golden Bay Earthquakes before the league eventually crashed and burned in 1984. He did return to the UK and trialled with Bournemouth and Tranmere before deciding the better move was to remain in America and build a permanent home in Portland, with whom he spent a season with in 1982.

After retiring from playing, he was a long-time and highly-regarded coach at the city university and has also been heavily involved with underage US teams, including the men’s and women’s sides. He still gets back to Ireland pretty regularly and there’s even a trip planned for April.

But the US has given him plenty and he remains grateful for that decision he made way, way back.  

“When I was with the Dips, I used to play in the Irish League at the end of every season because it was Christmas time,” he says. 

“I had somewhere to stay with my wife and did that three times for a couple of months. But, to be honest, as soon as I came here, met my wife and all of that, I felt that was it. I’ve got two kids and three grandchildren so everyone’s here in the States now. This is home.”

“My Dad went to a lot of my games and came across to Cardiff quite a bit. I used to send the press cuttings to my Mum when I was there and after I moved to Washington and she kept scrapbooks of all the interviews and match reports. When they both passed away, I took them back and they’re here in the house somewhere, probably in a cupboard. I’d say the paper is bright orange by this stage. It might be time to take them somewhere and get them digitised!” 

But, I have to say, being on the same team as Cruyff, Jansen, Hiddink, Jim Steele, Bobby Stokes…You look back on your career and realise just how lucky you’ve been. I feel privileged to have been on the same field as those guys. I enjoyed every minute of my career. I’m a guy from Donaghadee and when I look at what I’ve got and what I’ve done…it hasn’t been too bad.”

“It’s given me a good life.”

Bernard Jackman joins Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey to discuss the backlash to World Rugby’s league proposal, captaincy styles, sports psychology and more in The42 Rugby Weekly.

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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