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United’s kingdom

Man U’s reach even extends to New England

By Frank Dell’Apa
Globe Staff / July 10, 2011

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Massachusetts has not been on Manchester United’s itinerary for more than 50 years. When United kicks off its US tour against the Revolution Wednesday night, it will mark the club’s fourth appearance in the state, following matches in Fall River in 1950, ’52, and ’60.

But there was a strong Manchester United influence on local soccer before and after those visits. From 1978-80, the New England Tea Men were coached by Noel Cantwell and assistant Dennis Viollet, legendary figures in Manchester United history. Cantwell captained the team that won the 1963 FA Cup, and Viollet scored 32 goals in the 1959-60 season, still a club record.

Cantwell and Viollet left a strong impression on Pete Simonini, who grew up in Billerica and joined the Tea Men as a goalkeeper in 1980.

“Those guys, on the practice field or during the game, were very volatile,’’ Simonini recalled last week. “I would say they were screamers, always yelling. They expected you to break a leg - no excuses. That was just the way they were. In the locker room they would rake guys over the coals if they missed goals. If I gave up a couple bad goals, they would say, ‘What do you think you’re doing, son? If you keep playing like that you’ll find yourself out the door.’ And they would think nothing of it.

“But I think they got a lot out of their guys. And off the field, they were great. They made it very competitive in practice, but off the field they would flip a switch and they were great guys.’’

The Tea Men had a 49-43 record over three seasons and were capable of drawing a crowd - 25,132 and 17,121 attendances were listed for what turned out to be their final two games at Foxboro Stadium. But the Lipton Tea Co. owners moved the franchise to Jacksonville, Fla., for the 1981 and ’82 seasons, then reduced their investment as the North American Soccer League began collapsing.

Cantwell, Viollet, and many of the players made the move to Florida with the Tea Men. Viollet stayed on, coaching the Jacksonville Tea Men to the 1983 American Soccer League title (Simonini was the league’s most valuable player).

“We used to go on tours and when we would go to a Man United game, he would be sitting there and you couldn’t sit near him, so many people were constantly coming up for an autograph,’’ Simonini recalled of Viollet. “It was the same walking down the street. In New England it was a little different than Florida, where they barely knew him except as coach of the pro team. But over there it was different.’’

Simonini went on to coach Bentley College and was the Revolution’s goalkeeper coach.

“The way they played was direct - get it down and cross it, get it in the box,’’ Simonini said of the Tea Men. “I wouldn’t say there were a whole lot of tactics back then. I think, as a coach, I’ve taken a lot from a lot of people. Maybe from those guys, the passion, the accountability.

“They made you accountable, they demanded a lot. They brought what they knew from their playing days and how they were coached and did what they were accustomed to. The NASL was like the Premier League. If now you had that caliber of player here, they would be consistently getting 30,000 to 50,000 people at games. There was a lot at stake. They realized they had a pretty good gig going on, they were making $80,000-plus for six months and they wanted to compete.’’

Long before the NASL, soccer in the United States was dominated by English and Scottish coaches and players. Teams were developed in the mills and shipyards. Fall River’s factories were filled with workers from Lancashire, which produced early Football League champions Blackburn Rovers and Preston North End, plus one founded in 1878 by railworkers named Newton Heath, which would become Manchester United in 1902.

The American Soccer League was a Premier League of the 1920s. Mickey Hamill, who played for Manchester United from 1911-14, was a key member of the Boston Wonder Workers, the 1925 ASL champions. Manchester native Sam Fletcher was a star player in the ASL and became Brown University’s first soccer coach, guiding the team from 1925-46. When pro soccer was revived in the form of the NASL, the coach of the Boston Beacons was Jack Mansell, a native of Salford, a borough of Manchester. When Major League Soccer started in 1996, the Revolution’s first coach was Frank Stapleton, a Manchester United striker from 1981-87.

The roots of Manchester United’s current success can be traced to the arrival of Matt Busby as coach in 1945. In the ’30s, Man United nearly had been relegated from the Second Division, which could have led to the club’s demise. In 1941, the German Luftwaffe bombed Old Trafford, leaving United without a stadium for eight years. But Busby emphasized a development program, and young players such as Roger Byrne, Bobby Charlton, Eddie Colman, Duncan Edwards, Bill Foulkes, and Viollet were nicknamed “The Busby Babes.’’

Busby came from a Scottish mining family, and several relatives had emigrated to Canada and the United States. Busby’s adventurous nature was a catalyst for Manchester United’s programs, which included the club’s first North American tours, and entry into the UEFA Champions Cup.

But air travel, which opened the way for European club competitions, could be risky. Teams were wary following the crash of a flight that wiped out Italian champion Torino FC in 1949.

On Manchester United’s first overseas venture in 1950, the Red Devils arrived in New York on the Queen Mary “after a rough voyage,’’ according to the Bill Graham Guides, for a five-week stay. The English national team arrived about the same time for World Cup warm-ups on the way to Brazil, and both teams dominated the local opposition. United went 8-2-2, defeating a New England All-Star team, 2-0, in Fall River. A month later, the national team was shocked by the United States, 1-0, in Belo Horizonte, possibly the greatest upset in World Cup history. Two Fall River players, Ed and John Souza, were forwards for the US team.

Two years later, Manchester United’s visit was a victory tour, after finishing first for the first time since 1911, and also a chance for some English payback for the World Cup. The Red Devils won their first 10 games, including an 11-1 decision in Fall River, before falling to Tottenham in Toronto and at Yankee Stadium, Spurs exacting revenge after finishing in second place.

The Champions Cup competition started in 1955-56, but English clubs were reluctant to enter. Busby insisted Manchester United play in the tournament after winning the 1957 Division 1 title. Football League officials believed the Champions Cup would interfere with domestic play and were skeptical about English clubs’ ability to compete. There were also risks involved with travel, games against continental foes added to an already crowded league schedule.

When Manchester United flew during a snowstorm in Spain for a match against Athletic Bilbao, the players were told by a steward “to keep your eyes peeled’’ for the airport. As it turned out, Bilbao had only a landing strip with a shed next to it, a government official racing to get things in place only after hearing the airplane circling. Manchester United eliminated Partizan Belgrade in the quarterfinals, but on the return, its charter aircraft crashed on takeoff in Munich on Feb. 6, 1958. Twenty-three people died, including eight journalists and eight players. Busby twice was administered last rites but survived. Two team members were so badly injured they never played again.

Busby recovered and set a five-year timetable for Manchester United to return to championship form.

In the 1959-60 season, Viollet, who had survived the Munich disaster, scored 32 goals in 36 games, but United struggled to a seventh-place finish. Busby took the team on its third postseason tour to North America, arriving in New York on the Queen Elizabeth. By then, US soccer nearly had bottomed out because of the lack of a pro league. Manchester United lost to TSV 1860 Munich in New York and Scottish champions Hearts in Los Angeles but crushed five US teams, including a 7-0 win at Fall River.

Manchester United would not bother with US teams again until 1976, the start of a series of matches against NASL teams.

Busby’s plans had paid off in an FA Cup win in 1963, Cantwell raising the trophy at Wembley Stadium. Then came a Champions Cup victory over Benfica in 1968 with a new group of youngsters led by George Best. But United began having problems after Busby retired in 1971. United was relegated after a 21st-place finish in 1974 and would not win another league title until 1993.

The standards had been set, and now, after winning 12 Premiership titles and three Champions Leagues, the Red Devils are living up to them under the leadership of another Scottish coach, Alex Ferguson.

“Manchester United have become rather more than a football club,’’ Busby said at his retirement press conference. “They are now an institution.’’

Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at f_dellapa@globe.com.

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