Nothing new in meddling American football club owners calling the shots
Former New York Cosmos owner Steve Ross’s story a cautionary tale for Dundalk fans
Franz Beckenbauer of New York Cosmos in 1978: When Ross saw the famous German international playing at the back on his debut, he phoned down to the dug-out with the immortal advice: “Get the Kraut into midfield! We’re not paying him all that money to play deefence!” Photograph: Tony Duffy/Allsport
At one point in Pele’s final season with the New York Cosmos in 1977, the club announced that it was already planning for the future, dispatching Dave Clements, the former Northern Ireland international and manager, to Dublin to scout the potential purchase of Shelbourne FC.
The idea was that the Cosmos, then owned by mighty Warner Communications, would buy the League of Ireland outfit and turn it into a feeder team where they could send raw talent from their youth set-up to garner crucial experience in a competitive environment.
“I would say 10 or so of the squad will be young American players,” said Clements, “mostly under-19, the rest will be Irish and from other parts of the world.”
The resemblance to the meddlesome way the Cosmos were run then and the bizarre happenings at Oriel Park now (people on high picking a first XI without a goalkeeper etc . . .) doesn’t end there. Of course, being Studio 54-era New York, the interference from above at the Cosmos came franked with a certain rakish glamour.
In training one morning, players were distracted by the sound of blades whirring perilously close to Giants Stadium. Moments later, a helicopter carrying the impeccably turned-out Steve Ross, CEO of Warner, hovered above their heads before landing in the middle of the field.
Unhappy with the team’s mediocre record of five wins and five defeats, Ross had flown across from Manhattan and gathered the squad around him so he could berate them. Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and the rest were put on notice that if results didn’t improve they’d be traded to one of the North American Soccer League’s less salubrious locations.
“You’ll love it in Rochester, Franz,” whispered goalie Shep Messing to the German World Cup-winning captain.
Ross grew up in poverty in Depression-era Brooklyn, the son of Jewish immigrants, and a business career that began in his father-in-law’s Manhattan funeral home culminated in his $400 million purchase of Warner in 1969.
It was Nesuhi and Ahmet Ertegun, the soccer-mad Turkish brothers behind Atlantic Records, who persuaded him to buy the ailing Cosmos, then drawing 2,000 fans to ramshackle Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island. He didn’t know the sport but, from dealing with Hollywood, he knew something about box office.
Pele was signed on a three-year contract worth $6m in 1975, a time when Kevin Keegan’s salary at Liverpool was £12,000, and, eventually, the Cosmos shoehorned 77,000 into Giants’ Stadium.
During those games, Ross grew so animated friends worried he’d topple over the side of the upper deck and they bought a harness to strap him into his seat. He once tried to stop the team going out for the second half because he thought the ref was being unfair and threats to sue or even depart the North American Soccer League (NASL) were regular occurrences.
When he saw Beckenbauer playing at the back on his debut, he phoned down to the dug-out with the immortal advice: “Get the Kraut into midfield! We’re not paying him all that money to play deefence!”
After it was explained to him that such a move would leave a gaping hole at the back, he brought Brazil’s Carlos Alberto in as sweeper. Cost, like his ignorance of tactics, never an object.
“Steve Ross comes in and tells us how to play,” said one Cosmos player to the New York Daily News. “Ross stomps around and says stuff like, ‘I want you midfielders to do this’ or ‘Why aren’t the full backs going forward?’ or ‘You’re dribbling with your head down.’ The first time we all thought it must be a bleeping joke but he was serious. And nobody had the nerve to say, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’”
Sometimes, Eddie Firmani, the Cosmos coach, arrived at work on Monday mornings to discover the only videotape of that weekend’s game had already been helicoptered to Ross’s Long Island manse in East Hampton.
In between hanging with the likes of Dustin Hoffman and Barbara Streisand, he’d review footage and then call a meeting to impart his opinions about what the team did wrong. An overbearing approach that explains why the star-studded club went through nine coaches in five years while still somehow managing to win four titles.
Some of the squad were smarter than others when dealing with the boss. After scoring, Giorgio Chinaglia, the one-time Lazio centre-forward, eschewed his team-mates, preferring to run to the sideline in order to bow before the owner in his corporate box.
In the locker-room, the Italian who grew up in Wales always kept a bottle of Chivas Regal, Ross’s favourite tipple, on hand, so he could offer him a post-match drink and, unsurprisingly, Chinaglia became his trusted consigliere, the most influential character in the club. Tips there for Dundalk players.
His good friend Steven Spielberg used to tell Ross that if he was 15 years younger he’d cast him as Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List. Instead, when Liam Neeson was later prepping for that role, the director used to show him home movies of the then deceased mogul so he could incorporate his gestures and mannerisms into the character. The film was even dedicated to the man who owned the New York Cosmos, terrorised the NASL and nearly bought Shelbourne.