Philly Soccer History - 1979

The ‘70s : 1979

Entering 1979, the Fury hoped to correct the mistakes of the previous season. To that end, all of the big name stars, except Alan Ball, were released. Ball, however, had no desire to return as a player-coach. Such an arrangement would have been impracticable in any event, since English soccer commitments would again prevent Ball from appearing in a Fury uniform until eight games into the season.

Needing a coach, the club initially attempted to go top shelf by signing Jacek Gmoch, coach of Poland’s 1978 World Cup team. Gmoch had plenty of local ties--he went to the University of Pennsylvania, and coached the Polish Eagles in the local United Soccer League--and would have been an intriguing choice. In fact, he accepted the job in November 1978, and spent time studying videos of the club’s matches from the previous season. However, Poland’s Minister of Sport refused to release Gmoch from his national team responsibilities until June 1979. At first, the Fury were going to go along with this arrangement, since the recently retired Derek Trevis would have been a more than capable interim coach. Ultimately, the club deemed that option unacceptable. Since a compromise could not be reached with the Polish soccer federation, the Fury were forced to scramble for a new coach.

Only two months before the start of the season, the Fury finally acquired a coach. Marko Valok, former Yugoslavian National Team and Olympic coach, was hired on February 16, 1979. While trying to find a coach, the team also set about upgrading its roster. The young core of the team, including Brooks Cryder, Fran O’Brien, Rich Reice, Tony Glavin and super-sub Pat Fidelia, were all returning, as were veteran stalwarts Ball and John Dempsey. Bill Straub retired, however, and Trevis became a full-time assistant coach. Although attempts to acquire attacking midfielder Bruce Rioch from Derby County and defender Chris Catlin from Brighton fell through, the Fury had better luck within the league, picking up solid goalkeeper Keith Van Eron from Houston and goal scoring maven David Robb from Tampa Bay.

With less than two months to prepare, it was not surprising to find that Valok had difficulty getting his team ready for the 1979 season. The club dropped its season opener in Memphis, but opened its home slate with a 3-0 thrashing of Rochester. Fury fans were treated to a Robb hat-trick, and the fiery Scotsman quickly became as popular as fellow countryman and former Atoms star Andy Provan. Unfortunately, only 6,152 attended the opener.

Although much improved, the Fury remained an inconsistent side. Through April, the team was 2-4. However, help was on the way with the arrival of Ball and the acquisition of another goal scorer, Frank Worthington, on loan from Bolton. Worthington almost never arrived, as Dallas also claimed a loan arrangement with the striker. The Fury ultimately prevailed in the dispute, however, and Worthington scored a goal to compliment two by Robb in his Philadelphia debut.

Ball, on the other hand, proved to be relatively ineffective. As a result, he was traded to Vancouver, where he rebounded to lead the Whitecaps to the 1979 NASL Championship, being named MVP of the Soccer Bowl that year.

The Fury had better luck in a trade to shore up their defense. Just before the trade deadline, Philadelphia acquired Bob Rigby from Tulsa, who had only just acquired the goalkeeper from Los Angeles a day earlier. The popular ex-Atom immediately re-established himself as a fan favorite.

Robb ultimately finished among the league scoring leaders with 16 goals, with Worthington adding 10 and Fidelia, continuing his phenomenal super-sub role, netting 9 goals. Unfortunately, almost no one noticed--the team averaged an anemic 5,624 per match, dead last in the league.

However, the team suddenly captured the city’s imagination in the playoffs. After once again squeaking in with a 10-20 record, the team shocked the league by sweeping the Houston Hurricane, the American Soccer Conference’s top team, in a two game playoff.

As a result of this unexpected turn of events, the Fury were without a place to play their home match in the ASC quarterfinals; the Phillies were booked for a long homestand, so Veterans Stadium was unavailable. With nowhere else to go, the Fury moved their match to Franklin Field.

This turned out to be a blessing. Veterans Stadium, like most facilities built to accommodate both baseball and football, was an abysmal place to watch a soccer game, totally devoid of charm or atmosphere. Franklin Field, on the other hand, was a traditional oval stadium, providing excellent sight lines.

A combination of the superior facility and excitement over the Fury’s playoff run led 10,395 fans to Franklin Field. The fans saw Fidelia and Worthington score goals, but the Fury lost the match to Tampa Bay in a shootout after the teams were tied at regulation and after overtime.

The Fury were bounced out of the playoffs two days later, losing to the Rowdies 1-0 before a national television audience courtesy of ABC.

Still, enthusiasm ran high at the conclusion of the 1979 season. It reached a fever pitch with the announcement that Eddie Firmani, the greatest coach the NASL had seen at that point and the holder of three NASL championships with two different teams, had been hired to coach the club. Ironically, Firmani’s arrival would ultimately doom any chance the team had of succeeding in Philadelphia.