Because it had been more than 30 years since Freddie Goodwin quit pro soccer to become a travel agent on Vashon Island, his death last Friday was little noticed by the local fans of a sport he helped expose to Americans.
But the news that Goodwin’s long battle with cancer ended at age 82 prompted a tribute the other night before Birmingham City FC faced Bolton in an English Football League Championship game at St. Andrews stadium. Birmingham’s players wore black armbands and lined up for a minute of applause.
Mourning with applause?
It’s become something of a custom at sporting events in Europe, where the traditional moment of silence is often disrupted by heckling hooligans. Besides, a life rich with achievement — a life that brought happiness to others — seems more appropriately acknowledged by the sound of cheers rather than the sound of silence.
“He was a gentleman,” recalled Bellarmine Prep soccer coach Joe Waters, a former Tacoma Stars midfielder who was among the many athletes Goodwin signed from English leagues during stints with the North American Soccer League’s Minnesota Kicks and, later, the Stars of the Major Indoor Soccer League. “And what a great sports career he had.”
Goodwin first gained notoriety in 1953 as one of Manchester United’s “Busby Babes,” the kiddie corps that Man U manager Matt Busby assembled for what appeared to be a dynasty. The dynasty was decimated on Feb. 6, 1958, when British European Airways Flight 609 — it was returning the team, along with officials and journalists, from a match at Belgrade — crashed on its third attempt to take off from a slushy runway in Munich.
Of the 44 passengers on board, 23 died, including eight Man U players. Two others suffered career-ending injuries. Goodwin had not been assigned to the Reds’ traveling squad for the trip, a short-term disappointment with profound consequences.
Two weeks after the crash, Goodwin participated in the Man U game famous for its blank team-sheet lineup, and he was a mainstay of the cobbled-together Reds’ inspired advancement to the FA Cup final.
“The disaster was a subject he didn’t talk about,” Waters said. “Freddie wasn’t somebody to dwell on the past. He always preferred to live in the present.”
While reading a book about the Busby Babes, Waters learned something about his former coach in Tacoma.
“He was the only player on Man U who owned a car in those days,” Waters said. “Everybody else took public transportation, street cars and buses, but Freddie could afford a car because he also played pro cricket at the county level in Lancashire. He had two sources of income, and everybody else just had one.”
Goodwin had moved on to Leeds when a 1964 collision with a teammate left him with the broken leg that essentially ended one career and launched a second as a full-time manager. Goodwin’s unconventional coaching methods helped return Birmingham City to First Division prominence in 1972.
Noted a Birmingham City spokesperson in a press release issued after Goodwin’s death: “As a manager he was never averse to trying ideas that today seem normal, but back then were considered innovative and revolutionary, if not slightly crazy: yoga, psychological testing, video analysis of games and a variety of game-training techniques.”
Pro sports is as much a “Nice Work, But What Have You Done Lately?” proposition in England as it is in the States, and when Birmingham released Goodwin in 1975, Goodwin came to America as architect of Minnesota’s fledgling NASL franchise.
Relying on connections established back home, he stocked the roster with English players who delivered the first-year Kicks into Soccer Bowl ’76, the NASL’s championship game held at the Kingdome. Although Minnesota lost to Toronto Metros-Croatia, 3-0, the remarkable number was the attendance: 25,765 — impressive for a neutral-site game in Seattle and a foreshadowing of the box-office success the Sounders enjoy four decades later.
Upon the NASL’s demise, Goodwin hooked up with the Stars in Tacoma, where he was challenged to introduce outdoor soccer players to the very different nuances of the indoor game.
It was going to take some time, and pro sports being pro sports, Goodwin wasn’t given a whole lot of time. The Stars struggled for three seasons, and just as they were on the cusp of a breakout, he was shown the door.
Goodwin must have liked what he saw on the other side of the door. He remained in the Tacoma area for the rest of his life.
“I’d see him now and then,” Waters said, “and we’d talk about how Man U was doing — he loved to watch that team — but we didn’t discuss the old days very often.”
The Tacoma Stars, speaking of the old days, have been reinvented as a Major Arena Soccer League franchise that will conclude its regular season with a Friday night match at the ShoWare Center in Kent. During the game, jerseys will auctioned to help offset the cost of hospital bills facing the family of Washington Premier coach Jeff Russ, whose high school daughter has survived a rare form of liver cancer.
On behalf of the brave girl overcoming the fight of all fights, and in memory of the man whose avoidance of the ultimate catastrophe enabled him to achieve difference-maker status on two continents, a minute-long tribute to both seems in order: applause.
A round of applause, enthusiastic and yet reverential, is the most beautiful noise a sports crowd can make.
John McGrath: firstname.lastname@example.org