Tuesday, March 09, 2010

A Kick In the Grass

I love Clive Toye. He is the quintessential unapologetic Englishman. And who couldn't use an unabashedly opinionated gent like him?*

(*You could argue that Bruce Arena is the closest thing we have to a modern-day Toye. And I wouldn't dispute that. But what Arena lacks is that charismatic, "jack of all trades" persona. Toye did everything. He called his own club's matches on TV. He conducted the local youth clinics himself. He did photo ops with a live monkey. Now, I'm sure Arena does alot things - important things- but you certainly won't hear about him posing for pictures with zoo animals.)

That's why Toye's "A Kick in the Grass" is so wildy entertaining. He isn't afraid to give you a colorful history lesson or three. History according to him, of course. And that's OK. He doesn't pull punches. He's like that old, affable uncle that tells you tales of the fantastic at every holiday function.

Like the tale about how he witnessed the astronomical rise of a fledgling professional soccer league; or the one about how he orchestrated the signings of Pele and Franz Beckenbauer; or the one about the sellout crowds at Giants Stadium; and, of course, the time he played hijinx with a visiting club's keeper. HAHAHA! He roars behind his thick, gray beard at that one, nearly keeling over in his chair at every telling. Oh, Uncle Clive. You bugger.

At least that's how I picture him to be. And it's his storytelling - a unique mixture of candor and unconformity - that leaves you craving more. He was a common man and a visionary at the same time. As the general manager of the Baltimore Bays, he also filled in to do color commentary for its TV broadcasts. He sold tickets at Downing Stadium. And he has the stories to prove it. Important stories. Like the one about the time he explained to Steve Ross and the Ertegun brothers that they HAD to get the New York Cosmos across the border into Jersey to play at the newly-minted Giants Stadium. Why? Well, hell, Pele plays in cathedrals, not chapels. And so it came to pass.

For those lucky enough to bear witness to the NASL in its grandeur, many of Toye's tales will take you back to those halcyon days.* Randall's Island. Tainting the opposing team's Gatorade with Visine (R). Team America. It's all in there. And some will bring you behind the curtain and into the board meetings, beachside kickabouts with Pele, and the unending chase of international talent.

(*You probably knew this already, but the sole reason the Cosmos original colors were yellow, green, and blue was to influence the aforementioned Pele to sign with them. The club's general manager at the time? Clive Toye.)

But for the rest of us - myself included - Toye offers a first-hand glimpse of the dizzying heights pro soccer ascended to years before the letters M, L, and S became synonymous with American soccer. It started on balding pitch with a group of ragtag teams in 1967. It ended in a Manhattan board meeting less than two decades later with the last two clubs that could afford the annual performance bonds.

But everything in between - the merger with the United Soccer Association, the Warner Communications involvement, the Soccer Bowls, etc. - is delivered with such casualness and candor that you wonder whether Toye simply recorded a few extended interviews for transcription and submitted it as his final draft.* And that's exactly why the distinct storytelling of is book is so intriguing. It's not a series of impeccably edited paragraphs, with a ghostwriter molding the stories. It's the exact opposite of David Beckham's polished and precise autobiography. Toye's effort is his clear, unfiltered thoughts. **

(*There is an instance somewhere in the middle of the book - I've been searching for it for the past twenty minutes, in fact - where he openly references the interviewer's tape recording. So it would not surprise if this is were true.)

(**One of the best lines: "In retrospect, it was dafter than anyone has ever said on the PA system at Yankee Stadium, including the resident ogre, 'er, owner, George Steinbrenner, and on par with the utterances of peace and tranquility for all under the reign of the resident owner, 'er, ogre, Saddam Hussein, by Baghdad Iraq's Minister of Information as the tanks and footsloggers closed in on him." Cleary, this is a man who does not believe in the use of an editor.)

In fact, the stream-of-consciousness approach is almost a direct parallel of the league which Toye helped birth. Much of the league's development was ad libbed. Owners bought into the league thinking it would deliver them to the heights as their NFL counterparts. Spend the money and everything will OK. Sign Pele? Sure! Expand to 24 teams? Absolutely! And so on.

There wasn't time to go over the particulars. It was pure, living-for-the-moment thought. And it's one of the reasons why the book, not to mention the league at the center of it, is so fascinating.

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