Thirty three years ago two players who earned their soccer wages in America went back to English clubs on loan. Long before David Beckham and Landon Donovan were rented to AC Milan and Everton respectively, George Best and Rodney Marsh spent the off-season playing at Fulham Football club.
In a recent interview the Tampa Bay Rowdies legend recounts his trans-Atlantic occupation. Rodney Marsh, who has returned to Florida to work for a production company, does not sugar-coat his journeys or his exploits. George Best, who passed away in 2005, and the 65 year old Marsh embodied the sex, drugs and rock-n-roll of England’s swinging 60’s and America’s heavy 70’s.
Rodney’s American odyssey begins with one of many storied bust-ups with football management – this time at Manchester City. Disagreements with gaffer Tony Book and owner Peter Swales led to his release to play for Cork Hibernian. While still collecting a salary from the English club, he earned more playing 6 games for the Irish side – but in essence getting a paycheck from both teams. As one of the top English soccer stars in 1975 Marsh was contacted by Elton John’s agent and flown out to California by private jet. Rock legend John, then part owner of the Los Angeles Aztecs, urged Marsh to sign for the NASL club.
While he was given the VIP treatment taking in Elton John’s concert at Dodger Stadium he met the Campbell Soup heir George Strawbridge, Jr., who persuaded him to sign instead for his NASL Tampa Bay Rowdies.
In February 1976 the newly crowned champions of NASL welcomed Marsh as the “Clown Prince of Soccer” and the “White Pele”. Not familiar with the political or demographics of the American South, Marsh corrected the waiting media with ” no, he’s the black Rodney Marsh”.
Never one to apologize for his sharp retorts or fiery quips, he explains “that’s who I was”. Both he and George Best grew up in the poverty of post-war Britain. Rodney admits it was reason for only 9 international appearances. He sets the record straight on his banishment from the England National Team by Sir Alf Ramsey who was a cockney like Marsh.
“I was not one of those guys that ran around the pitch, I could make a few runs, get the ball twice and score”.
Marsh reveals that the English Football Association sent Ramsey for elocution lessons after winning the 1966 World Cup to “correct” his strong regional accent. On the occasion of a team talk Sir Alf chided Rodney for his work rate in a rather proper English tone. “I’ll be watching you, and if you do not work harder, I will pull you off at half-time”.
As both Ramsey and Marsh grew up speaking cockney, this pretense led to Marsh replying with “Christ, Alf, at Manchester City all we get is an orange and a cup o’ tea”. With snickers abound, Rodney was never to play for England again.
The Tampa Bay Rowdies of the late 1970’s played a very attractive offense-minded brand of soccer. Loads of goals appealed to the American sports public and Tampa fans in particular. With no other major sport in the Florida city, the “fannies” filled the stadium and made “a kick in the grass” their soccer motto.
At the close of the 1977 NASL season, Fulham approached L.A.’s George Best, Bobby Moore, then with San Antonio Thunder and Marsh to join them on loan. Marsh had a two-year contract with the Rowdies at the time and had fully intended to spend the off-season in Florida. However, he says he earned more money for the 6 month loan at Fulham than he did for the full season at Tampa.
To this day, Rodney does not know the exact financial details between the clubs, but his contract renewal increased considerably on his return to the Rowdies. While Rodney describes former England Captain Moore as “the sensible one”, his assessment of Best’s and Marsh’s days at Fulham as “just crazy”. Attendance for the Second Division side almost doubled at Craven Cottage where, incidentally, American Clint Dempsey currently plays.
But Marsh also says that he almost did not return to the Rowdies. Rodney’s clash with South African Coach Eddie Firmani over tactics had to be settled by owner George Strawbridge – with Marsh coming back and Firmani leaving to take over the New York Cosmos.
While still in England, Rodney was often asked about the standard of play in America and of course the pay. The money seemed almost too good to be true and the exodus of British players to the NASL is well documented. However, Marsh can be credited for influencing a few of those including England World Cup star Alan Ball. When asked about how the subject came up, Rodney says it was after a night out with him and George Best. Ball signed for the Philadelphia Fury soon afterwards.
Rodney played his last NASL game for the Rowdies in the 1979 Soccer Bowl. He left to coach in the A.S.L. although there were rumors of offers from Philadelphia, Montreal and San Jose Earthquakes. Although he knew the New York United were a minor league club, he describes it as 4 months of a negative experience. But he says, he learned “what not to do” as a coach and following 4 years were “very happy” as he was hired away by the Carolina Lightnin’. Rodney’s Lightnin’ won the 1981 Championship before a home crowd of over 20,000 defeating, ironically, the New York club he left the previous season.
By 1983 genuine managerial offers came. He was approached by his former club Queens Park Rangers, yet he chose to return to Tampa Bay instead.
When asked about his advice to managers trying their hand in American soccer, Rodney chuckles. “I wish they would ask me or contact my consulting firm”. “Ruud Gullit should have called me” was his comment about the Dutchman’s unsuccessful stint with the L.A. Galaxy.
Rodney draws a serious tone as he shares his insight to soccer management in the U.S. – “if I could advise one thing … the one word, it would be patience. Patience with the fans, patience with attendance and patience with the media”. It is in fact what he told Rowdies new head coach, Paul Dalglish, over dinner recently. Dalglish’s father was the star player and later successful manager of Liverpool.
Currently, Rodney Marsh is hosting the TV show “The Road to South Africa” produced by EMG Sports & Entertainment leading up to and including the FIFA World Cup. It can be seen on Tampa’s NBC affiliate station.
Chuck Zsolnai is the Historical Director at the International Soccer Archives. He has been covering soccer since 1989.