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Sounders legend Bobby Howe reflects on his career

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How came up with West Ham United, but has found a home in the Pacific Northwest.

Bobby Howe (center) with Harry Redknapp (left) and Jimmy Gabriel (right).
Photo from the Frank MacDonald Collection

Former West Ham United player and Seattle Sounders player/coach Bobby Howe, who has lived in the Seattle area for nearly 40 years and is coaching director for youth soccer club Emerald City F.C., recently reflected on his time with the Hammers and Sounders.

Saturday, Sept. 24, will mark the 50th anniversary of his first-team debut for West Ham against Southampton when he came on as a substitute in a 2-2 draw at Upton Park.

How old were you when you decided you wanted to become a professional football player?

Bobby Howe: I think probably about the age of 14 or 15. It’s everybody’s dream. You grow up in a country where soccer is the No. 1 sport and the top soccer players are the people that you look up to, the players you want to emulate and so on and so forth. I loved to play the game, but I think it was when I realized I had some talent for the game. You realize that, you know that. I started to play for representative teams, like the school, the district, the county, London Schoolboys. When you move on in the pyramid that is the selection process of the game, you start getting lots of calls, visits from scouts from different clubs.

I had offers from Tottenham, Arsenal, Chelsea and Southampton.

One of the reasons I went to West Ham was it was the closest club to me. I wasn’t necessarily a West Ham fan.

West Ham allowed me to train on Tuesday and Thursday evenings for players like me that were in the broader youth program. I hadn’t signed at that time. It was a way of getting you interested in the club. Then obviously they invited me and me and my mom and dad to a couple of first team games.

One thing and another, I was able to sign for West Ham and that was great. It was 1962, I signed in August to apprenticeship forms. So, I was 16 when I signed, but in December on my 17th birthday, I signed professional forms for West Ham for a massive 12 pounds a week. (Laughs) From which I had to give my mom and dad three for living at home.

Can you tell me more about the 1963 FA Youth Cup tournament?

Well, the second leg of the final was on FA Cup final night. We were watching the cup final in the afternoon. It was that late, it got backed up because of the weather.

We played Wolverhampton Wanderers in the semifinal and we won that fairly well, but the final was a classic because we went to Liverpool and lost the first leg 3-1. So, we come back home and we’re drawing at halftime 2-2 at Upton Park and we had to score three goals in the second half and did.

What was it like to win since that was the first time West Ham had won the prestigious youth tournament?

It was fantastic and it actually started a really good run for West Ham because the youth team won that final in ’63, in ’64 West Ham won the FA Cup and then in ’65 they won the Cup Winners’ Cup. Ron Greenwood, who was the manager at the time, said it was one of the best games he ever saw, the youth game [second leg] against Liverpool. It was a good game, a classic. Our center forward Martin Britt scored a hat trick.

After winning the Youth Cup, were you playing with the reserves before you made your first team debut in 1966?

First of all, I was playing in what was called the A team. The A team is the third team and then under that was the youth team. You had to be 18 and under to play in the youth team. But in the third team, you were essentially a youth player or just been a youth player and you were playing against professional players. We played in a league against semi-professional opposition. There were clubs like Tottenham and Arsenal, so you’d play against their A teams, but then you’d play against clubs that were semi-pro that happened to be in the same league. Also in that league was the Metropolitan Police. In order to be in the Met Police you had to be six foot and ugly (laughs), so you were playing against these guys. Talk about growing up, that was a great way to do it.

And of course, the progression from there was to the reserve team and the reserve teams at that time played on the grounds where the first teams played. When we played at Tottenham reserves we played at Tottenham at White Hart Lane, at Arsenal. Of course, all of the home games were at Upton Park, so that was really nice. The reserves had a good little crowd to come to watch as well.

Did you know heading into the 1966 offseason where you stood in the club?

No, not at that particular time … The thing about soccer players is you always feel you’re good enough, if you don’t, there’s no point, right? (Smiles) You always felt you had the ability because you trained with these guys and you’d see them play and you’d play with them occasionally in the reserve team. So you knew what people could do.

My debut came against Southampton in ’66 just after the World Cup and that was out of the blue. What happened was … there was only one substitute at that time. When I first started to play, subs didn’t play, they’d go to the ground and if one of the first team players got sick, they would dress and would play.

And then for my entire professional career [in England], there was only one sub, but then that sub could play … Sometimes they made you the sub because you had done so well in the reserve team and it was like a gift, a bonus, a thank you for doing so well and give you a bit of confidence. Well, I had to get on, somebody got injured and I can’t remember who it was and I got on and played the last 10 minutes.

But, then I didn’t make my full starting debut until almost two years later.

When you got the call to go in the game, what were your feelings?

As you can imagine, I was very nervous. It was the biggest crowd I had played in front of up until that time. It was 10 minutes and I didn’t do anything really wrong. I felt like a million dollars afterwards … It was terrific.

This past July was the 50th anniversary of England’s greatest sporting achievement, winning the 1966 World Cup. What are your memories of that incredible summer?

I didn’t watch the final and here’s why. One of the players at West Ham, Dennis Burnett, it was his wedding day. I don’t know who arranged that, probably his wife’s family, but it happened to be on World Cup final day. I’ve seen it since a few times, but I didn’t watch the World Cup final live. There were a few of us at West Ham that went to this wedding and we were sitting at the back with a radio on. It was amazing.

England had a bit of an advantage because they were playing at Wembley … and played all their games there. I watched all the other games and it was a fantastic affair.

A couple of the players were actually good singers and got up and sang at the wedding. It was a good celebration for both reasons. As a result of England winning and because Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters played in the game and Martin scored one and Geoff got the other three, West Ham went on some great tours after that.

Was Geoff Hurst’s famous goal, a goal?

We always say yeah it was because the referee said it was. (Chuckling) The Germans have gone into all sorts of technology to say that it wasn’t. I still couldn’t tell you if it was, but they gave it, so it was.

Did winning the Cup change Moore, Hurst and Peters?

No. It didn’t change them. Bobby Moore always had the persona of the captain. He wasn’t aloof, but everybody looked up to him because he was the captain. And actually when you got to know him, he was a really great guy. Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters were just two very friendly people and easy to get on with.

When did you score your first goal for West Ham?

I think it was one of the latter games of the first full season that I played during the 1969-70 season. It was right near the end. I scored against Wolverhampton Wanderers. It was at home. It was great. It was an easy goal. It’s funny, I’ve looked at a couple goals I scored and your perception of how they were, it actually quite different from reality. To me it seemed like I was close, in the six-yard box and it was a tap-in.

As I recall, it was a low cross from the right, and it was just there, a tap-in. I think it was left-footed.

Did you celebrate much with your teammates?

I’m not sure. If you look at the way they celebrate now days, we never used to celebrate like that. You’d be happy about it, but you’d just get on with it. This was near the end of the game, it was basically won anyway.

My next goal was the following season against Chelsea and that was a really good goal. Clyde Best takes a corner from the right wing and I come in and hit it on the half-volley ... and it pinged into the back of the net. I was just outside the box, it was a classic. I jumped up and it took me five minutes to come down on that one. (Chuckling). It was at Upton Park.

Then I scored two goals away from home, one at Crystal Palace, which was a good goal. Jimmy Greaves was playing in that game. He laid a ball into me and I had to beat a couple of people and slotted it in.

My last goal was against West Bromwich away. A little near-post run. Trevor Brooking got to the byline and plays a little ball in to me at the near post.

Let’s talk about your move to the States, how did you come to work for the Sounders in 1977?

So, I went to Bournemouth in January [of 1972], and Harry Redknapp and Jimmy Gabriel came in the summer at the end of the season and played the following season. But, I was there first and I got this place in Christchurch, it was a new development, townhomes. Jimmy came and I showed him my development, so he bought a house just down the road, walking distance [from me]. When Harry came, he bought a house literally across the street from Jimmy. So, the three of us would go into training together, come back afterward, go to the local pub, talk about soccer. It was brilliant. So we became very good friends.

In 1974, Jimmy came over to the United States because he was at the end of his playing career. He was asked to come over and play with the Sounders. John Best was the head coach and Jimmy was his assistant/player coach. Jimmy brought Harry over here to play, not to coach in 1976 and Geoff Hurst came over as well at that time. Then when Jimmy became head coach in ’77 -- John Best moved to Vancouver as the general manager … -- he asked Harry and I to be assistant coaches.

I was still in England … I was coaching at Plymouth from September ’75 to about February ’77. I was basically there almost a year and a half and it was fantastic. It was the best coaching job, the most enjoyable coaching job I’ve had because I was given basically a group of players to work with and to manage. It was like an exercise in junior management and I did all sorts of things with them. I showed them how to set up a bank account; they were apprentices to other players, so I created a system of apprenticeship that made it a lot easier for them.

We must have made the club a lot of money; a lot of money, because of the 16 players that you’re dealing with, three players went on to have careers in what is now the Premiership.

While I was at Plymouth and when Jimmy was with the Sounders he flew me out in ‘76 from London to here to have a look at Seattle and get to know everybody.

I had been here twice before but only for a couple of days. I came here with West Ham. We played an exhibition. The first time here in 1969 we played Hibernian at Memorial Stadium. It was like playing on concrete. (Chuckling) Then two years later in 1971, we played Rot-Weiss Essen from Germany in the same place.

But he brought me over to get to know the Sounders’ organization and I went, “yeah, ok, let’s go for it.”

So we came over, but I didn’t know how long it was going to be for.

The first year [1977] was very interesting because we were 0-3 and 3-8 and I thought I won’t be staying here for very long. (Laughing) But, it was a great season, a magical season.

So, you beat the L.A. Aztecs in the semifinals and then met the New York Cosmos in Soccer Bowl ’77 in Portland. What are your memories of that match?

It was a fantastic game, a terrific experience. You’re disappointed at having lost the final, but by the same token fairly pleased with the performance of the players. And to have got so far given the start that we had.

We had all the momentum going in [to the playoffs]. The Minnesota Kicks were a good team, a good organization … and to win that series was terrific.

Did you remember devising any game plan to try to contain Pele and the rest of the Cosmos stars?

It’s hard to know now, but I think it was more not so much a game where we’ve got to play this system to match up with that person. We went out there and played our game. It worked so well for us. We had a very good balance in the team at that time, tremendous … It was such a good game, and that was the thing for us knowing we had played so well.

Talk about the next couple of years with the team?

In ’81, we actually won the Trans-Atlantic Cup, but we didn’t do so well in the league. But, ’82 was another very, very good season. The highlight of that was the Ft. Lauderdale series in the semifinals. We had to go there and score. It was unbelievable, it was tremendous. Then, of course, we got the Cosmos again in the final and they scored early in the game and then wouldn’t give us the ball again. That final wasn’t as exciting.

Robert Wickwire (@rwickwire) has worked the past 20 years as a digital sports producer at MSNBC.com, NBA.com, ESPN.com, ESPNSoccernet.com (now ESPNFC.com) and Seattletimes.com.