tentment. "We were not the greatest team, but we had great camaraderie. We played as a team as opposed to individuals."
His first match with the club came on May 1, 1977, in Ft. Lauderdale against the Strikers.
From that day through the end of the 1979 season, the affable Scot was known as the Dips defensive enforcer, a reputation that had preceded him from his days playing for Southampton in England.
The 1977 season garnered great optimism, but soon bogged down as the team struggled to find the back of the net, scoring just 31 goals in 26 games and finishing 10-16. "Dennis (Head Coach Dennis Viollet) was defensive minded so there were not many goals," Steele recalls.
Gordon Bradley, who took over for Viollet after the 1977 campaign, was able to recruit better players because, as Steele puts it, management "opened up the wallet." The 1978 Dips went undefeated in their first five games and reached the playoffs. They achieved a notoriety no other Diplomat team had enjoyed before, lasting through-out the season, and beyond.
Steele recalls the magic of Summer, 1978. "It was fabulous. Paul Cannell and I spent a lot of time at The Sign of the Whale (a bar in the Georgetown section of DC)." He found the area so much to his liking that he stayed throughout the offseason during his tenure with the Dips.
LIFE IN THE NASL
Steele remembers the Dips organization provided the best of everything. "We ate well, traveled comfortably, and stayed in first class hotels. The Danzansky's were a great family, though they didn't know much about football. Steve (Team President Stephen Danzansky) was a nice guy. We went upstairs after certain games and had a drink with him."
Drinking, it seems, was another facet where the English dominated the Yanks. "The players from the UK would often go out for a pint. After a few occasions some of the Americans joined us, but they would be drunk after about four beers. Then they insisted on buying round after round!"
While life off the pitch was enjoyable, there were a few aspects of Americanized soccer that took getting used to. For instance, some of the playing fields were unusually narrow, especially in Tulsa. Aloha Stadium, home of Team Hawaii, presented it's own unique predicament. "The pitch had an unusual wind because it was an open ended stadium."
Adapting to artificial turf was perhaps the most difficult adjustment international players faced in the NASL. Their tactical instincts for the game were based on the friendlier setting of natural grass stadiums. "You could not do slide tackles (on artificial turf), Steele recalls with a chuckle. "I told a player from Holland, 'no matter what, do not slide tackle on this stuff.' His first one was a slide and it took all the skin off his leg."
The Meadowlands, home of the Cosmos, posed an additional nuisance alongside that of synthetic grass. "The field had a hump in the middle (which allowed water runoff). The ball would be rolling to the side and then pick up speed you did not expect and we thought 'What's all this?'"
The months in between the end of the '78 season and Opening Day '79 provided big changes for the organization, on and off the field. Madison Square Garden Soccer, Inc., a subsidiary of Gulf and Western, became the new majority owner. Coach Gordon Bradley set out to change the quality of native players and enhance the team's depth.
In a March, 1979, interview with the Washington Star, Bradley noted, "When I came here the American contingent was so-so. Now of my top 24 players, 11 are Americans. This year I wanted depth. Our average age last year was 27 1/2, this year it's 25." What most impressed Bradley about the new ownership was the infusion of a new mindset. "The thing I've noticed most different about the club is its organization. We're here to stay, you might say." Ah...yeah (Please pardon my sarcasm). During this honeymoon period, MSG rolled out the red carpet. Steele recalls he and a handful of teammates being treated to a weekend in NYC, which included taking in a Rangers game in the owners private suite.
The new attitude surrounding the organization translated into a 8-2 record to start the season, with the Dips outscoring opponents 30-15. This era of good feelings would not last, however. Despite finishing that year with a franchise best 19-11 record, the team faired a disappointing 2-5 in their final seven matches, the last four all losses.
As the season progressed, Bradley seemed to grow frustrated with the club's all-time leading scorer, Cannell, and defensive leader, Steele. "It's been this way for a while now," the sweeper told the Washington Post on August 19. "Something goes wrong, blame Steele or Cannell."
"Cannell pissed Bradley off," Steele remembers 35 years later, "something he said, or he was out drinking." Adding insult to injury for Steele was Bradley's decision to replace him with Tony Crescitelli, a forward, at the 79 minute mark in the Dips playoff opener versus Los Angeles . "Why take me off? I was playing better than some of the bloody midfielders."
Just a month after the end of the Diplomats 1979 season, Steele signed with the Pittsburgh Spirit of the Major Indoor Soccer League for the upcoming winter season. The Spirit were coached by former Diplomat and good friend Alex Pringle. On December 9, Steele tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and underwent surgery a week later. For all intents and purposes, his football career was over.
"The Diplomats doctor was examining my knee during the (1980) pre-season and he told me, 'look, management knows you're never going to be 100% again,'" Steele remembers. "I knew I wasn't going to be around much longer." His hunch was correct.
Steele was released before the Dips March 29 season opener in Tampa. Two months later to the day, May 29, Steele signed with the Memphis Rogues, joining up with Paul Cannell once again. However, his knee had incurred too much damage, and he played in just seven games. "Even to this day, I still can't bend my knee all the way back."
He stayed in the States until 1994, then returned to the UK and became a publican, only giving up the trade recently. He lives a satisfied life with his partner Jill, who works with dementia patients, a condition close to my heart as my father passed away from Parkinson's Disease. Still keeping active, he plays golf as frequently as possible.
When asked to reflect about his contributions to the Dips success, he states without hesitation, "A sense of pride. I think I boosted them."
|The gregarious Steele, still the life of the party.|
Special thanks to Simon Walter, The York Press