"The Irish Magician" was born July 23, not so long ago, in Newtonards, Northern Ireland. Attesting to his value on the Dips roster, Sonny Werblin, who rarely seemed to have much of anything positive to say about the club, exclaimed, "I wouldn't trade Bill Irwin for anyone."
Roy Willner appeared in 69 matches for the Diplomats. Only Gary Darrell played more seasons in a Dips uniform. From a fan's standpoint, it would be easy to think of Willner in a unidimensional way. Yet soccer is but one facet in which he has excelled. Inventor, successful businessman and youth mentor are all terms that could be applicable throughout his life.
Willner grew up in a
melting pot neighborhood in East Baltimore, Maryland. “Italians, Pols, Greeks
on every street,” he fondly recalls. Like any neighborhood, the kids would
gather together and play any chance they could, and their game of choice was
“I was fortunate. I was
introduced to soccer at a very early age. We played it all the time. We played
box soccer, with 6 on a side, on the outdoor basketball courts in a foot of
snow. In the summer, we’d play regular soccer on the big fields.”
Roy as a member of the Bays.
Thanks to the early introduction to the game, and vast experience with snoccer (snow soccer), Willner was an All-Baltimore Metro Scholastic selection in high school and a two time All-American at Catonsville Junior College (where he is a member of the school's athletic hall of fame). After his sophomore year, Willner turned pro, signing with the Baltimore Bays of the American Soccer League (ASL) in 1972.
"When I was playing for
the Bays, I met Dennis Viollet, who was a player and coach (the Bays ceased
operations after the 1973 season). When the NASL started a team in Washington
in 1974, Viollet became the coach and asked me to come over and play for him."
So, Willner moved the 38 miles down I-95. He had an old friend in the suburbs,
Sister Virginia Marie, who had been one of his elementary school teachers at
Our Lady of Fatima in Baltimore. She was now the principal at St. Elizabeth's
School in Rockville, Maryland.
were having problems at St. Elizabeth's with the gentleman who was in charge of
maintenance and was also the bus driver. He had developed a habit of drinking
the parish's sacramental wine, even if he had to drive the bus. So, she asked
me if I would come to the school and help her out. I was a custodian
there, a bus driver, the soccer coach and helped teach gym."
At St. Elizabeth's, Willner met two people who would have an immense
impact on his life. The first was his future wife, Kathy. The second was
parishioner Jack McShea. McShea's children attended the parish
school and he took note of Willner's enthusiasm.
saw me working there and doing all these things and he asked me to work for him
at Atlantic Telephone, which was a business he owned. Well, I didn't know anything
about telecommunications and I didn't really feel that comfortable with it.
About six months later he asked me again and this time I gave it a shot."
Willner impressed his new boss.
about six months of doing installation work, McShea wanted Willner to try his
hand at sales, but he was hesitant to make the transition. "Back
then," his wife, Kathy, recalls, "Roy was not so outgoing,
though he was always friendly and talkative."
accepted the challenge. "The first-year quota they gave me was $100,000 to
sell in phone equipment (equal to a little over $400,000 in 2016). I was the
only player who would go to practice, we would practice at RFK Stadium every
day from 10 - 12, and then pursue a second career. After practice,
I would shower and call on clients. All the other guys were swimming, playing
golf, that kind of thing. I was single and I had two incomes, which was really
How did he do his first
year is sales? "I hit my quota the last day of the year and won a
trip to Bermuda. I worked for Jack the next 22 years and then I went to
Intertel Technologies as their sales manager."
Violett and Willner during a 1974 match.
Personally, Willner was doing fine in DC. The soccer aspect was still a work in progress. Not so much for the man himself, but for the team and the league he was associated with. The Diplomats (they would not go by "Dips" until 1977), made their debut on May 4, 1974, at RFK Stadium, against the defending NASL champion Philadelphia Atoms. Despite losing the match 5-1, a respectable crowd of 10,145 showed up to see the new franchise. At the end of the season, their record stood at 7-12-1. Team management estimated a minimum of 12,000 spectators per game would be needed just to break even. Home attendance only averaged 4,975 per match, while the league wide-average was 7,770.
Devotion beats spelling!
In 1975, the club played most of their home matches at W.T. Woodson High School, in Fairfax, Virginia, as a financial necessity. The move proved provident. Average attendance grew exponentially to 8,847 per game. Willner found the franchise's new home had both pros and cons. "The field was terrible. However, it was interesting. The crowds weren't incredibly big, but they were closer. If you had 8,000 people at RFK, it still seemed cavernous. When we played at Woodson, I had my own little cheering section. They made banners with my name on them. I met all the people and got to talk to them. They were great." Willner fondly remembers the team's early years. "Dennis Viollet was the head coach, and he was still famous from his playing days in England. But Alan Spavin was really the hands-on guy. Alan ran the practices. Dennis was more of a general manager, and he also had a lot of speaking engagements trying to create a fan base. During that time, practices were fun."
Don't bother looking for Roy Willner or Art Welch
in the 1977 team photo.
The organization did have a few snafus during Roy's tenure. Say, for instance, the 1977 team photo, in which he does not appear. "They forgot to tell me. It was a special day, picture day. I was never told to be at the stadium on a certain date or time. The next day, someone came up and said, 'I apologize Roy. I forgot to tell you.' " He was not alone. Art Welch was never notified, either. Next Time: Part 2 of Catching Up With Roy Willner: A new coach and a career threatening injury, more Dips memories, An Entrepreneur & Inventor, life today.