CanPL’s Historic Duty

By Benjamin Massey · August 9th, 2018 · 1 comment

Lake Side Buoys via Facebook, used with permission.

In the autumn of 1990 the Victoria Vistas were riding high in the Canadian Soccer League. They had rallied from an atrocious debut in 1989 to finish high-mid-table in the regular season, then knocked off the Winnipeg Fury on penalties in the first round of the playoffs. The mid-dynasty Vancouver 86ers beat Victoria on away goals in the semi-final but, especially in hindsight, there was nothing shameful about that. Victoria boasted local talent, led by veteran Canadian international Ian Bridge, and a few foreign stars like former Aston Villa skipper Allan Evans. Head coach Bruce Wilson, already a national legend from the 1986 World Cup and a Canada West champion coach with the University of Victoria, led a steady improvement throughout his first full season as a professional boss. It was a very good year.

Fans walked away from 1990 expecting more in 1991. But by March the Vistas were dead. Their players went in a dispersal draft, Wilson went back to UVic full-time, most of the locals dropped to the amateur ranks. The long story of Victoria soccer would go on, from the return of Victoria United to the Pacific Coast Soccer League, through the storied Vancouver Island Soccer League, all the way to USL PDL’s Victoria Highlanders, but this was all strictly local stuff. Victoria, one of Canada’s most soccer-mad cities, was deprived of the professional game for a generation.

On July 20, 2018, that finally changed when former Canadian internationals Josh Simpson and Rob Friend unveiled the Victoria area’s new Canadian Premier League team, Pacific FC. The new team is a backup plan after Friend’s attempted “Port City” greater Vancouver team couldn’t find a stadium, they’re playing in the suburb of Langford rather than Victoria soccer’s spiritual home at Royal Athletic Park, and the city is delighted anyway. The Victoria Highlanders’ supporters group, the Lake Side Buoys, are getting behind Pacific FC with hardly a flicker of doubt. Some diehard Highlanders supporters have waited for this moment longer than their future players have been alive.

It’s a beautiful story. It is also far from unique.

The Nova Scotia Clippers played one CSL season in Dartmouth, didn’t win a thing, and went away, but like Victoria, Halifax soccer has always punched above its weight. In the years since Nova Scotia has produced several professionals two national amateur championship teams. Now the CanPL Halifax Wanderers have an exciting “pop-up” stadium on historic ground and the most amazing grassroots supporters group that actually anticipated their team’s name. Winnipeg has been without professional soccer since 1992 and their PDL team has been bad, but fans there will turn out in the hundreds just to look at Desiree Scott and their CanPL team has already registered over 1,200 would-be season ticket holders.

Hamilton, the CanPL’s cradle if anywhere is, has waited as long without being able to enjoy PDL, but has “enjoyed” years of Bob Young almost bringing in an NASL team. It would be a surprise if Forge FC was not the best-supported first-year team of the bunch. Next to them Calgary looks like paradise; they had an A-League team as late as 2004 and today’s championship PDL team is the likely spine of their CanPL entry. York, the butt of jokes, had two at-least-semi-professional soccer teams in the 1990s and zero for the past half-decade. FC Edmonton‘s problems, spending 2018 without a league, are trivial by comparison.

As individuals we feel our excitement for the Canadian Premier League burning within us, a blazing beacon for soccer communities that have seen so much darkness. But taking a step back to look at the rest of the Dominion reveals that the same stories can be told all across the nation. Each of us, with our prayers, our desperation, and our patience, is repeated ten thousand times across four time zones. It’s inspirational. It is also an enormous emotional, historical, and cultural burden, which this new league will have to bear.

We fans—the ones who already exist, not the ones the league will have to attract—are bringing so many years of barely-sustained hope to these little stadiums. Such undying loyalty should be a point of pride, but it is also a lot of baggage. Do the league’s pioneers realize the weight they are responsible for? When the Canadian Soccer League started in the ’80s it was an ambitious but logical peak for our developing soccer pyramid. Our men’s soccer programs were at their very best and there was no serious American competition. It proved a noble failure, noble enough that we are proud of its legacy, but a failure all the same and one that left scars. And the thing about scars is that time does not make them go away.

Without signing a player or playing a game, these teams have become the targets for a generation of hope from the soccer supporters in seven different towns, all of which have been burned before. Such hopes cannot easily be recreated if dashed. Ask fans of FC Edmonton, a team which has had decent performances and all-time legendary ownership but can only slowly attract mass interest because the Brickmen and the Aviators and the Drillers have poisoned the well so thoroughly. What the Canadian Premier League has is one precious, potentially golden, building block, but it is oh-so-fragile.

The Canadian Premier League is not Canada’s last chance for a national soccer league, but it might be our last chance for anything good.

Even a qualified CanPL success, with Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal permanently lost to MLS and no hope in CONCACAF, one vast Wales, would be a very good thing. We do not need to aim too high. But if it fails entirely, if it turns into MLS-style corporate trash or goes broke, then those lost hopes will maim everything that comes later. The future will look like the new “Canadian” cricket league, where meaningless squads of foreign mercenaries named Vancouver, Montreal, and so on all play in Toronto, and at the end people nobody cared about lifted a trophy with no emotional attachment to it. Great if you want to sit outside for two hours but hopeless if you care about any of what makes sports compelling beyond the literal physical activity.

It’s a hard job. The diehards cannot simply be pandered to; there are too few. To survive any team must attract the common soccer family, this is mathematically unavoidable. Yet experience shows that without those diehards curating an organic soccer culture and bringing an atmosphere to the ground you become Chivas USA. Let supporters support, don’t abandon your community in the name of monolithic corporate genericity, and don’t screw up the business. Most of all, respect your local soccer history. With a league front office full of soccer men and team names like Jim Brennan, Stephen Hart, Josh Simpson, Tommy Wheeldon, and so on involved, that ought not to be too difficult. But you need to be aware of that responsibility.

The Top 10 Horrible Ways Teams Have Been Eliminated From the Canadian Championship

By Benjamin Massey · July 1st, 2016 · No comments

2016’s Voyageurs Cup final game was one for the books. By this, I mean it tore out the hearts of Vancouver Whitecaps fans and laughed at them as they died. This is what the Voyageurs Cup is for. Since its formation in 2002 the Whitecaps have, more often than not, enjoyed a long series of wide-awake nightmares. The same applies for fans of FC Edmonton, and to a lesser extent every team that isn’t the Montreal Impact. The Voyageurs Cup is wonderful and it is horrible, like eating a pound of bacon for breakfast.

In honour of this latest addition to the pantheon of misery, I thought I’d compile my list of the top ten most horrifying defeats since the beginning of the Canadian Championship in 2008. (Why not the beginning of the Voyageurs Cup in 2002? Partially because I don’t remember that far, partially because few teams cared, and mostly because I will be getting quite nerdy enough without dragging in Mesut Mert and the 2004 Calgary Mustangs.)

I am, of course, biased. As an ex-Whitecaps and now-FC Edmonton fan, you will notice these teams prominent on this list. All I can say is that I honestly believe they have had the bulk of the blackness. From another point of view these moments of agony will be moments of triumph. Soccer is a zero-sum game and one man’s collapse is another’s miracle. But let’s face it, happiness is not in the Voyageurs Cup spirit. Losing feels much worse than winning feels good, and it’s the bad beats that have always defined this tournament. Or maybe that’s the westerner in me.

Since this article is so image-heavy, it begins after the jump.


The Greatest Canadian Game Ever

By Benjamin Massey · January 22nd, 2016 · No comments

Canadian Soccer Association

Canadian Soccer Association

There are some good old Canadian soccer videos on YouTube, and today I found the crown jewel: the complete match video of the biggest day in Canadian men’s soccer history, when on September 14, 1985, Canada beat Honduras 2-1 in St. John’s, Newfoundland and qualified for the 1986 FIFA World Cup.

I had never before watched this game. It took place fifteen months before I was born. The game was broadcast live nationally on CBC, today not a home for the men’s national team, so there are few opportunities for the network to pull it out of the archives. The only chance was home videotapers, some of whom recorded this game, a smaller subset of those keeping both boxes of tapes in good order and the means to play (and digitize) them. Apart from the 1986 World Cup itself, where YouTube has varying-quality foreign-language videos of all three Canadian games, the earliest matches available online even as decent highlight reels dated from the 1994 World Cup qualifying campaign… until a magnificent user gave us this piece of history.

You know the story. Canada needed a draw or a win to qualify; a loss would see Honduras through. English-born Carl Valentine, late of the Vancouver Whitecaps and then with West Brom, had finally agreed to represent his adopted homeland. The game was scheduled for St. John’s and the Newfoundlanders packed King George V Park to standing room only, fans crowded around the thin white rope that protected the field of play. Meanwhile, according to imperishable legend, most Hondurans who traveled to support their side wound up in Saint John, New Brunswick, across the Gulf of St. Lawrence from the action and scrambling to find a friendly pub. In the end, despite struggling with the flu, Valentine set up Canadian goals from two players as different as ice and fire: scrapper’s scrapper George Pakos, the Victoria amateur who’d clawed his way into the national program with sheer persistence and guts, and super-skilled Torontonian forward Igor Vrablic, 20 years old and already making his 34th cap, but less than two years away from being forced out in disgrace for match fixing.

You see it all in the video. Pakos’s opening goal is superbly gritty; Valentine’s corner gets only a glancing header from Ian Bridge, the ball falls into a sea of Honduran white, and from outside the post George Pakos charges into the mob like a raging bull and puts his boot through it, driving it right off Honduran goalkeeper Julio César Arzú and in. Vrablic, on the other hand, does it almost like you draw it up: tied 1-1 just past the hour mark, Valentine’s corner is flicked on by David Norman and Vrablic makes the perfect run, chucks his leg in the way, and deflects it home.

However, when you know a game as only a legend, it’s so easy to be disappointed in the imperfect reality of a 90-minute soccer match. Especially a thirty-year-old one on a dodgy pitch during the salad days of defensive soccer. Early on I yelped at a Canadian backpass into goalkeeper Tino Lettieri’s hands before remembering that wouldn’t be a rule for seven more years, and his long holds of the ball would have driven Abby Wambach to distraction. This was not soccer’s finest era and, mentally, I prepared myself for Canada gritting out an undeserved three points. What I got was a match living up to its reputation.

There are so many little moments Wikipedia just can’t tell you about. Lettieri, officially listed at 6’0″ but definitely smaller (Bruce Wilson, no giant, has a good few inches on him), running down everything like a maniac, taking every chance, and sprinting down the pitch to celebrate with the team on Pakos’s opener. The aggressiveness of the defending. A constant press, mad challenges (particularly from Pakos and Norman) in spite of what we still recognize as Honduras’s trademark flopping. Vrablic’s first-half chance, an absolute sparkler of a ball flashing across the face of goal, only for him to cement-foot it sideways, the sort of thing that could have lived in infamy on another day. Vrablic cannoning a shot from distance off the post with barely ten minutes to go; that miss wouldn’t have to haunt him either.

Late in the first half, with Canada holding on to a 1-0 lead, Randy Samuel making one of the great goal-line clearances, outrunning both Lettieri and the ball to hammer it most of the way to Cape Breton. Lettieri spilling a dangerous free kick but Ian Bridge thundering in without regard for life or limb to clear the ball behind. Late in the game, a charging Lettieri being stamped on by Macho Figueroa, and an irate Bob Lenarduzzi immediately shoving Figueroa to the ground. Randy Regan and Paul James, of all people, hooking up for a European counter attack that ended with James two feet from a highlight-reel goal. Ken Garraway, another Victoria amateur legend making his second-last cap for Canada, coming on to help kill the last half-hour and in his charmingly limited way tying the desperate Honduran defense in knots, like a particularly awkward bull tossing aside Pamplona tourists.

And Canada running, running, running, living up to our every stereotype of a country that emphasizes fitness, guts, and desire rather than sheer technical skill, a negative cliché that, on this enormous day, worked in the most positive fashion. The game was even in the middle of the park but Honduras generated little. They wanted it, don’t kid yourself, but pushed on by one of the all-time great crowds Canada outworked them. A crowd so energetic that, even in the pre-supporters group era, on the dough-like mid-’80s CBC microphones the atmosphere flows though the video like lifeblood. Singing “na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na, hey hey hey, goodbye”… in the sixty-fifth minute. The Voyageurs wouldn’t have the nerve to taunt the Hondos like that today, but St. John’s did, and they were right. There weren’t even moments of danger, just Canada working harder, holding on, and at the explosion of the final whistle thousands of fans invading what had suddenly become a hallowed pitch.

What a show it was, the best of Canadian soccer as it was then. Knowing the outcome and knowing that, in the long run, it would amount to nothing more than a story takes nothing away in 2016. These players gave their all for their country; there were a few flashy, uncommitted professionals, but old-school players who’d run through a wall for the maple leaf proved more important. Pakos and Wilson, in particular, were the very incarnation of what Canadian players should be. Even Valentine, born and raised in England and preferring to play for them, was an honest man whose heart belonged to two homelands and would give everything he had for either one. They weren’t as technical as the Hondurans but they were skilled enough, not to mention well-led and utterly committed, and that’s what mattered (indeed, their performance against a nasty group in 1986 should be a source of pride in itself).

Bringing in the most talented players regardless of other considerations is a valid approach. But it’s not the only successful one.

Hugh Cairns VC DCM

By Benjamin Massey · November 11th, 2014 · 3 comments

Hugh Cairns was a typical Canadian soccer player of the early twentieth century, in that he was English. Born December 4, 1896 in Ashington, a Northumbrian town fifteen miles north of Newcastle[1], he was the son of George H. Cairns and Elizabeth Dotes Cairns and the third child of eleven[2]. Hugh grew up in England, but in 1911 the large Cairns family emigrated to Saskatchewan[3], setting up shop in the rapidly growing town of Saskatoon.

The Cairns family appears to have been a completely ordinary example of the thousands then settling in the newly-opened Canadian prairies. Saskatoon was no frontier: it had been linked to eastern Canada by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway since 1907. But it was still a boom town bursting at the seams, going from 113 souls in 1901 to “near 28,000” in 1912[4]. By Hugh Cairns’s day Saskatoon boasted a university, several churches, and a thriving local sports scene. Immigrants from across Europe and even further afield followed the steel lines of the Grand Trunk Pacific, the Canadian Pacific, and the Canadian Northern railways, swelling the ranks of formerly minor outposts like Saskatoon, Edmonton, and Gastown. The Cairns were but a cup of water in the tidal wave.

Surviving photos suggest Hugh Cairns was a handsome young man in the classic mold of the early West: not tall (5’6″) but stocky, broad across the shoulder, with a strong jaw and a plain, unbeguiling expression. A common look on many young prairie Canadians of the era, where even the softest job required a certain amount of guts and self-reliance. Cairns was a plumber, getting his start in the trade after a few years apprenticing. Very much a man of the urban boom, but also someone used to working with his hands, and probably working very hard in a fast-growing city.

Cairns immediately found prominent role of Saskatoon soccer. An Anglican, Cairns was a member of the Christ Church Intermediate Boys team in his teenage years, winning a championship. Church teams were a big part of Saskatoon soccer in those early days, as indeed they were across much of the prairies: while in the established areas like Ontario and southern Vancouver Island clubs like Galt F.C. and Victoria United were already becoming well-known, in more recently-settled areas the church often remained a catch-all social hub.

In 1912 a Saskatchewan soccer team toured England. Cairns would have been only fifteen years old, but it’s been suggested he represented his new home in his old one; certainly despite his youth he was a strong local player. In the last year before his enlistment Cairns won the Saskatoon league with the St. Thomas Church team, apparently playing a major role[5]. Not a bad soccer career, for a teenage Canadian on the prairies in 1915, but the Great War was to end it as it ended so much else.

Hugh Cairns enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the fall of 1915. At least two of his brothers, Albert and Henry, also signed up; Albert and Hugh signed their attestation papers the same day and were assigned to the same battalions, first the 65th and then the 46th. Henry survived the war but Albert died September 10, 1918 from wounds suffered taking the Drocourt-Quéant Line[6].

Arriving in France in August 1916, Cairns missed the bloodiest weeks of the Battle of the Somme but still would have seen some of the infamous offensive. Over the course of the war Cairns distinguished himself, becoming a sergeant and winning the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his part at the Battle of Vimy Ridge. In that most famous of Canadian battles, Cairns took the initiative to recover a pair of lost guns and attacked the enemy with them[7], a good example of the independent thinking which made the Vimy victory possible. The DCM was the non-officer’s equivalent of the Distinguished Service Order, the second-highest award for gallantry in the British Empire behind the Victoria Cross. Cairns was also wounded in the battle, but recovered in time to participate in the campaigns of 1918.

The risk of burnout for an active soldier was then not always understood but has been discussed at length in the years since. Both memoirs and fiction have made us familiar with the highly experienced soldier who starts to lose his self-control. In his first months a soldier on the front line is a danger to himself and those around him, lacking the experience to be much good. If the soldier survived he became more knowledgeable, able to survive, skilled in hitting back. But if he spent too long in action then he grew jaded, unable to cope with the constant tax on his mental resources, prone to fall apart or to take stupid, unnecessary risks. Even the strongest has only so much strength, and each barrage, each battle, each poking of the head over the parapet, drained a little more from that limited account.

By the end of his life Hugh Cairns had been at the front for over two years, with some leave and “rest” periods that amounted to performing still-onerous jobs often within shell range. His brother Albert, with whom he had been especially close, had died two months earlier, and some sources suggest Hugh was fixated on paying the Germans back. If so he took his chance on November 1, 1918.

Cairns was leading No. 3. Platoon of “A” Company, 46th Battalion (South Saskatchewan) in the drive to take Valenciennes, a town near the Belgian border occupied by the Germans in 1914. This portion of 1918 is often called “Canada’s Hundred Days”; the Canadian Corps, under the command of General Arthur Currie, was in the van of the British assault through northern France into Belgium.

The 46th had earned the unenviable nickname of the “Suicide Battalion” due to its prodigious casualty rate, but it had also earned an armful of battle honours; the battalion, and Cairns, had fought in every major British Empire campaign on the western front since its arrival in 1916[8]. It was among the units engaged on November 1, in the front line of the assault on Valenciennes.

Cairns’s Victoria Cross citation in the London Gazette reads[9]:

No. 472168 Serjt. Hugh Cairns, D.C.M., late 46th Bn., Saskatchewan R.

For most conspicuous bravery before Valenciennes on 1st November, 1918, when a machine gun opened on his platoon. Without a moment’s hesitation Serjt. Cairns seized a Lewis gun and single-handed, in the face of direct fire, rushed the post, killed the crew of five, and captured the gun. Later, when the line was held up by machine-gun fire, he again rushed forward, killing 12 enemy and capturing 18 and two guns.

Subsequently, when the advance was held up by machine guns and field guns, although wounded, he led a small party to outflank them, killing many, forcing about 50 to surrender, and capturing all the guns.

After consolidation he went with a battle patrol to exploit Marly and forced 60 enemy to surrender. Whilst disarming this party he was severely wounded. Nevertheless, he opened fire and inflicted heavy losses. Finally he was rushed by about 20 enemy and collapsed from weakness and loss of blood.

Throughout the operation he showed the highest degree of valour, and his leadership greatly contributed to the success of the attack. He died on the 2nd November from wounds.

The Lewis light machine gun with which Cairns “rushed” the German machine gun posts weighed nearly thirty pounds without its ammunition drum; somewhat less if like many soldiers Cairns discarded the cooling jacket. With that would have come spare ammunition plus up to seventy pounds in standard infantry equipment. Making any speed whatsoever over broken terrain while firing under such a load is inconceivable. Such a “rush” into the jaws of the enemy guns would have been no split-second burst but a deliberate half-plod, half-jog straight down the most dangerous line on a battlefield.

“A” Company was split in several different directions, sections flying off here and there to shore up positions of weakness, the company commander working hard just to stay in touch with the attack. Years of trench-saturated stalemate had given way, in the past six months, to a sudden sharp war of movement, old tactics had been replaced with new, and the veteran soldiers were called upon to do far more than “walk forward, take that trench”. Cairns was given responsibility for several important jobs, including flanking a problematic German gun emplacement, and pulled them all off. Cairns, a sergeant, would not normally be leading a platoon at all: the “Suicide Battalion” had taken its toll out of the officers.

According to the report of his company commander, Captain R. W. Gyles, Cairns and Lieutenant J. P. G. MacLeod of “C” Company 46th encountered a large group of Germans in one corner of a field. Depending on who you believe, MacLeod and Cairns were either alone or had two others with them. MacLeod had an officer’s pistol, Cairns his Lewis gun. Cairns had already been wounded fighting other, large groups of Germans, as the main mass of the attack had pushed past and left the Germans cut off from their army. Cairns and MacLeod may have been outnumbered twenty-five to one, but they had also spent the morning fighting a winning battle.

MacLeod ordered the Germans to surrender. Most raised their hands; one German raised his rifle. MacLeod covered the German with his pistol. A German officer made to have his fellow put the rifle down. Simultaneously, he drew his own pistol and shot Cairns through the chest.

Consider the thinking of that officer. In spite of the propaganda of a later Reich German soldiers at the front were under no illusions: their country was two weeks from surrendering and the troops knew how near the end was. Two days later German sailors at Kiel would mutiny rather than make a seemingly-pointless sacrifice, beginning the Revolutions of 1918-19. Yet rather than go into captivity this officer chose to risk his life, and the lives of his men, on slim odds. We will never know his name, let alone what his war was like.

The would-be capture degenerated into a point-blank gun battle with machine guns on both sides, MacLeod and Cairns standing their ground. Cairns was hit several more times, passed out from his wounds, and was dragged to safety by MacLeod[10]. Trying to get Cairns to a casualty clearing station, the stretcher-bearers came under fire and Cairns was hit again before he could finally be brought to medical attention. Both Cairns and MacLeod were recommended for the VC; MacLeod settled for the Distinguished Service Order but Cairns got the Cross, posthumously. He died the next day, nine days before the Armistice that ended the First World War, and is buried at Auberchicourt British Cemetery.

In 1936 a street in Valenciennes was named after Cairns, with his parents coming from Quebec for the dedication; the Daily Herald called it the first known case of a French street being named in honour of a non-commissioned officer[11]. Other honours include a plaque in the same town, a posthumous Legion of Honour, Hugh Cairns V.C. School in Saskatoon, and a place for his parents at the dedication of the Vimy Memorial, the battleground where Hugh won his DCM.

The most substantial memorial lives in Saskatoon’s Kiwanis Park, where the local soccer association and the community chose to place a statue of Cairns atop the memorial commemorating the soccer community’s war dead. The memorial was erected in 1921, showing Cairns in full soccer kit: it is believed to be the only war memorial featuring a soccer player anywhere in the world[12].

Inscribed on the plinth are the Union Flag and the Red Ensign under which Cairns fought and 77 names, the soccer players of what was then an insignificant if booming city on the banks of the South Saskatchewan, who gave their lives for their country from 1914 to 1918[13].

J. E. Bartlett · R. J. G. Bateman · E. Baty · R. Baty · E. W. Bayes
W. Black · T. Bowlt · H. Brown · A. Cairns · H. Cairns
H. K. Carruthers · T. K. Chalmers · A. T. Clayton · L. V. Clare · G. W. Clementson
T. Clinkskill · J. G. A. Cockburn · J. M. Coles · E. H. Cook · W. K. Craighead
G. F. Doree · A. B. Douglas · E. Gemmell · H. E. Gibbons · J. W. Goble
C. J. Fox · W. Grant · J. W. Graham · D. K. Gordon · F. J. Guy
W. R. Hay · W. Harrison · C. Hopwood · A. Hunter · T. Huggins
E. Key · S. M. King · W. W. King · P. Kinnear · S. V. Laver
F. Lippross · A. S. K. Lloyd · J. W. Lowes · A. MacDougall · O. R. Marsh
N. M. N. McIntosh · R. McNiel · S. McNiel · W. May · S. H. Monk
A. Moss · C. G. D. King-Mason · W. Mitchell · W. K. Munro · W. Nichol
A. H. Peat · V. D. B. Rae · G. Rippingale · C. Robbins · V. Robertson
J. J. Scott · W. T. Sinclair · D. F. Smart · C. B. Smillie · T. H. Smith
A. G. Starkings · G. A. Stebbing · A. Steele · W. Spence · G. Swift
R. Smyllie · L. Tinkess · T. Waters · W. T. Wesley-Long · A. E. Whitehouse
J. H. Wight · W. Wood

(notes and comments…)