In Italian colours at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium.
Within a week of being free transfer listed at Huddersfield Town I received an offer from Toronto Italia FC of Canada to join their club for the 1964 summer season. The club participated in the Eastern Canadian Professional Soccer League. Within days of receiving their offer, formalities were completed, and for the first time in my life I was aboard an aircraft whisking me away across the Atlantic. On arrival in Toronto I was quickly installed in ‘digs’ with a new teammate from Northern Ireland; Ray Gough. Ray had enjoyed a distinguished career with one of Northern Ireland’s premier clubs; Linfield, and had just finished a stint with Exeter City in the English Football League. Although Ray was a few years older than me we ‘hit it off’ together becoming almost inseparable over the next few months. Ray was a classy midfielder who would surely have made it to the top in professional football, unfortunately a serious injury had curtailed his progress.
Ray Gough had enjoyed a distingushed career in Northern Ireland.
Toronto Italia, together with Toronto City, played their home games at the University Stadium which was set close to the campus and within a few minutes ride of the city centre. Our training facility was also on the University grounds, but the administration offices for the club were on the premises of a real estate magnet, and Chairman of the club; Joe Peters. The team was well supported by Italian immigrants with our home games usually attracting crowds of up to six thousand people. Football; or Soccer, as it was called by the locals, found it hard to compete against the more traditional Canadian summer sports such as Baseball, however, the press coverage was quite good and occasionally clips of our games were shown on local television.
The Eastern Canada Professional Soccer League was played during the summer months, from May until early September. Although the majority of the squad were full time professionals, on short term contracts, some of the permanent players had occupations, playing football on a part-time basis. The Toronto Italia squad was made up of players from Denmark, Italy, Mexico, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Ireland and England thus making it a very cosmopolitan line-up. Of the British players, Gordon Hopkinson had been on the books of Doncaster Rovers, and keeper, Roy Rea had played for Ireland.
Enjoying some time off with teammates and family.
Our away games took us to cities such as Montreal, Ottawa and Hamilton; I can recollect visiting Niagara Falls at some stage, but who we played against on that occasion has disappeared from my memory. Toronto City had an interesting combination of British players on their books which included: Ex Aston Villa keeper; Nigel Simms along with Ex England and Spurs International; Johnny Brooks. Tony Book was also in their squad and he would go on to much greater things at Manchester City. Ted Purdon; ex Sunderland, and Norman Sykes from Bristol Rovers were also included in their array of talented players. Norman Sykes was destined to join up with me during my second season at Stockport County. This impressive line-up of experienced players was overseen by Player/Coach Malcolm Allison, who had yet to make his mark as Coach and Manager at Manchester City.
Malcolm Allison (Player/Coach) Johnny Brooks and Tony Book at Toronto City.
The summers in Toronto were very warm and we often found our matches scheduled in the evenings where the temperature could still be in the nineties (Fahrenheit), this took some getting used to for me, having played most of my football in the cool climate of North England.
From a personal point of view, I was soaking in the experience of playing regular first team football, with and against, knowledgeable and proficient players. These footballers came from all parts of South, North and Central America and together with players from Britain and Continental Europe, I couldn’t fail to benefit. The Coach at Toronto Italia was from one of the Scandinavian countries, he brought a new dimension to our training sessions, which had been sadly lacking at Huddersfield Town. Much more emphasis was put on working with the football both individually and in groups. The contrasting playing styles within the team was also evident, particularly when practicing in small sided games, with the South Americans often dwelling and possessing the ball, whilst the Europeans would move it quickly and take the shortest route to goal.
The financial rewards for playing first team football also dramatically increased for me, going from the fifteen pounds plus bonuses per week at Huddersfield, to one hundred dollars, plus bonuses, at Toronto. As a single young twenty year old I was able to enjoy a lavish lifestyle and still put some money in the bank. The drinking laws in Canada at that time were quite strict and it was illegal for me to go into bars with the other players, however, in the main, they turned a blind eye, particularly if I went on stage and gave them a song.
Another highlight for me was meeting one of my childhood hero’s; Stanley Matthews, who, at the time, was engaged in a series of exhibition games throughout Eastern Canada. He came into our changing room after a game in order to meet the players. After casually muttering something to me, I answered him in a Yorkshire accent, causing him to exclaim, “Bloody hell I thought you were an Italian!”
The Canadian experience came at a good time for me, especially so soon after having being released by Huddersfield, as it gave me little time to reflect on my disappointment. I gained some valuable experiences of how football is played in other countries, which would help to sustain me in the coming years. Joe Peters; the club President, was keen to have me back at the club on a permanent basis, this would have meant settling in Canada. We agreed to keep the option open, however, it was early September and I had to return to England to see what awaited me there………..