Wednesday, July 9, 2008

When Toronto Pulled in the Stars

With torrents of cash flying back-and-forth through the now completely shattered and bent-framed European transfer window, it's nice to remember a time when print journalists could secure the services of knighted football players for travel, room and board, and about $125 a week.

In Toronto in 1961, soccer was the sport of immigrants. Teams like the Toronto Italia, the Polish White Eagles and the Toronto Hakoah duked it out in the National Soccer League, Eastern Canada's creaky but relatively stable answer to professional football. However the league did not attract the sort of crowds some club owners would have liked, especially considering the countless immigrants arriving into the city everyday, and received zero television coverage.

George Gross Pictured c. 2000

Some influential soccer-figures, Toronto Telegram journalist George Gross and Toronto Italia president Peter Bosa to be exact, had an idea why soccer in Toronto was floundering: newcomers had grown up with European football, and getting them to pay for a second-rate local derby with less-than-quality players was an impossible task. Hence, they came up with the idea of creating a smaller but better-organized league with better players.

Bose and Gross used their influence to convince some powerful friends in and around Toronto, Hamilton and Montreal to help put together a new soccer collective, and the not-so-catchy-titled Eastern Canada Professional Soccer League was born. The idea was to have a four-team league, with two teams in Toronto and one in Hamilton and Montreal; out of this arrangement came the Hamilton Steelers and the Montreal's Canitalia, in addition to the Toronto Italia. The fourth team would be the newly-formed Toronto City Soccer Club.

The fifties and sixties marked the era in Toronto when seasoned businessmen, young entrepreneurs and members of the media would think nothing of kick starting a completely unproven venture together at great personal risk (young city-dwellers take note!), and of the four clubs of the ECPSL, the team that benefited the most from this heady mix was Toronto City. George Gross and fellow journo Ed Fitken were charged with going to England muster up some talent for City's inaugural Spring-to-Fall season. They came back with the commitment of Danny Blanchflower and Sir Stanley Matthews, among other players like Johnny Haynes and Tommy Younger, to play there for one summer in 1961.

Stanley Matthews Autograph Card from the Eaton Centre, Toronto 1961

Canadian soccer historian Colin Jose, whose unfailing research made this series possible, pointed out to me via email that due to various club obligations and availability, these players may have only featured with City together in seven out of twenty-four games. However, the importance of footballers with Blanchflower's and Matthew's stature playing for a local professional side in Toronto cannot be underestimated, and for a brief period in first 1961 season, club football seemed to be on the ascendancy. When Toronto City faced Toronto Italia, the derby match of the ECPSL, 16 509 fans watched at Varsity Stadium to see City go down 3-2.

However the numbers were never quite the same after that and attendances would break the 10 000 mark only three times in the league's history. After some shifts and team adjustments, the ECPSL folded completely after the end the 1966 season (interestingly, the Toronto City, having dropped out the league the year before, were represented by Scottish League One side Hibernian in yet another local league, the United Soccer Association). However, the ECPSL was a shaky first step in cementing Toronto's image as an attractive destination for quality football, and Toronto City remains a symbol for a bygone era when print journalists could form football teams in cahoots with wealthy entrepreneurs while everyone else looked on and said, "business as usual."

This is Part Five of A More Splendid Life's History of Soccer in Toronto, and is dedicated to the memory of George Gross who passed away this past March.

Late Edit: For anyone who's interested in media issues, I've written a piece that you can look at at, or you can ignore and look at everything else there because it is an awesome site.

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