For more than 30 years Jimmy Gabriel has given Seattle area soccer players and fans some great memories, be it as a gung-ho wing-half in his playing days, his magical, fast-finishing Soccer Bowl side of ’77 in his first year as Sounders coach or his dedication to local talent while with FC Seattle, the University of Washington or the reborn Sounders of late. He played over 500 matches at the highest level of British soccer and has shared his knowledge with countless players at the youth, college and professional level. Although Gabriel retired to Hamilton, Montana, he is now planning to return and share some more.
Relatively speaking, Montana seems far removed from a thriving soccer community. Is it challenging to stay involved with the game?
Our daughter, Samantha, married a nice fellow from Hamilton, and we wanted to keep close with Sam and our grandson, Jamie. I was ready to retire so Pat and I thought we would move here. I help the high school team as an assistant, I do some clinics for the coaches and kids around here, and I coached Jamie’s team. But the big thing is being able to see Premier League, European and South American soccer on the television. It’s fantastic; you never feel out of it. Always up to date, every day.
But you’ve got the urge to do more, is that it?
I’ve been in a lot of cities in my time, but Pat and I really love Seattle. I had a couple years of relaxing, but now I want to get back and do some work. I want to take a couple teams and get back into coaching. I’d never retired before and didn’t know what it would be like. I’m always busy but at the same time I just missed being involved in soccer on a day-to-day basis. In Seattle I can keep my mind focused on it.
It’s been 34 years since you and the first Sounders arrived. What first struck you about the soccer community here?
I remember that there was a pretty high standard of soccer being played by immigrants who had come over. There was a great Hungarian team, with quite a few good players. The Scots, the Germans, the English–they all had teams where guys got together with their countrymen. I was invited to play with some Scots in a tournament up in Canada.
What do you see as the biggest changes in the landscape since the Sounders left?
On that first team, it was all foreign players with 1-2 American kids. Jimmy McAlister was the first one to really make it, and that’s because John Best had a great idea to have a reserve program. Now the U.S. is a budding soccer nation. Now you could have all American players and it would be high quality.
Whereas the NASL was in a rush to expand, it’s been a relatively lengthy wait for an MLS team in Seattle. What’s your impression of the league and its growth?
MLS has done really well. They’re coming up with the right ideas, keeping it low key and now they’re adding teams. To me, if Seattle does well in 2009 as far as a crowd, averaging more than 15-20,000, Portland has to get a team and Vancouver as well. I’m certain there will be three teams in the Northwest again, and that will be so much fun, just like it was back then.
When you look at the Premier League standings these days and compare it to your days as a player and coach, what strikes you?
Today, a lot of it’s about money and getting players from around the world, not just Britain. It’s about how much money have you got. You need to have these millionaires from Russia or America buying these teams and giving managers spending money. Wolves and Leeds had strong teams in the past, and I played five years at Southampton, where we always played in the first division, which is now the Premiership. And when I was coaching, they were strong clubs as well. So to see Southampton in the second division hurts me a bit, because I’m a fan. They have to go for a lesser standard of player and obviously they are going to drop down. Hopefully they’ll get themselves together and move up. But it’s shame because the fans are still there.
You played and coached with Harry Redknapp, who’s now been successful at Portsmouth in the Premiership. Could you envision this future for him?
Harry was a good player and I thought he’d be a good manager. He knows a good player. If you line-up 10 players, he will always choose the best player to fit into his system of play. His club have got a millionaire behind them, and he’s gone out and gotten players and certainly has done a great job for them. They’ll probably qualify for Europe (UEFA Cup) and that’s fine enough. You give Harry money and he puts a good team on the field. Where that came from, I don’t know. Some players are truly good businessmen who can motivate their players to go out and play well. That’s why Harry’s made it.
You were part of Sounders’ Camelot era, those first few years. Is there one memory that stands out from that time?
It has to be going out at Memorial Stadium and playing that first game at home. Seeing 12,500 people stand up and cheer us as we stood in the center, it was so positive. Everyone was bristling. The fans lifted us and became the 12th man out there. It was positive to have a crowd cheer you without having seen you do anything. It was great, especially for the younger kids. They needed to know the fans were behind them. At that point, the fans were telling us they were behind us right away. That lifted up all those younger players who had been playing in front of 300-400 people. Lifted by this crowd, we played very well.
That Soccer Bowl season started slowly (2-6) and with you still active as a player/coach. There was an early-season game where you called your own number and suddenly the game’s momentum shifted. Remember that game?
That was my first win as head coach, at home against Portland. We had lost a couple games by a fraction, and then we were down 2-0 at halftime. I wanted to get out there and show the lads we needed more effort, more energy. I felt if we did that, we would get the crowd behind us, even though we may not win that game. Well, when I got out there I strained a muscle in my leg. I told myself I had to stay on. Then I got in a few tackles and a few things happened. The kids and our new players got a bit lifted, and they started to play better. We got a couple of goals to tie and then got the winner, 3-2. It was fabulous, not only getting that first win, but playing a bit as well.
Playing to the crowd, is that part of a coach’s game plan?
It’s important in any game that the crowd gets behind the players. But the players have got to do something to get the crowd behind them. They’ve got to show effort, energy and skill. They have got to show you something. At home, most teams attack, and they should be lifting the crowd if they possibly can. And when the crowd gets lifted, players get lifted and the standard goes higher. With an excited crowd roaring for its team, very seldom do you see that team lackadaisical. They’re fired up and ready to go. You see it in football and the same happens in soccer. It’s the coach’s job is to get a team out there that will lift the crowd.