In a way, Mike England was the first Sounder whose reputation preceded him. That is to say there were high expectations, and then he exceeded them.
Two weeks prior to his Seattle debut in 1975, England walked off the pitch a winner at White Hart Lane. That was nothing new. His nine years with Tottenham were filled with fanfare and silver. He played nearly 400 matches for Spurs, winning an FA Cup, two League Cups and the North London club’s first UEFA Cup.
“I used to watch him play as a kid,” says David Gillett. “He was a big time international center half, representing his country and playing for one of the better teams in the country at the time.”
And then one day at Memorial Stadium, England appeared and took his place alongside Gillett, then 24, in the Sounders back four.
“I wasn’t overawed, but it was brilliant to learn from him, and what I learned,” shares Gillett, “is that you just have to do the simple things well to become a great player.”
England rates as the greatest defender to ever pull on a shirt for Seattle. It’s not just about his credentials beforehand. Big Mike (6-2 ½) did the business in America. In the 17-year existence of the North American Soccer League, no other defender was named to the Best XI four times, a feat he accomplished from 1975-78.
He organized the defense, one of the NASL’s strongest. “If you’re all on the same wavelength, it helps. In Seattle we quickly came together as a team and worked together,” recalls England, now 72. “We were getting to the playoffs, playing against these international stars and getting big crowds in the Kingdome, and it was a great place to be.”
England knew his strengths and he knew his job. “He was dominant in the air, would win every tackle he went into, never let a guy turn and run at him, and then he would give the ball to more skillful people who do more damage in their positions,” Gillett explains. “It sounds simple, but if you look at any sport, the really good players consistently make some difficult things look easy. It’s simple logic, but they play to their strengths.”
It’s been 34 years since England last called Seattle home. He retired to become the Wales National Team manager, narrowly missing the 1982 World Cup. He now resides on the north coast of Wales in picturesque Prestatyn.
Last December he was inducted into Tottenham’s Hall of Fame, and his name features on just about anyone’s Spurs all-time XI. He’s also received an MBE for his contributions to Welsh football.
Behind the honors and accolades is a gentleman of the highest order. Gillett says England was approachable and communicative. He was eager to help the young Americans accelerate their development, helping the Sounders produce more homegrown players than any other side.
Off the field, England was engaging, doing clinics for players and coaches up throughout the area. “The standard of soccer was pretty low at the time and we were trying desperately to help them improve,” England shares. “They were very willing to listen and learn.”
Each August England returns to western Washington to visit his three children and four grandchildren. His two sons reside in Portland and L.A. while his daughter lives in Olympia. In 2009, he was a Sounders FC guest for pregame ceremonies during the Barcelona friendly.
If time allows, he visits with the many friends he made as well as his former Sounders teammates who made the Seattle area their home. They marvel at the Starfire training facilities and, of course, the huge support on match days.
“The resurgence of the Seattle Sounders has been wonderful.” So, too, is the emergence of America as a soccer nation.
“It’s interesting coming back every year and seeing the difference in the standard of play,” says England. “Now they have knowledge of the game, they know what they’re doing and it’s very heartening. I love to see Americans playing at this high standard. The United States has improved by leaps and bounds.”
England became a fan himself during his Seattle days, cheering the Sonics to their world championship. He’s also backed the Seahawks since their early years. Last month in Wales he watched the Super Bowl during the wee hours of the morning.
“I stayed up until 2:30 and I was thrilled to death about the Seahawks and what they did,” says England. “I spoke to my daughter the following morning and said I’d love to be in Seattle for the return of the Seahawks because I can imagine what it would’ve been like and the welcome they received.”
Mike England knows what it’s like to hear the cheers. And now, no matter what sport, he’s cheering for Seattle.