John Harkes signs autographs for fans after his late-match heroics for Sheffield Wednesday in 1992. (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer.com)

By Michael Lewis
FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

We’re past halfway point of the London Calling series, a look back at my seven games in 12 days trip to England in 1995 and 1996.

It hardly wasn’t the only time I traveled there. I have counted 16 roundtrips to England, mostly in London, although there have been some journeys to Manchester, Newcastle and Glasgow (Scotland).

With the growth of soccer in the United States, trips across the Atlantic have become less frequent. Heck, there’s so much to cover at home.

In fact, my last journey to the British Isles was in 2012, to cover the U.S. women’s national team in the Summer Olympics. My 16-day stay there was my longest sojourn.

Here’s a quick overview of my 11 most memorable trips.

1. A golden time (2012)

Four cities – Glasgow, Manchester, Newcastle and London to primarily cover the U.S. women in their quest for their third consecutive gold medal – were on my itinerary. In arguably the greatest women’s soccer match of them all, the Americans overcame several deficits to post a 4-3 triumph over Canada at Old Trafford on Alex Morgan’s goal in the semifinals. Several days later, the USWNT took a victory lap around Wembley as they won their third consecutive Olympic gold medal. Carli Lloyd scored in her second successive gold medal match, the only player to accomplish that feat, on either side of halftime in a 2-1 win over 2011 world champion Japan at Wembley.

LONDON CALLING INTERLUDE: My Starting XI: 11 memorable trips to jolly old England

The new Wembley Stadium. (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer.com)

My most memorable game not involving the U.S.? When Honduras lost to Brazil in the quarterfinals, 3-2. Late in the match, Sporting Kansas City midfielder Roger Espinoza, playing for the Hondurans, was awarded his second yellow card. As he walked off the field, the Newcastle crowd gave him a huge ovation and Brazilian players congratulated him because he played with so much heart and so well. A silver medal to Mexico’s 2-1 upset over Brazil in the gold-medal match at Wembley.

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Roger Espinoza after his marvelous performance in the quarterfinals at the 2012 Olympics. (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer.com)

2. 12 marvelous days and nights (1995-96)

As you probably already know, I attended seven matches across all four professional divisions at the end of 1995 and the beginning of 1996. I did my research beforehand, so I had an idea of what to write. Of course, I allowed whatever transpired at a game to take precedence. My most memorable match? Make it matches. I pulled off a doubleheader on New Year’s Day, catching Kasey Keller and Southampton at Millwall in south London in the afternoon before bolting to White Hart Lane to catch Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United at 8 p.m. This is part of the multi-part series that you hopefully are reading on this website.

LONDON CALLING INTERLUDE: My Starting XI: 11 memorable trips to jolly old England

Arsenal souvenir stand outside the original Highbury. (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer.com)

3. The first time (1982)

You always remember your first time. I ventured to England for the first time in 1982. This well prior to the internet, so getting information on matches was difficult unless you had a Rothman’s yearbook, which I didn’t. I called former North American Soccer League all-star defender Peter Short for some information. Our plane stopped in Shannon, Ireland and I wound up buying a local newspaper that said England was playing West Germany that night at Wembley. I told my wife I was going to the game, even though I knew little about the tube system. She went with me and experienced a true international match for the very first time. The West Germans prevailed, 2-1, on a pair of Karl-Heinz Rummenigge goals before 68,000. We sat in the upper deck, well far from the maddening crowd, but we still saw some bad English supporters. Several West German fans, sitting by themselves, waved a giant flag of their country. An inebriated English fan didn’t like what he witnessed and harassed them – until police took him away.

As for the rest of the trip: I wanted to write about the lower end of professional soccer in the country, so I attended two more matches, one at Leyton Orient (old third division) and Wimbledon (old fourth division). They were published in Soccer America and are still among my favorite all-time stories to this day.

LONDON CALLING INTERLUDE: My Starting XI: 11 memorable trips to jolly old England

The reconstructed stands at Hillsborough after the 1989 disaster. (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer.com)

4. A night at Stamford Bridge and a day at Hillsborough (1992)

Before I visited John Harkes when he played for Sheffield Wednesday in February 1992, I spent a night in London and bought a ticket for a Chelsea-Southampton game in 1992. Southampton eliminated the Blues from a cup competition by a 6-3 aggregate in the two-game series. After the match, the notorious Vinnie Jones, who had given the Chelsea fans the finger earlier that season, waved to the fans, as though he was thanking them. The memory of seeing policemen on horseback before and after the game to make sure there was no fan disturbance outside of Stamford Bridge was forever etched into my mind. On my return trip to my hotel, I could not notice that just about every Chelsea fan was reading the game program.

After a two-day sojourn to the Town of Books in Hay-on-Wye, Wales, I travelled to Sheffield to watch Harkes (hopefully) play for Sheffield Wednesday against lowly Luton Town. Harkes, then 24, wasn’t starting regularly, but he was part of the Starting XI at Hillsborough. Yes, Hillsborough, the sight of the 1989 disaster in which 94 fans were crushed to death prior to the FA Cup semifinal match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Before the opening kickoff of that Saturday’s encounter, I asked a steward who attended the match about that fateful day, and he described to me what transpired.

As for the Feb. 1, 1992 game, Harkes turned out to be the hero, helping Wednesday to a 3-2 comeback win. He set up the equalizer by Paul Williams in the 79th minute and scored the game-winner in the 86th minute. Couldn’t have asked for a better story. Later that night, Harkes and his wife and two friends came to my hotel and the Kearny, N.J. gave me more than an hour of his time talking about the game and his new life.

LONDON CALLING INTERLUDE: My Starting XI: 11 memorable trips to jolly old England

Cindy (second from the left) and John Harkes (far right) with some fans after a Sheffield Wednesday match in 1992. (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer.com)

5. Kasey in the net (1993)

A year after trekking to Sheffield to talk to Harkes, I returned to England to update on how goalkeeper Kasey Keller was faring at Millwall. He was doing OK as Millwall had forged a 14-6-10 mark with dreams of earning promotion to the Premier League from the First Division – until an embarrassing 4-0 defeat to Barnsley at the old Den on Feb. 20, 1993. Keller, believe it or not played a solid game. It was the rest of the team that had problems. “You caught us on our worst game of the year,” he said. Millwall head coach Mick McCarthy tried to find some humor in defeat. when he entered the press box after the match, he explained why he was so late. “I’ve been to the bath,” he said. “The made me come up. They wouldn’t let me drown myself.” He had enough torture during the match.

LONDON CALLING INTERLUDE: My Starting XI: 11 memorable trips to jolly old England

Kasey Keller signs autographs for fans in 1993. (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer.com)

6. Howard’s beginning in Manchester (2003)

A few months after former MetroStars goalkeeper Tim Howard was signed by Manchester United, I took the leap across the giant pond to write a major feature story about him for the New York Daily News. It was an international weekend, so most of Howard’s teammates were off with their respective national teams. Howard told me to meet him at United’s training ground outside the city. I counted a dozen practice fields – for the first team and the youth squads. When Howard came into the empty press room and saw me, he gave me a big hug, as though he hadn’t seen an American in years (he was living there with his wife). I got an hour to interview Howard one-on-one, which was like heaven. I had my questions that were in order and there were no interruptions. It made for a great story.

I had to leave a lot on the proverbial cutting room floor even though the News gave me oodles of space. That’s how good Howard’s story was. I would have had to gone out of my way to ruin it. My goal was to finish the story on Friday night because my motivation was a day in Hay-on-Way, Wales with all those books to buy.

LONDON CALLING INTERLUDE: My Starting XI: 11 memorable trips to jolly old England

Tim Howard enjoyed a long career in England. (Andy Mead/YCJ Photo)

7. Doubling my pleasure (1993)

It’s not every day you get to watch two major championship matches in the same country only days part, but for some reason the powers that be scheduled the 1992-93 European Cup Winners Cup final and the F.A. Cup final only days apart at Wembley. First, the appetizer for England football fans – Parma’s 3-1 win over Royal Antwerp in the CWC match before 37,393 on May 12. Can’t remember much about the match, except that I noticed that a former Rochester Lancers goalkeeper, Ray Svilar, was on the Antwerp squad (he didn’t play). I wrote about a 28-year-old Svilar when he performed the North American Soccer League as a 28-year-old. The Yugoslavian international returned to play in Europe and made 243 appearances for the Belgian side from 1980-96 before retiring at the age of 46.

Three days later on May 15, a packed Wembley (79,347) saw Arsenal and Sheffield Wednesday, with John Harkes, battle to a 1-1 draw as Ian Wright (yes, Bradley Wright-Phillips’ father) headed in a cross for the Gunners and David Hirst tallied for Wednesday. Unfortunately, this writer could not attend the May 20 replay, in which Arsenal prevailed, 2-1. Harkes, incidentally, acquitted himself well in the first encounter and scored solid grades from a demanding English press.

8. One sits, the other plays (1997)

Several months prior, it looked like a tantalizing confrontation – Kasey Keller vs. Brad Friedel – the top two American goalkeepers facing each other as Leicester took on Liverpool in an English Premiership match Oct. 31. In fact, it would have been two keepers from the same World Cup team, two played in the very same World Cup squaring off against one another. The matchup, however, never came to fruition. Friedel remained on the Liverpool bench for the entire rain-drenched afternoon at Filbert Street in Leicester while Keller could have sat on a bench in front of the Leicester net in what was a 1-0 win for the hosts. “There were a few people who were hoping for that, but it didn’t work out that way,” Keller said.

On the train ride back to London, I finally was introduced to one of the great traditions of English soccer — the green sheets. Back in the day, especially prior to the internet, newspapers would come up with a special edition of a few pages that Saturday afternoon recapping the day with a focus on the local teams. I heard about this, but I didn’t have one in my hands until that evening. With today’s instant news, the green sheets seem a bit lame, but for its time, it was the internet.

LONDON CALLING INTERLUDE: My Starting XI: 11 memorable trips to jolly old England

Kasey Keller signs an autograph or two for a fan outside the Old Den. (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer.com)

9. Throwing themselves a lifeline (1993)

Much to the chagrin of World Cup USA 94 organizers, England found itself alive and kicking in its quest to reach the World Cup. Notorious for their rowdy and obnoxious supporters, dominated previously unbeaten Poland Sept. 9, 1993 in their European Group 2 qualifying triumph at Wembley. A loss would have just about eliminated the English, who moved into sole possession of second place. The result. in front of 71,220, most likely saved the job of coach Graham Taylor, who was under harsh criticism of his team’s 2-0 loss at Norway in June and the upset loss to the United States in the U.S. Cup later that month. “It has to be the most satisfying [victory],” said Taylor, who left the field who two minutes remaining so his players could revel in the spotlight after the final whistle on a crisp autumn-like night. “We had to wait three months for this game.” Leery of crowd problems, Wembley officials took no chances as more than 150 security officers ringed the field midway through the second half. Les Ferdinand, Paul Gascoigne and Stuart Pearce did the hosts’ scoring damage.

During my time in London, I got to interview USMNT players Bruce Murray and John Kerr, Jr. who were playing at Millwall and got to see the new Den Stadium.

LONDON CALLING INTERLUDE: My Starting XI: 11 memorable trips to jolly old England

The New Den. (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer.com)

10. Once is more than enough (1997)

Desperately needing a win to stay alive to reach the World Cup as an automatic qualifier by winning its European group, England fell to a crafty Italian side at Wembley Feb. 13, 1997. Gianfranco Zola’s goal 18-minute goal was the difference and Italy’s lone chance of the night before 75,055 spectators. Alessandro Costacurta sent a 40-yard pass over the head of Stuart Pearce. Zola outran defender Sol Campbell and beat goalkeeper Ian Walker, who made his international debut. England outshot the Italians by a ridiculous margin, but it was a lesson to me and perhaps others than numbers don’t always count. Since I wasn’t on deadline and didn’t have to tweet anything (heck, I don’t even know if Twitter was in the mind of any tech genius at the time), I decided to chart the shots in the game. Most of England’s came from really difficult angles from the left and right sides. Only Alan Shearer had a decent attempt. Like I said, those crazy Italians, who knew how to play defense.

11. Escape to Birmingham (1995)

In December 1995, I decided to put off a unique double – traveling to Paris for the 1998 World Cup qualifying draw and hop on a train through the Chunnel to London before hoping on a train to Birmingham for the Euro 1996 draw. When I landed in Paris there was one slight problem, there was a train strike, which turned the City of Lights into a standstill. Grabbing a taxi was a challenge. The WC draw was held at the Louvre, but unfortunately did not have the time to partake it its art and beauty. A day later, I managed to find a taxi to take me to the airport where Soccer America’s Mike Woitalla and myself managed to secure a flight to England. I felt we were barely leaving a war-torn city.

Yours truly must admit. I don’t remember much about the Euro draw, but my highlight was attending an Aston Villa home match at Villa Stadium. I was always mesmerized by the seats behind the goal. They seemed to go up to heaven. Seeing those stands live made the trip well worth it.

Honorable mention

There were some other matches as well, including interviewing goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann and Eddie Lewis when they were at Fulham (2001) and watching Ossie Ardiles’ attempt at a super high-scoring team on a Tottenham Hotspur that included one Jurgen Klinsmann that was betrayed by its sieve-like defense doomed that side (1995). They just missed out on making the list.