Leigh Cowlishaw did not come to America chasing a dream. Quite the opposite. He left home in England and crossed the pond, leaving his dream behind. Now, more than 30 years later, the transplanted Brit has watched his sport grow from a blip on this country’s consciousness to being responsible for the formation and seismic growth of a not-always-endearing term: “Soccer Moms.” They’re everywhere! They’re everywhere!
This is Volume 55 jn the memory man’s on-going attempt to shake the cobwebs from his octogenarian brain. Call it “Please! Don’t Call Me Richmond’s ‘Mr. Soccer.' ”
OK, promise … even though Cowlishaw, 50, has done it all here … from college player to professional to coaching to being in charge of a thriving youth program that, at last count, had 5,000-plus boys and girls.
Of course, all of the above were in his plans when Cowlishaw arrived on these shores from Burton-on-Trent, England. Of course, NOT.
Truth is, for as long as he could remember, all he ever wanted to do was play in the English Premier League, arguably the best in the world (certainly top to bottom) … but most of all for Liverpool. Cowlishaw would be The Next “King” Kenny Dalglish, who was his favorite player, and be revered in the same breath with Diego Maradona and other greats in the history of futbol. Hey, if you’re going to dream, why not make it super-size, really BIG!
(Cowlishaw was 15 years old in 1986 when Maradona was king of the soccer world — and World Cup. “I had never seen anything like it. He was able to rip through entire defenses at will. He certainly inspired me to work much harder on my ability to control the ball … and taught me how little I knew about what you could do with a soccer ball at your feet, on your thigh, at your heel or forehead.”
That also was the World Cup probably best known for “The Hand of God.” Argentina beat England 2-1 in the June 22 quarterfinals. Maradona was credited with the first goal, soaring for a header and, instead, swatting the ball with this hand, which should have nullified it. “He was able to con the referee,” Cowlishaw said, “… and destroyed the hopes of every Englishman.”)
You might have noted we didn’t include “becoming rich” on Cowlishaw’s early wish list. “I had no interest, or any knowledge of, making a lot of money,” he said. “It was the last thing on my mind.”
Apparently, he was better than good as a teenager, although Cowlishaw doesn’t let on other than to tell you he was “a reasonably talented scorer.” With “several offers from professional clubs to join them at the academy level,” he signed with Everton, “which at the time was the best team in England.” The irony was, the Everton Football Club also is located in the same city as his forever team of choice, Liverpool FC, and they were/are bitter rivals, of course.
For two years, Cowlishaw, a stranger in a strange town, attempted to navigate around admitted shortcomings such as lack of quickness, an attitude problem, and, “I probably didn’t realize how much work was required.” Also, “I was away from home for the first time, in an environment that probably wasn’t the best for me … a real enjoyable but tough city if you’re coming from a middle class background. It was difficult to assimilate into that [rowdy] culture.”
In the end, “I wasn’t quite good enough. Didn’t make the grade. [Pause] Certainly, you always believe you are good, right? … [but] at the time I didn’t prove it, no question. Also it took a huge impact on someone’s confidence when everything you dreamed of — and expected to happen — gets a serious setback.
“Then, it was like, ‘OK, now what?’” Cowlishaw said. “I had sacrificed my schooling [but] I was still hellbent on making it just because somebody said, ‘No.’ I was spending my entire time trying to prove them wrong.”
He “bounced around” for six months, trying to land another professional contract. He came close a few times, he said, and finally realized he had to go home and join the regular workforce. Somehow it’s difficult picturing Cowlishaw as accounts-payable clerk at a local brewery, hardly typecasting … sitting all day, kicking around numbers, that is. The beer part, that seems more natural.
“It was great … being 18 … getting 100 pounds a month to spend on beer or alcohol or anything I wanted,” he recalled. “On the flip side, stamping invoices from 9 a.m., to 5 p.m., and not moving from your desk … very reminiscent of the TV show, ‘The Office.’ I lived that 12 months straight, [and] it was boring me to tears.”
He kept his sanity by playing for the local semi-pro team, scoring goals and drawing some professional interest, like before. “Then out of the blue, one winter’s night, I got a call from Shaun Docking, University of Richmond assistant, telling me I could come to America, play soccer and get a scholarship for four years. At the time my options were pretty limited.”
Cowlishaw did not know Docking nor, for that matter, UR. He had no idea where Richmond, Va., was. “He was from England,” Cowlishaw said, “and he had contacts where he would know players who didn’t make the grade. He just tracked me down … and sent a USA Today paper telling me Richmond beat UVA 1-0, and there were 4,000 fans at the game. My eyes were wide open, thinking they had that many at every game.”
With some reluctance — but not much — Cowlishaw left for the States and a new beginning. His father wasn’t for it, “because he felt I still had a great chance of making it as a professional,” Cowlishaw recalled. “My mum’s attitude was: ‘Go for it. You can always come back.’ ”
Admittedly, there were times he thought he had made a mistake. This country took some getting used to, like being a soccer player when nobody seemed to notice much less care. “You grew up with football being the only sport and being superior. So, again, it was eye-opening to realize soccer was pretty much meaningless here at the time. You were pretty much a second-class citizen. On campus it felt very much like that,” Cowlishaw said.
Then there was going to class and taking tests, which he hadn’t done in three years. And the way things were, well, just different. “I had a lot of problems originally. I really felt I was going to fail out … but I figured it out quickly and turned it around.”
Obviously, things worked out for Cowlishaw who even got used to being third-in-line to football and basketball for medical treatment. He graduated with a business degree, with honors, but prefers to move on when you ask him how in the world he qualified for admittance in the first place? Maybe he didn’t ask. He was accepted, wasn’t he?
Cowlishaw certainly qualified to play soccer for the Spiders. He easily was Docking’s best foreign recruit. At UR, Cowlishaw led the team in scoring, was named All-American and CAA player of the year … and is the only male soccer player enshrined in the school’s hall of fame. Meanwhile, he met Bobby Lennon, and it proved a life-changing experience.
“It was 1993, my junior year. I was about to go home for the summer, then I met Bobby. He said, ‘We’re putting a team together. Are you interested?’ I was coming off major knee surgery, but I said, ‘Let’s do it,’” Cowlishaw said.
OK, so Lennon would never be confused with the Pied Piper or an evangelist spreading good news. He came to town already something of an itinerant hustler armed with little wherewithal but, nevertheless, a plan to start professional soccer here.
“He’s a very interesting individual, you can say that,” Cowlishaw said. Suffice to say, Lennon was likable, fun-loving and certainly unique — so when he would lose the team’s meal money or simply forget it, no one suggested a mutiny. It was just Bobby being Bobby, like when he slept in his car or ran the whole thing out of a shoebox (so the Legend of Lennon goes).
Thus was born the Richmond Kickers that now — in spite of many steps and missteps that would have, probably should have, closed the doors many times — is this country’s oldest continuous soccer franchise. Created by Lennon and “Cookie” Ketcham, who provided the original money, the Kickers are 28 years old — and still counting.
(We take a brief timeout to ask the burning question: whatever happened to B. Lennon? Hey, Bobby, call home. Moving right along.)
There have been four ownership groups, more players and front office personnel than we’ll take time to count, several leagues — with multiple divisions and levels of competition — numerous sponsors, seven coaches; the prerequisite mascots including “Joey,” the kangaroo who was really a kangaroo, and the youth soccer club that has grown and flourished.
At one point a few years go, the youth club kept the Kickers from going under between owners. Through it all there has been only one constant, someone who has been on board for the duration including 19 years as coach and 21 with the youth club — currently its executive director.
From 2000 until midway through 2018, Cowlishaw was in charge of the X's and Os', winning 276 games ... even though he continues to insist: “I’m not a coach. My specialty is recognizing talent, recruiting players and building successful teams. [Coaching] is not an area I enjoy — or particularly interests me. I wasn’t sure I wanted to apply in the first place.”
By then he had already enjoyed considerable success with the Kickers as a player. The first and third editions were, by definition (if not necessarily application), amateur and basically college all-star teams. The 1995 Kickers, in particular, were a juggernaut that won the USISL Premier League AND U.S. Open Cup. Former Manchester United great Dennis Viollet (9 seasons, 179 goals) was the coach. Several players, including Jeff Causey and Richie Williams from UVA, and Davidson’s Rob Ukrop, now Kickers chairman of the board, would move on to Major League Soccer, which began the following year.
Cowlishaw appeared in 152 games for the Kickers. It was a fun time, he will tell you. Running the team had its good moments, but proved extremely stressful, too. “Losing one game, any game, is more intense than winning a championship,” Cowlishaw said. “I didn’t lose many, which was probably a good thing.”
In 2005, the Kickers played for the championship in Seattle after barely making the playoffs by a single point. First, they beat Vancouver in two games, aggregate score (0-0), on penalties. “We won without scoring a goal. Talk about masterful coaching,” Cowlishaw said. “Then we played Rochester, which was always the team to beat, and beat them handily here, tied them there, and that put us through to Seattle. We were really confident and started off great. Sasha Gorres scored a fantastic goal then ...”
Richmond was playing a man down when the Sounders drew even in the second half. Overtime couldn’t settle it. The way Cowlishaw recalls it, the Kickers failed on their first two penalties, “and I thought that was it for sure.” But thanks to goalie Ronnie Pascale and some errant kicks by the Sounders, the game suddenly was on Kevin Jeffrey’s big right toe. The Kickers leading scorer puts the ball in the net, and it’s over.
“… And he kicked it over the goal,” Cowlishaw said. “It went back and forth until we missed [again]. They won. We did everything we needed to do to walk through the door — and it was slammed in our face.”
The point was made — and seconded: Cowlishaw didn’t handle losing well. “It doesn’t matter if it’s for a title or first game of the season … how I react when we lose is exactly the same,” he said. “I take it very personally, which is not the best approach. It’s not good for your health but that’s how I saw the world. It takes its toll on you.”
And, as the World’s Most Popular Sport continues to grow up on these shores it brings with it new challenges, especially for clubs with lofty ambitions but modest means … like the Kickers. “It certainly got harder over the years as the professionalism of soccer skyrocketed in this country.” Cowlishaw said. “Recruiting players became quite hard.”
As the game grew, so did the demand. Also, coaching became more complex. “In the old days, before performance analysis and computers, you would trust the players on the field to make the correct decisions,” Cowlishaw said.
That, of course, was only part of it. He’s always been up front with his players, oftentimes telling them things they didn’t want to hear. “I always pushed my players to be as good as they could be — even if they didn’t like it. That’s my competitive nature … and you’ve got to be true to who you are, or it doesn’t work,” Cowlishaw said, adding, “but you probably can’t get away with that these days. It would have to be a more tempered approach.”
Now we have a better understanding of why he stopped coaching when he did. At first it looked like Cowlishaw may have been fired, which would have been uncommonly harsh under any circumstances given his long-time devotion to the Kickers. No, he had been thinking about it for more than a year and informed Ukrop of his plans — when the timing was right for everyone. “I had given everything I had to give as a coach, and I was doing four jobs — coach, director of soccer, youth soccer, some business elements — and doing none of them well. I wanted to step away and focus on the youth side. That’s my passion, my love.”
Aware of what Cowlishaw had in mind, Ukrop wasn’t that surprised when, one morning, “Leigh called … said, “It’s time.’” The front office had a short list of potential replacements and opted for the late David Bulow, who made a quick turnaround from player to coach. The move proved perfect for Cowlishaw, now wearing one hat in charge of the Kickers youth program. Kickers, the team, struggled for a year and a half under Bulow, who was replaced by a new ownership group after the 2019 campaign.
Ask Ukrop whether the team, which took a big hit financially because of COVID-19, could go belly up if things don’t improve soon, and he prefers to talk about how good the club has been for the community, and they have every intention of sticking it out. “We’re hanging in there,” the team’s all-time leading scorer, said. “You know I’m a competitor. We’re going to make this economically feasible. We’re going to make this thing work.”
Cowlishaw would like to think we Yanks won’t keep making the same mistake, continuing to discount the game. “Look at the timeline: Soccer is never going to make it … There’s never going to be a pro league … The pro league [MLS] won’t last long. It’s come so far, you’ve got to be honest, there are success stories everywhere,” he said. “This has been one of them.”
Until next time ...