Defying Expectations: Phil Rawlins and the Orlando City Soccer Story

Defying Expectations: Phil Rawlins and the Orlando City Soccer Story

by Simon Veness, Susan Veness


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As an expansion Major League Soccer team, the Orlando City Soccer Club marked the return of professional soccer to Florida for the first time since 2001, selling out the sixty-thousand-seat Citrus Bowl for its home opener and going on to have the second‑highest home attendance for the 2015 and 2016 seasons. It was the successful culmination of a nine-year process orchestrated by the team’s owner, Phil Rawlins, who sold his successful sales consultancy company for a shot at sports ownership and a chance to tap into America’s growing interest in pro soccer.

Rawlins was relentless in building a franchise from the ground up, overcoming crippling setbacks, devious politics, and near financial ruin. Underpinning his efforts was a deep commitment to re-creating the tribal passion and community spirit of his hometown team in the United Kingdom, Stoke City, for which he served as board member for fourteen years. The payoff was the Orlando City Soccer Club, an attractive new team that galvanized the region. The subsequent acquisition of international superstar Ricardo Kaká catapulted the club to celebrity status and ensured that its debut season defied expectations.

Defying Expectations gives insight into the challenges faced on the road to success, challenges through which Rawlins has remained focused on the six core values that he and his wife formulated at their kitchen table years ago, continuing to foster a community institution that gives back as much as it receives.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496201768
Publisher: UNP - Nebraska
Publication date: 11/01/2017
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Simon Veness has covered the Orlando City Soccer Club since 2011. He has thirty-six years of experience as a sports journalist for media including the Guardian and Sun newspapers,, and Susan Veness is an international travel writer and author of two books, including The Hidden Magic of Walt Disney World: Over 600 Secrets of the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom.


Read an Excerpt


The Kid from Stoke-on-Trent

There are memories, there are indelible memories, and there are life-forming memories. The kind that guide and inspire, supernaturally strong and timeless. From the age of seven, going to soccer games with his dad was all of that and more for Phil Rawlins.

An only child from a coal-mining family, Phil couldn't wait for the arrival of the weekend. Saturday was game day, and the traditions of taking the thirty-minute journey to the venerable Victoria Ground, which dated to 1878, were intense.

He and his dad left their house at precisely 1:30 p.m., picked up old Mr. Meakin at the bottom of the road, and continued the drive north from the town of Longton to the heart of Stoke-on-Trent. There Phil's dad parked in the same spot on a side street off Whieldon Road every time, and the trio traveled the last half mile on foot.

They crossed the landmark of the Trent & Mersey Canal, increasingly choked with garbage and debris — industrial decay from the slow death of the coal, steel, and iron industries — to reach Lovett Street and the cratered, puddle-strewn parking lot that provided access to the Butler Street Stand on the west side of "The Vic," the culmination of their weekly pilgrimage.

There, hemmed in by row after row of brown-gray nineteenth-century brick terraced housing and the River Trent, Britain's oldest continuous-use soccer stadium stood like a wood-and-iron bastion of tradition, a working-class sporting cathedral that welcomed up to fifty thousand worshippers every other weekend and some weeknights.

The Vic was home to one of the most storied teams in British soccer, inaugurated in 1863 and the second-oldest professional soccer team in the world. In their famous red-and-white striped jerseys Stoke City was immediately recognizable as the team of Sir Stanley Matthews, an all-time sporting icon who played until the age of fifty.

Nicknamed the Potters for the essential Staffordshire pottery industry that had been the region's staple since the seventeenth century, Stoke City was a sporting enigma, a team forged by blue-collar sensibilities but able to play a graceful version of the Beautiful Game, a soft focus for a hard landscape.

Stoke-on-Trent, at the epicenter of Britain's industrial heartland, offered the classic working-class existence of coal mines, potteries, and steel foundries. Even in the 1960s the sky rarely put in an appearance through the thick smoke and dust spewed out by the bottle kilns of the pottery factories, or "pot banks" as they were known. Some three-quarters of the potteries' workforce consisted of women, a tough, no-nonsense breed who dominated the factory floor. "They called a spade a shovel," Phil observed. "As a young man, you'd get wolf-whistled at, you'd have your nuts grabbed; there was no scarier place to go than a pot bank."

The mix of coal miner and pot bank worker made for a unique demographic, even by British standards of regionalism and eccentricity. This was the home of Wedgwood and Royal Doulton, both founded in the mid-1700s, as well as the hundred-square-mile North Staffordshire Coalfield and a mining tradition that went back to the thirteenth century. It had been the scene of nineteenth-century strikes and riots, boom and bust, and ultimately the death of the coal industry in the 1990s. It bred a hardy mix of folks, with its own vernacular, accent, and sayings. "Tow rate, owd duck?" (All right, dear?) was a common greeting, while the trademark saying among all "Stokies," as they called themselves, was, "Cosna kick a bo agen a wo an ed eet wiv ya ed an bost eet," which translated as, "Can you kick a ball against a wall and head it with your head and burst it." It had no literal meaning but was the identifying catchphrase among Stokies.

Phil looked back at his formative sporting years: "Stoke City fans could be a belligerent lot. There was a real chip-on-the-shoulder mentality and a feeling we weren't going to get mucked around by anyone. It made for an intimidating atmosphere for visiting teams." Like those of other industrial or port cities, notably Leeds, Liverpool, and Newcastle, Stoke's menfolk were a formidable, rowdy bunch, and they saved much of their pent-up hostility for game day. Allied to the stadium architecture, which coupled low-roofed stands with close proximity to the field, the raw aggression visiting teams felt as they walked onto the field was palpable. The fans typically saved their most antagonistic moments for teams from London, or the "southern softies," as many northerners referred to them. In playing terms it wasn't the place for shrinking violets.

The surrounding environment was equally hard bitten. With the constant smog and fumes, gray wasn't so much a color as a way of life, an unchanging palette of grinding indifference, enlivened only by the red-rimmed soccer stadium. The signature bottle kilns of the pot banks marched in comical groups across the landscape, outlandish overly large brick-built and bottle-shaped firing ovens that belched thick black smoke, ensuring a monochrome tone to the urban sprawl.

Equally there was nothing gentle about the city's uniform rows of endless twoup, two-down terraced housing, but to a seven-year-old whose horizon stretched to twenty blocks, walking into The Vic among those serried ranks of oh-so-humble houses was the most awe-inspiring experience in the world.

Phil's mother, Freda, was a paintress at a nearby pot bank, and his father, Norman, worked at the giant Florence Colliery, an extensive mine works established in 1874 and just three blocks from the house where Phil was born. It didn't get any more working class and down to earth than that, and even the team paid homage to its background by kicking off at 3:15 p.m. each week, instead of 3:00 p.m. like everywhere else, to allow the early pottery shift to attend.

It made for a time-honored game day experience guaranteed to make an impact on its youthful devotees. "The game was always about rituals," Phil confirmed. "We had great seats in the front row of the Butler Street Stand, and the atmosphere was electric. When we got there, my dad would always get a cup of tea from the same kiosk before every game, and they never failed to fill it too full and he would burn his hand. I can still smell that cup of tea.

"He would stop to talk to his friends at the back of the stand, but I couldn't wait to get up the steps and see the pitch — that impossibly bright rectangle of green — so I would run ahead. The noise, the sounds, the singing were all incomprehensible to me at the time, and in many ways it was like Groundhog Day each Saturday, repeating the same exact pattern but still being excited every time.

"And then there were the night games. When the lights were on, it was as vivid as a theater, with the colors of the players' shirts, the green of the grass, and the red-and-white of the stadium. I could sit and watch the crowd as much as the game. I was always observant of people, and I realized very early that people are creatures of habit. I also understood why it was called the Beautiful Game because it was like watching a great play unfold, most of the time not knowing what the ending would be."

The other essential feeling for the young Rawlins was that the team was the city, and the sense of community generated by games was unmistakable. "There is something inextricably tribal about soccer," he observed. "At our core, we need to be around people of like mind and feel part of a tribe, and that's what soccer does. It wasn't just about the team; it was providing that sense of belonging."

That sense of belonging dated back to the Industrial Revolution, when the six towns that later formed the city provided a melting pot of the raw materials, transport, and workforce to power the machines of industry through the 1800s. Built on deep clay foundations, with plentiful salt and lead for glazing, Stoke-on-Trent was a mighty resource, boasting four thousand pottery kilns in its heyday, as well as hundreds of collieries. Many joked that they never saw the sky until they left Staffordshire, and it took the Clean Air Act of 1968 to begin the process of clearing the smog-laden atmosphere above the city.

With such a regimented working life the hard-bitten industrial workforce took the soccer team as a focal point, producing many of the players as well as all of the fans for each Saturday ritual.

Befitting its age and situation, The Vic was a decaying dowager, a near-relic from a pre–World War I age when creature comforts ran to little more than a lone concession stand serving tea, coffee, and the Midlands delicacy Bovril, a salty meat extract added to boiling water. Behind a corrugated iron door a noxious open-trough urinal served as the men's restroom. "You could smell the toilets from twenty yards away," Phil recalled. "If you went in, the stench of urine was almost overpowering. It was at the level of mustard gas."

The other overriding odor was of damp. From the block-and-brick fabric of the stadium to the ubiquitous overcoats, scarves, and woolen hats, everything took on a rain-induced scent from the steady downpours that drained out of the Staffordshire skies. At the height of a typical seven-year-old, hemmed into a dingy whitewashed corridor under the main stand and surrounded by adults drinking their too-hot tea and smoking incessantly, it was a noisome, malodorous world, but Rawlins thrived on it, dashing from his father's side up the steps into the stand and back again to report on the growing crowds — "The Boothen End's looking busy, Dad!" and, "The Paddock's filling up!"

The Paddock was a peculiarly British institution, a standing-room-only area of stepped flagstones in front of the two main stands. It served as a small family enclosure where fathers and sons stood practically at eye level with the players on the field, barely two yards from the front of the little compound. But Phil's father was an older man and needed the luxury of a seat.

Away to their left the Boothen End was a massive standing terrace, or kop, holding nine thousand or more. On some game days no formal count was made and the old-fashioned turnstiles kept whirring, pushing more and more fans into an increasingly congested area. It was here that the most vocal Stoke supporters set out to intimidate visiting teams with their chants and songs. In the 1960s the language was mainly PG-13, but by the 1970s it had become a verbal battleground. Chants of, "Here we go! Here we go! Here we go!" were replaced by the openly confrontational, "You're gonna get your fucking heads kicked in!" Commonplace in many soccer grounds at the time, it had extra resonance at The Vic.

"To me, the Boothen End was where the chiefs of the tribe lived," Phil said. "That's where the noise and the passion emanated from. It was incredibly attractive. That was the group that everybody else took their cue from — they were the leaders of the orchestra. I was fascinated by it because, as a seven-year-old, I wasn't allowed to go into that section and it seemed impossibly exciting. I was irresistibly drawn to it."

For all the excitement there were dangers, too. "It was the tea," Phil explained. "The scalding hot tea, overfilled in those puny plastic cups. You were forever having to dodge out of the way of men spilling their tea, and if you saw someone trying to carry three cups at a time — watch out. You knew if he got bumped, there would be a quart of boiling liquid about to fall on someone!"

Like most British boys of his generation, Phil grew up dreaming of playing for his city team and England, a notion reinforced by the country's 1966 World Cup victory, which sealed soccer's glamour reputation forever. It was a heady time to be a fan.

Back in the domestic league Stoke traded for England's World Cup–winning goalkeeper Gordon Banks from Midlands rivals Leicester City and embarked on a mini golden age of effervescent play and high-profile style even more at odds with the working-class background. Saturdays became all-out evangelical occasions, a quasi-religious experience of shared joys and disappointments.

It also turned into a big family occasion for Phil, as his mother joined their weekly trek to The Vic and the trio thrilled to the fervor of the Boothen End supporters. "I think I was in love with the pure passion of the fans as much as I loved the team," he said. "That feeling never left me, of forty thousand fans singing together, in the rain, in the wind, whatever the weather. It was an intense and meaningful ritual."

As an only child, Phil also had plenty of time to reflect on what he was feeling and analyze what it meant to be a part of the "tribe."

His family upbringing was distinctly at odds with that of his contemporaries. Both his parents had been married before, and he came along relatively late in their lives. "My mother didn't know she was pregnant with me until January the third that year. She was nearly forty and my dad was over forty. My mom thought she'd overeaten at Christmas and was bloated and had indigestion. She was still working and called in to say she needed to go to the doctor. He tested her and said, 'No, actually, you're pregnant.' So she had to call back to work and say, 'I won't be coming in. I'm pregnant.' And I was born fifty-one days later, on February twenty-third."

Her newfound family joy helped to ease the pain of her first marriage, which ended when her husband was tragically killed by his father in a mining accident. The two of them were testing the mine elevator when the signals went awry and the elevator was sent down instead of up, crushing her husband under the cage. Phil's father's story was also a sad one. His first wife scandalized the neighbors by having an affair, and the couple were then divorced, with the ex-wife leaving for a distant part of the country with their son and denying parental visitation. Somewhere Phil has a half brother he has never met.

"Because I came along so late in their lives, my mom was very protective of me," he admitted. "At just the hint of a cough or cold she would keep me home from school. I was definitely a bit of a sickly child, hence I ended up spending a lot of days at home on my own. I grew up kind of alone and learned to amuse myself, so either following or playing sport was a huge part of my life. I constructed my own games of soccer and cricket, creating teams and whole leagues on paper that played out a full season at a time. I loved the whole business of organizing and running a league. I could spend hours working out the logistics and playing the games. I found it fascinating and absorbing. But I played a lot of sport, too."

Phil was a handy player for his junior school team, even if his debut on that muddy Mossfield Colliery field turned into an ordeal that might have sent lesser kids howling home, never to venture out in a soccer uniform again. Brought into the team from the year below, he was the youngest player of the eleven. Even worse, "the physical education teacher, Mr. Corbett, called me in to see him and said I was playing center half in place of a big German kid called Christian who wasn't available that day. 'Center half?' I thought. 'Who is he kidding?' I was this scrawny little kid, a pipe cleaner on legs, who usually played on the wing. 'Center half?' It was bonkers."

Indeed Phil was required to play in central defense that day — in American football terms it was a bit like asking the smallest wide receiver to fill in at nose tackle, or in basketball it would be like having diminutive star Muggsy Bogues play center. "The shirt Christian usually wore was huge, and for me it was like wearing a tent. It weighed almost as much as I did. I would run a few yards and literally get stuck in the mud. I just couldn't pick my feet up. The wind was howling and the rain was coming down sideways. It was an awful day, but I was just so happy to be playing for my school."

The school's home field was a public playing field in aptly named Watery Lane, an eternally sodden strip of ground just past Joe Elsmore's pig farm, "which stunk to high heaven." There were no locker rooms, so the boys changed in their classroom and walked the mile to the field. For road games they took public transport: "The bus company was called Potters Motor Traction — red buses that ran all over the city. It was usually still dark when I caught the bus for a morning game as I had to get one bus into the town center to meet up with the team, and then we caught another to wherever we were going. There I was, a ten-year-old catching the bus on his own. Parents didn't come to watch — it was too damn cold!"

Phil became a regular on the school team over the following two years, but his next formative experience involved the other quintessential British sport. Thanks to his dad, who played cricket in the highly competitive Staffordshire minor leagues, he was introduced to the summer sport from an early age. Very early.

Ten-year-olds usually didn't make an appearance in a colliery cricket team, and for good reasons. Coal miners were a rough-and-ready bunch. They inhabited a dark, dangerous, and unhealthy world, so it stood to reason that when they came up for air their recreation would be equally uncompromising. Most collieries had a team, and it was common to find them going head to head on a Saturday afternoon with the same kind of gusto with which they attacked the coal face.


Excerpted from "Defying Expectations"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Simon Veness and Susan Veness.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Part 1. Inspiration
1. The Kid from Stoke-on-Trent
2. The Blue-Collar Man
3. The Globetrotter
4. The $259 Million Question
Part 2. Perspiration
5. Hometown Hero
6. Texas Mission
7. The Wild West of Soccer
8. An Agonizing Decision
Part 3. Revelation
9. The Beautiful Game in the City Beautiful
10. Best Buddy
11. Champions! Champions!
12. The Boys from Brazil
Part 4. Jubilation
13. Painting the Town Purple
14. Stadium Showdown
15. Kaká Fever
16. Full Speed to MLS
17. Fill the Bowl!
18. The Soccer Roller Coaster

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