Four decades later, Detroit Express chugs along in professional soccer lore

Larry O'Connor
The Detroit News
Keith Furphy, whose father Ken coached the team, in action for the Detroit Express in 1978.

They had cheerleaders, a catchy theme song, international flair and razzmatazz in an era when soccer and disco balls went hand in hand.

What the Detroit Express only lacked was longevity.

The North American Soccer League franchise lasted three years, 1978-81, before bolting to Washington D.C. in a desperate move by its chief British investor Jimmy Hill to stem what had been reported as $4 million in losses.

If the Detroit Cougars in the late 1960s were a toe in the water, the Express were a full belly smacker into Detroit’s pro soccer pool. And those ripples are still being felt four decades later as Detroit City FC attempts to make the leap into full-time professional soccer later this summer in the Founders Cup. 

Included in the Express ranks were elite players from England’s First Division, most notably the area’s first bonafide soccer superstar in Trevor Francis.

English player Trevor "The Wizard" Francis quickly became Detroit's most recognizable soccer figure.

The team, managed by no-nonsense Englishman Ken Furphy, made the playoffs in two of three seasons and were a respectable 48-44 in outdoor circles.

The NASL outfit averaged about 12,000 fans at the 80,000-seat Pontiac Silverdome, which was demolished in December 2017. The club also played two indoor campaigns on hockey-sized fields with dasher boards in a bifurcated Silverdome in 1979-80 and 1980-81 before bugging out for D.C.

Forty years later, memories of the club live on through reruns of an “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” episode where Mac wears an Express T-shirt.

A former player thinks the Express had the potential of being a legacy team in the same vein as the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers, which endured long after the NASL collapsed and prospered as Major Soccer League franchises today.

“The one thing looking back is I really do wish is the Express never would have left Detroit, that they would have stayed rather than going on to Washington,” said Danny Vaughn, an original team member who played from 1978-79. “I think the fan base in Detroit is strong. It was strong then. It could most likely support a full professional team now.”

The build-up

The Express’ genesis can be traced to bicentennial fireworks, an absentee parking valet and a bloke from Bolton propping up the bar in the Lindell A.C.

Roger Faulkner wistfully recounts events of that June 1976 evening over lunch in Birmingham when he ran into old pal Gordon Preston, which put the Detroit Express into motion.

Detroit Express co-owner Roger Faulkner makes an announcement during a 1979 news conference.

The soccer promoting pair had been involved in presenting closed-circuit telecasts of the 1970 World Cup and exhibitions like the one involving Coventry City-Hertha Berlin at Keyworth Stadium, which drew 7,000 spectators.

“So 50 years later, we’re back at Keyworth again,” said Faulkner, referring to Detroit City FC’s rejuvenation of the historic stadium in Hamtramck, where attendance reaches that same 7,000 figure.

Faulkner and a date went to the Detroit fireworks, parking at the Lindell A.C. He left his keys with a parking valet. When he and the woman returned, the valet was gone. So, he went inside to retrieve his keys and he spotted Preston inside the venerable sports saloon.

The Silverdome had opened the previous year, and the pair of Brits immediately started talking about the 80,000-seat stadium’s vast potential as a soccer venue. The Pele-led New York Cosmos were the toast of the East Coast, packing the Meadowlands with crowds of 70,000. 

Faulkner knew Dallas Tornado owner Lamar Hunt through his tennis connections. Preston, who died in 2012, agreed to contact the Cosmos and set up an exhibition at the Pontiac site.

All the pair needed was $90,000, which included $25,000 per team plus traveling expenses. No soccer match had generated more than $15,000 in revenue to that point, Faulkner said.

So, Faulkner summoned his well-heeled friends at the Birmingham Athletic Club and rustled up $85,000.

Detroit Express forward Mick Leach battles Tampa Bay Rowdies defender Arsene Auguste for an aerial ball on opening night before 28,523 spectators on April 16, 1978 at the Pontiac Silverdome.

“I remember that we then came into Birmingham afterward to celebrate and walked into the bar … and we didn’t have any money between us to buy a drink,” he said.

Pele and the Cosmos defeated the Tornado 3-2 on Labor Day 1976 before 23,862 at the Silverdome with the Brazilian superstar scoring a goal. The ad-hoc group of investors received a “good dividend,” Faulkner said.

The turnout piqued NASL commissioner Phil Woosnam’s interest, who along with league executive board members Steve Ross of Warner Bros. and Hunt, saw Detroit as an ideal market.

So did Tom Estes, son of General Motors president Elliott “Pete” Estes, who said his father wanted to own a sports team as a silent partner and offered to financially back the venture.

“And then Tom sort of started doing a soft shoe,” said Faulkner, who is not sure whether the father was ever in on the son’s dealings on the soccer front. “After a while, (Estes) said, ‘Well, you’re going to have to fire Gordon because he’s a bit too rough. I don’t want Gordon involved. I said, ‘I’m not going to do that.’”

Faulkner and Preston met with the owners of the Connecticut Bicentennials and made a bid to buy the franchise with a $2 million line of credit provided by Estes. The Connecticut folks turned down the offer and eventually moved to Oakland, where they became the Stompers.

“Fortunately, we did not close the deal,” Faulkner said.

To further gauge interest, Faulkner and Preston hosted another friendly, this one featuring Germany’s Eintracht Braunschweig and Italy’s Lazio as part of a daylong soccer festival in May 1977 at Eastern Michigan’s Rynearson Stadium, which drew 11,500 on a blistering 95-degree day.

By then, Ted Ewald of Campbell-Ewald, John Maxwell of Bonanza, Elliott Trumbull and Elias Brothers we’re all on board in the effort to land an NASL franchise.

Detroit Express co-owner Roger Faulkner, right, and public relations director Gordon Preston attend the news conference announcing the signing of defender Paul Hunter from the New York Cosmos in 1978.

Then Woosnam phoned Faulkner and Preston, saying Jimmy Hill, an iconic figure in British soccer circles, wanted to invest in the U.S. game.

A former player, Hill was instrumental in forming the player’s union and owned English First Division club Coventry City. He was most well-known in his native land for being the host of BBC’s “Match of the Day,” which was the Saturday night staple for British soccer fans.

“(Woosnam) said, ‘I’ve told Jimmy that he should go and look at San Diego and he should look at a couple of other cities and then he should go to Detroit and talk to Roger Faulkner and then he’ll decide he wants to be in Detroit,” Faulkner said, “which is what happened.” 

Hill’s World Sports Academy joined as an investor and the Detroit Express paid the NASL $250,000 franchise fee (a pittance compared to today’s $200 million MLS entry fee) and became one of six new teams in the league in 1978.

Against this backdrop, Detroit Mayor Coleman Young was also kicking up interest in bringing an NASL franchise to the city. Through attorney Robert Fenton, Detroit made a pitch before NASL officials to play at Tiger Stadium. Woosnam and Co. opted for the Silverdome.

Core cast

The Express was destined to have a British look with Anglophiles Faulkner, Preston and Hill at the helm.

The club hired Furphy as coach, who had stints with the New York Cosmos and Miami but earned his reputation in the mud-and-guts English League with Workington, Watford, Blackburn and Sheffield United.

Cosmos’ Canadian defender Paul Hunter was the first to sign, addressing one of three spots where the new team needed to field a North American player.

The Express’ other ace was Scottish midfielder Gus Moffatt, who lived in Windsor and had just received his Canadian citizenship. Moffatt also had the distinction of having been a member of the Detroit Cougars, who played at Tiger Stadium in 1968.

Hill’s pull within the English game also paid immediate dividends.

Big-name announcements followed, including the loan of Scottish forward Alan Brazil, who was fresh off an FA Cup win with Ipswich Town. Brazil scored nine goals in 21 matches for the Express in 1978.

“He used to ask me for advances on his paycheck so he could go to DRC (Detroit Race Course),” said Faulkner about the Scot who loved to wager on the horses.

Today, the larger-than-life character hosts Talk Sport’s “Alan Brazil Sports Breakfast,” which is heard worldwide on satellite radio. 

Furphy also called on a solid cast of English League veterans, including some he managed in the past like midfielders Brian Tinnion and David “Mighty Atom” Bradford and defender Eddie Colquhoun. In the latter, the Express had “The Simpsons” Groundskeeper Willie character mixed with the temperament of a badger.

“He was a hard man,” goalkeeper Jim Brown said of the fellow Scotsman.

The coach also brought in 19-year-old son Keith, paying the $5,000 transfer fee himself in the deal. The younger Furphy proved a capable goal scorer with 26 tallies over 2½ seasons.

The Wizard delivers

The signing of Birmingham City FC’s Trevor Francis to an 18-game loan deal worth $100,000 in April 1978 brought international headlines and changed the face of the franchise.

Francis played two seasons for the Express, scoring 36 goals in 33 appearances. The Plymouth, England, native made 1978 and ’79 NASL All-Star teams, which included world-renowned Johan Cruyff and Giorgio Chinaglia.

Robin Roberts, left, with Detroit Express soccer player Trevor Francis and Detroit Express Choo Choo Cheerleader Karen Polulak at the Pontiac Silverdome.

The forward went on to represent England 54 times and had the distinction of being the first player to fetch more than 1 million pounds in the transfer market when he joined Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest from Birmingham City in 1979.

The move to the two-time European Cup winners would later prevent the magisterial forward from returning to Detroit for a third season.   

Much like Red Wings’ Steve Yzerman or the Pistons’ Isiah Thomas, Francis’ playmaking and extraordinary skills transcended the sport and immediately captured the hearts of Detroit sports fans.

Express teammates marvel at Francis’ exquisite skill 40 years later.

“He was brilliant, a class guy,” said Steve Seargeant, 68, who played all three years in Detroit and still resides in the area. “He was coming back from injury when he was playing for the Express and he was still the best player in the league by far.

“You could knock a ball 30 yards from him and he’d catch it inside the box. He was lethal inside the area. He had a fifth gear. He could be running at speed and you would think, ‘How did he run past that guy?’ He had an unbelievable turn of speed.”

Francis’ remarkable talents appeared to be only exceeded by his graciousness.

“He was good. He would stay behind and sign autographs and that,” said Tinnion, 70, who played three years in Detroit and has the distinction of winning championships as coach with the American Soccer League Detroit Express in 1982 and the National Professional Soccer League indoor Detroit Rockers in 1992. Tinnion’s son Paul is assistant women’s coach at Eastern Michigan University while younger son Joey is coach at Rochester College.

“We would be all finished signing the few we did, but he would stay behind for another 20 or 30 minutes and still keep signing them, especially on road trips when we were in the bus.”

Faulkner has an original painting of Francis in the den of his Bloomfield Hills home. The inscription on the artwork sums up the player’s character, the owner said.

“When he signed it, it says ‘Roger it was a pleasure working for you, Trevor,’” Faulkner said. “That was his attitude. It was a job. You do it properly and take it seriously, and he did.”

Except Francis didn’t get fully paid for his work, at least not in Year 2, the former soccer star reveals in his autobiography “One in a Million.” He received a 25,000 pound raise to 125,000 British pounds as promised by Hill.

“When he was signing my contracts Jimmy would always make the points that contract don’t really matter because if he reneged on the deal I could just go to Fleet Street,” Francis writes in his book, which is scheduled for U.S. release in the fall. “Why go to Fleet Street? Simply because at the time Jimmy Hill was one of the biggest names in football and Fleet Street would have paid me a small fortune to expose him.”

Francis bit his tongue, though.

The Detroit Express Choo Choo Cheerleaders.

The England international learned Hill had lost substantial amounts of money in Middle Eastern investments and felt a bit sorry for him, Francis writes. Rather than go public or seek legal remedy, the pair later settled for 25,000 pounds, a fifth of what he was owed.

In the book, Francis credits the Silverdome’s artificial turf and the league’s infamous 35-yard line — where players could lurk without being considered offside — for abetting his goal-a-game pace.

He scored six goals in an 8-2 exhibition win over the Cosmos before 25,473 fans at the Silverdome on March 20, 1979. He recalled one Cosmos player yelling at him to shoot and looked up to see it was Germany great Franz Beckenbauer.

“I remember the look on his face when my right-foot shot hit the roof of the net,” Francis said.

Selling the game

The jingle “Catch Detroit’s Express/It’s our new soccer team/Now we have everything…” played over the radio.

The Express name was selected through a fan-naming contest while the orange-and-blue color scheme was chosen through adman Rod Burton.

Robin Roberts shows a ball she and the other Detroit Express Choo Choo Cheerleaders were given signed by the players on the team.

The nascent club would also be the first professional sports team to have cheerleaders, thanks to Bonanza’s Maxwell, who launched the Choo-Choo’s.

More than 300 hopefuls ages 16 to 40 turned up at the Silverdome’s Main Event restaurant to try out for 20 spots.

Robin Victor was then 21 and working in a research lab in Southfield that made prosthetic eyes. She went on a whim.

She made the cut, despite having only been a cheerleader in junior high in St. Clair Shores.

Now Robin Victor-Roberts, she joined the crew of 20 women who cheered the Express at the Silverdome and some matches on the road.

One memorable trip included following the Express to the Meadowlands, where the team played the Cosmos in 1978 and stayed at the Waldorf Astoria.

Afterward, Choo-Choo members visited the famed Studio 54, where they walked straight past the doorman.

“Honest to God, I felt like royalty because we didn’t have to wait in line,” said Victor-Roberts, 62, who lives in Bloomfield Hills and can still fit into her Choo-Choo cheerleading outfit 40 years later. “I mean I had never experienced anything like that before in my life. It was a real eye-opener.

“You know what was funny about it is I never knew what a cross-dresser was until I went to Studio 54.”

Victor-Roberts, who is a sales representative for a French line of cosmetics, marvels at how the experience instilled confidence in her. She looks back fondly at the club’s wholesome family atmosphere, recalling friendships with Moffatt and goalkeeper Slobodan Ilijevski, both of whom have since died.

“It was a wonderful experience that will never be forgotten,” she said.

Robin Roberts unwraps an original warmup from the Detroit Express Choo Choo Cheerleaders.

Players embedded themselves in the community by doing countless soccer clinics and speaking engagements, teaching the masses about a game that was still foreign.

Graham “Sam” Oates coached the Bloomfield Hills Andover High boys soccer team, leading the school to a state championship in 1978.

Others proselytized about the beautiful game by jumping into Express company cars — orange AMC Gremlins with blue seats — and heading out to parks where they’d perform ball juggling tricks and headers before mouth-agape youths in fledgling soccer organizations. Their pay was dinner with parents and kids, often at a pizza parlor.

“I loved doing those clinics, I really did,” said Vaughn, 62, who met George Groat of G&M Data Systems at one such session in Detroit that led to a post-soccer career in computer sales. “I made a point to do as many as I could with all the teams I was with.

“A lot of it was just trying to build a rapport with the fans.”

Culture clash

Furphy demanded to be called “The Boss” and appeared annoyed with the rule that required three North Americans be on the field at all times.

Dave Shelton, whom the Express selected in the first round, second overall, out of Indiana University in the 1978 NASL draft, didn’t get on with the taskmaster.

Shelton suspects the English coach resented him for having an agent and carrying a hefty contract as a first-round pick.

The midfielder saw his playing time diminish and left after one season for the Los Angeles Aztecs, where he played under Dutch legend Rinus “The General” Michels, whom he found to be more encouraging as a coach.

“(Furphy) would mess you,” said Shelton, who is in IT sales and lives in Raleigh, N.C.  “So we’re on the plane coming back from England and he says, ‘Dave come up here. So I walk up the aisle. He says, ‘Look out the window, we’re going to get there.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He says, (British-made) ‘Rolls-Royce engines. I’m like ‘Oh my God.’ That is the kind of stuff he did.”

Furphy also delivered halftime team talk, which lives in infamy four decades later. Assistant coach Klaas de Boer and Faulkner also recall it vividly.

While reaming out the predominantly British team, Furphy told his charges, “If you guys who can supposedly play can’t do better than this, I’ll have to put the Americans in who can’t play at all.”

The stern British coach also wasn’t very PR-savvy, Faulkner said. He would dismiss reporters’ questions as “stupid” and once when asked if Express players would kick soccer balls into the crowd before a match, growled, “We’re not a circus act.”

Another American thinks Furphy’s tough exterior might have been misunderstood, though.

Vaughn reached out to his former manager after his playing days while in England and found a gentler side. Furphy died in 2015.

“He had patience with the American guys sometimes because all of us did not have the same type of upbringing in the game as some of the other players who came over,” said Vaughn, who lives in Tacoma, Washington. “Every once in a while he blew up, but he not only blew up at us he blew up at everybody. He was a fair man.”

Cracks begin

After a remarkably successful first season, the Express’ on-field performance began to dip in ensuing years.

The club finished 20-10 in 1978, good for first place in the American Conference Central Division. The Express defeated the Philadelphia Fury in the first round, only to fall to the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in 1-0 a sudden-death mini-game before 32,319 during the conference semifinals at the Silverdome.  

At the gate, the team averaged 12,194 in attendance, including playoff games, in the first year. In Year 2, attendance increased by 15 percent to 14,058 while the team fell below .500 to 14-16 and lost to the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the conference quarterfinals.

The wheels began to come off during the third year.

Francis declined to come back for a third season, opting to fully concentrate on playing for Nottingham Forest, which had won the first of two successive European Cups.

In his stead, the club signed 19-year-old Argentinian Pato Margetic, who responded with 11 goals in 32 games. The club dealt Keith Furphy, the coach's son, to the Atlanta Chiefs in May.

The younger Furphy, who had become the target of fans' boos, called Detroit's soccer followers "a bunch of ignoramuses" and pitied his father for having to coach such "a sad operation." 

Gary Bannister, another 19-year-old, arrived from Hill’s Coventry City and supplied 10 goals while veteran Oates added another 10 but it wasn’t enough to get the 14-18 Express into the playoffs.

Without Francis’ star power, attendance sagged to 11,198 a game.

Infighting within the ownership group left Faulkner-Preston and, eventually, a third investor, Sonny Van Arnem, on the outside.

“To be honest, more or less, we just concentrated on playing football,” said Brown, who played with Express from 1979-81 and moved with the team to Washington. “That was all left to the people upstairs.”

A crisis in goal during the indoor campaign foretold bigger trouble ahead.

Brown broke a finger during a road game in Minnesota, so the team inserted rookie Bart Farley, who hadn't seen any minutes with the Express.

The team enlisted 18-year-old Craig Tomlinson of Warren, who had only graduated from Center Line High six months earlier, as Farley's backup. The Carpathia Kickers product who signed an amateur contract suffered compound leg fracture in a collision with teammate Eddy Dietz in practice.

Tomlinson needed a year-and-a-half to recover after an infection set in. He needed metal pins insterted into his leg while sustaining permanent nerve damage.

"I'm pretty used to it at this point," said Tomlinson, who lives in California. "I get frisked at airports. I have metal in my body, so they also always pat down my leg and my back because of it."

So the team signed NASL veteran keeper Gene DuChateau, but he simply vanished one morning. Farley's contract ran out and he opted not to return.    

The Express finished their indoor slate 7-11 and missed the playoffs.

The team flew to Guatemala to play a series of preseason friendlies for two weeks in preparation for the NASL outdoor season. Within weeks of the outdoor season, Jimmy Hill moved the team to Washington, where they became the Diplomats.

The Express had sold 5,000-6,000 season tickets and lined up agreements with WJR-AM and WKBD Channel 50 to carry games for the 1981 outdoor season, Faulkner said.

“It was a disaster,” he said.

The players were completely caught off-guard.

“We absolutely had no warning, nothing,” said Brown, who owned a house in Oxford. “So all our families are back in Detroit and we were told we are now the Washington Diplomats and we were flying back to Washington to play the first game.

“So it was a bit of a surprise, to be honest. But as a football or a soccer player, you just got on and do it.”   

The Diplomats lasted a season before folding altogether.

"We went to (Montreal) to play a playoff match and we came back to Washington D.C. there was no club anymore,” Brown said. “We found out they had all disappeared. That was a shock, really.

“I actually contacted Jimmy Hill at the BBC and he more or less guaranteed if nothing happened we would get back home OK.”

Twitter: @larryo1961