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Q&A with Len Oliver: Philly amateur soccer in the 1950s

Our conversation with Kensington-born US National Soccer Hall of Famer Len Oliver continues.

Philly Soccer Page: The Lighthouse team you were on that became Fairhill SC sounds like it was a very special squad of players. What made the team so good?

Len Oliver:  We were super competitive. I was about 15, playing against seasoned pros in the Philadelphia amateur leagues. We were the same Lighthouse Juniors that won two consecutive National Junior Titles. We just “graduated” to the Fairhill SC, sponsored by the Philadelphia Nationals, still under Coach Tommy Oliver. We played in the Philadelphia Amateur Second Division, and even won the Palmer Cup, playing against senior teams and emblematic of soccer success in Philly soccer ranks.

Our Lighthouse Boys Club team of the late 1940s, winning two National Junior titles, was made up of sons of Scottish and English immigrants who brought their game with them to our country.  We learned the game in the streets of Kensington, “street soccer” so to speak, without adult coaching or supervision.  We were tough, urban kids who played the game to the hilt, who knew how to fight, and who never gave up.  When we went on the field, we had one goal—score goals and win the game. And that always worked!

Would it be accurate to describe the Fairhill amateur team as a kind of academy team for the Nationals?

LO:  You could. We trained with the pros, but since we were all still in high school, we had to wait a few seasons before we could move up to the pros. We first went to the Kensington Bluebells for several years while in college, then several of us went to the pros with the Philadelphia Uhriks [formerly the Philadelphia Americans, and before that the Philadelphia German Americans, under which name they won the American Cup in 1936. The Philadelphia Americans were renamed the Uhrik Truckers after the franchise was bought by Tony Uhrik, a local trucking magnate, in 1953].

PSP: Where did Fairhill and the Nationals train and play their home games?

LO:  We trained and played at Holmes Stadium, although in the winter, we trained at Frankford High School where Walter Bahr of the Philly Nationals taught. We played most of our home games, often prior to the pro match, at Holmes Stadium.

PSP: What did the Fairhill uniform look like?

LO:  From an old team photos, they were more like blue t-shirts than soccer uniforms. But they served us well.

PSP: Was it difficult making the adjustment to the W-M system?

LO:  I didn’t switch from the old “two-back game” until 1952 when we played “the new W-M System” at Temple. Pete Leaness, our Coach, came to me and asked, “Lenny, what do you want to play?”  Since I loved halfback, the running, the making of connections, I suggested that Harry Smith, our Center Back, go in the back line and just use two midfielders.

I always loved to run, to connect on the field, to be a catalyst for our forwards while doing my duty on defense, so the “W-M” System” was a natural outlet for any soccer talents I had. Leaness accepted the system and that’s what we played from then on—the “3-back game,” or “W-M” in coach parlance.  It gave us more cover at the back, and freed up our midfielders to be playmakers with the Inside Forwards.

Once it became popular in American soccer, every team adopted the “Three-Back Game” as we called it at the time. Your links were the two midfielders and the two inside forwards, with a center forward and two wingers in attack.

PSP: You mention seeing Brazil and the 4-2-4 at the 1958 World Cup in Gothenberg. What was that like? How did that new formation ripple through the soccer world at the time?

LO:  I was a young GI stationed in Germany at the time of the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, so I just got on a train to Sweden, found tickets at the gate, and saw my first World Cup live. I was somewhat amazed to see Brazil come out with a 4-2-4 formation, but from the start of the game, Brazil’s outside backs kept going up the field to support the attack, almost a 2-2-6! Only Brazil could play this system, so it didn’t catch on as the 4-3-3 and the 4-4-2 did later in the 1960s and 1970s. Brazil’s 4-2-4 required attacking outside backs, who were always running the flanks, supporting the attack. Few teams had these types of resources.

The next innovation was the German “Sweeper” system, pioneered by Franz Beckenbauer, followed by the Dutch 4-3-3 and then the 4-4-2.  These are still the basic systems in world soccer, modified by the 3-5-2 and the more recent 4-5-1.

PSP: Playing against the Bluebells in the 1950 Palmer Cup final, the team of “our fathers and uncles,” must have been quite an experience. What was the lead up to the game like? It must have been kind of nervy.

LO:  Glad you asked. We were “the kids,” playing against seasoned veterans, some more than twice our age. We weren’t fazed at all. We knew our game, knew we could keep pace with the Bells, and eventually took the game, I believe by 4-3. Intense game at Holmes Stadium, with relatives on both sides, however, most of the yelling for “the kids.”

As a Second Division side, and being youngsters, we were not supposed to defeat the First Division teams, but we beat Celtic 4-3 in the semi-final of the Palmer Cup and then went on to defeat the Blue Bells 4-3 in the final at Holmes Stadium before a rather large crowd, with many relatives with mixed emotions filling the stands. I still remember that final as one of the highlights of my career, being at the time 15 years old and playing against top competition.

PSP:  You describe how the new wave of immigration in the years after the Second World War raised the caliber of play in Philadelphia’s amateur First Division. Was there much of a tactical change as well, were they playing the W-M system?

LO:  By the early 1950s, some 20 years after Arsenal had adopted the “W-M” or “Three-Back Game,” it came to America. The immigrant soccer players quickly adapted to the new system. At this time, whenever there was turmoil in the world, America faced a new wave of immigrants. The Ukrainians in the post-World War II era and the Hungarian uprising in 1956, which brought thousands of Hungarians to New Brunswick, N.J. where they won national titles, are good examples.

Most of the immigrant teams—the Latvians, the Italians, the Germans, and the Ukrainians played the “2-back” game of the times. I never noticed three in the back in these games. Honestly, we didn’t give much thought to our formation—we just went out and played, overlapping, covering for each other, and finding ways to get forward.  You never held the ball for long, one dribble to break free was enough, and then “get it up the field.”

It wasn’t until the mid-1960s, with the changes in the national immigration laws, that we saw sizeable numbers of Central American and Caribbean players come to our cities, bringing their clubs and their soccer with them.

PSP: Readers now may be surprised at the number of international club friendlies that took place in Philadelphia in the late 1940s and early 1950s. You specifically mention seeing Liverpool in 1948 and playing against Nuremberg in 1955. Where were these games played?

LO:  Lighthouse Field, Holmes Stadium, and the now-torn down stadium at B Street and Erie Avenue (formerly a drag racing venue and before that Frankford Yellow Jacket Stadium) were all sites for the international games. We played Nuremberg in 1955 at La Salle Stadium before 10,000 fans, many of whom were rooting for the Germans. Occasionally, we would play an international game at Shibe Park, home of the Philadelphia Athletics of the American Baseball League. I remember playing against the Turkish National Team and the Bermuda National Team in 1955-56 at Shibe Park.

PSP: Did you see or play in some of the other international games? Did you play with your cousin Tom Oliver in any of these games?

LO:  I did play some of these games before going into the U.S. Army in 1956. With the Philly All-Stars, Nuremberg was the only international I played in at the time (8-5 for the Germans).  Later with the Uhriks, I played against several foreign touring teams, and I played briefly with cousin Tom Oliver with the Uhriks in 1955, but that was it. He was 10 years older, our coach, and a solid player on the right flank who could score goals when it counted. I played a lot of games with my other cousin, John Oliver, Tom’s younger brother, while with the pros. Great player who left the game too early  because of eye problems.

PSP: What was it like playing against a World Cup winner like Max Morlock?

LO:  The Philadelphia All-Stars (from the Philly Nationals and the Philly Amateur League) played Nuremberg, German Champions, at La Salle Stadium in mid-1955. We lost 8-4, but played well. I played right half, with Benny McLaughlin playing Inside Left, Walter Bahr at Left Half, and Jackie Sullivan up front–surrounded by Ukrainians. After the game, Morlock came over and said, “Gut Gespielt,” and I could only say “ But you guys got 8 goals.” I  still remember that game before 10,00 spectators.

PSP: How were these international friendlies promoted, were they talked about in the local papers and radio? Was there much of a buzz about them generally in Philadelphia or was it more among the soccer scene and the ethnic communities?

LO:  You caught it.  The media, particularly the print media, covered these games well and helped to turn out the solid crowds., but it was in the local ethnic communities and clubs where they were most heavily promoted.

PSP: You mention that even with visits by big foreign clubs, your heroes were local players like Walt Bahr and Benny McLaughlin. What was it like when Bahr and the Scottish-born Ed McIlvenny, two Philadelphia Nationals players, came back from the 1950 World Cup where they shocked the soccer world by defeating England?

LO:  We talked to Walter Bahr and Ed Mcillvenny, both of the Philadelphia Nationals, about their experiences, but didn’t dwell on it. We had games to play, places to go, and that was most important. Later, on bus trips to games with the Philly Uhriks, we had good conversations. Understand that Walt Bahr was not one to promote himself, still isn’t, so our conversations were mostly about the most recent, or the upcoming games.

Bahr and Mcilvenny were class acts in soccer. Both outstanding midfielders of the day, neither sought publicity. They just played their game withal the effort they could, game in and game out.

PSP: When you were trying out for the 1952 Olympic team in St. Louis, did you play against St. Louis players from Schumacher and Windsor SC you had faced when you won the National Junior Cup in 1948 and 1949 with Lighthouse?

LO:  Looking over the lineups, I don’t see players from those teams. We played against Harry Keough, Bill Looby, and other St. Louis standouts.  Remember, this was the “West” team, we were the “East,” so the teams included players from throughout the area.   I did start on the East squad playing just behind John “Clarkie” Souza, one of the outstanding players of his day from Fall River and the German American League.  Before the game, Souza came to me and said, “Kid, you’re young, so pass me the ball and I’ll make you look good.”   I did that, and in the papers the next day, it read, “Souza held on to the ball too long.”   And so it goes!

PSP: I get the sense that there was a real rivalry between East Coast players and St. Louis players. Was that something you were aware of at the time as a player or were you simply driven by the competitive spirit that helped you excel as a young athlete?

LO:  We were competitive with St. Louis, especially after we won those two National Junior titles in 1947-49. Our teams were both made up of mostly American-born players, so the rivalry was natural. Seems like St. Louis teams, and their players were always in our minds and in our battles on the field, be it U.S. Open Cup or Olympic Qualifying.

Read more: Len Oliver’s article, part one, part two, part four, part five, part six.

PSP’s Q&A with Len Oliver: part one, part two, part four, part five, part six.


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