Tony Waiters, who coached Canada to its only World Cup appearance, dies at 83

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Tony Waiters, who coached Canada in its only appearance at the World Cup and led the Vancouver Whitecaps to the North American Soccer League championship, has died. He was 83.

Waiters will be forever linked to one of Canada's biggest soccer memories — the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. The Canadian men failed to score a goal or register a point but held their own against mighty France, Hungary and the Soviet Union.

Canada has been trying to get back to the World Cup since.

"It's with heavy hearts and much sadness that we must inform of the passing of our beloved Tony," his family said in a statement Tuesday. "He achieved a great deal in his life, his legacy speaks volumes. Our family is beyond devastated with the loss of a wonderful husband and a hero of a father."

Canada Soccer called Waiters "a tremendous ambassador for the game."

"His passion for football and the people he touched throughout his career is unparalleled in Canada," added former Canadian international goalkeeper Craig Forrest.

"This one hits hard … He gave so much to Canadian soccer and so much to me personally," said former Canadian 'keeper Paul Dolan.

"Tony was a gentleman, leader, mentor and one of the most significant people in Canada football history," said HFX Wanderers FC coach Stephen Hart, a former Canada coach himself.

Waiters, a former England goalkeeper, is also remembered as a coach who always had his teams organized and prepared.

Going into the '86 World Cup, Waiters admitted to being "a little bit nervous." Star-studded France was European champion and Hungary had beaten CONCACAF's El Salvador 10-1 at the 1982 tournament.

"My fear was we could get blown out of the water and it would just reflect on the game in Canada," Waiters said in an April interview with The Canadian Press. "The way that we prepared was that we were going to be combative and competitive. And that wasn't difficult with the Canadian players because they worked very hard in practice, to get themselves fit, to get themselves right.

"We played a high-pressing game and we competed … It was a great experience. What I was concerned about was being embarrassed. And we weren't embarrassed."

Under Waiters, the Canadian men also reached the quarterfinals of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, eventually losing to Brazil in a penalty shootout

Waiters came to Canada to coach the Whitecaps during the 1977 NASL season after being fired as manager of Plymouth Albion. At the time, he thought he might only stay for a few months.

But Canada became his home, with the Whitecaps becoming a sensation after defeating the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the 1979 Soccer Bowl.

Waiters lived most recently on British Columbia's Sunshine Coast where he built a home three years ago.

He remained closely involved with the game. He was president of the National Soccer Coaches Association of Canada at the time of his death and served as an adviser to soccer organizations on both sides of the border. He worked with Cliff Avenue United FC, a team in Burnaby, B.C., looking for ways to bring inner-city kids to the game he loved.

He also operated World of Soccer, a long-standing company that offered a wide array of coaching manuals. It was a family affair, with wife Anne overseeing the operation and daughter Victoria handling the graphics.

"It keeps me out of mischief," said Waiters, who also has a son, Scott

Waiters never lost his eye for talent, enjoying the growth of Canadian international Alphonso Davies. "He's quite remarkable."

Waiters was born Feb. 2, 1937, in Southport, just north of Liverpool, on the English coast. He served in the Royal Air Force and earned his teacher’s certificate in physical education from Loughborough College.

"Liverpool's my team in the sense that I was brought up 18 miles from Anfield," Waiters said. "I spent two seasons on the staff, which was the best soccer experience that I've ever had. Because (manager Bill) Shankly was there, Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan, the whole Merseyside atmosphere.

"It was terrific, actually. I think I learned more than than at any other the time in the game."

He started his playing career as an amateur with Bishop Auckland in 1957 before moving to Macclesfield Town. But he spent the bulk of his career with Blackpool, making more than 250 appearances from 1959 to 1967. 

He won five caps for England in 1964 under Sir Alf Ramsey at a time when Gordon Banks was early in his career as England No 1. 

Waiters retired at 30, eventually working for England's Football Association. He recalled doing a goalkeeping presentation in Blackpool which one participant called '"naive in concept."

He ended up at the English national training centre that summer at Lilleshall. When an instructor was called away, he did the same presentation on short notice and was offered a job at Liverpool.

"It was simple and to the point," Waites said of his presentation. "And that's what I continued to learn when I went to Liverpool football club. Shankly, he'd say 'Play it to the nearest red shirt. The giving and taking of passes is the essence of football.'"

Shankly made Waiters Liverpool's youth coach. After a year, Waiters looked at Paisley and Fagan and wondered how he would get past them. "And I knew I couldn't. I had no right to do so."

Instead of going into management on his own, he got an offer from Jimmy Adamson of Burnley. The Burnley goalkeeper at the time was Peter Mellor, who had a dislocated shoulder.

He was asked to come in as a player coach to back up Mellor. "Two weeks later I was back in the First Division."

Mellor eventually needed an operation so Waiters had another year and half before retiring in 1972.

Waiters then got into coaching full time, working at Coventry City with Noel Cantwell and then Tranmere with Ron Yates, a former Liverpool centre back who was player-manager. He also served part-time as manager-coach of the England youth team.

A scouting trip for Chelsea at Plymouth Albion with his wife somehow led to a job interview after the game.

"I ended up at Plymouth (in the Third Division). I was there for five years. Four of them were good. The fifth one got me to Canada," he said.

Waiters brought in Paul Mariner and Billy Rafferty to lead the attack. Plymouth, once battling to avoid relegation, reached the League Cup semifinal in 1974 and won promotion to the Second Division after the 1974-75 season.

FIFA and the English national team were among those honouring Waiters on Tuesday.

Plymouth observed a one-minute silence for its "club legend," flying the flags at Home Park stadium at half-mast.

"An extremely popular person, as well as football coach, Waiters’ management style was well ahead of its time," the club said in a statement. "Under the Southport-born manager’s leadership, the club developed Harper’s Park, the training ground still used today, as well as adopting the use of video analysis."

But back then money was tight and the club had to sell players.

"Things deteriorated the final season. And that gave me the opportunity to come to Canada," Waiters said. "I needed a job. It was towards the end of the season when I got fired. And jobs weren't going to come too quickly at the time."

Waiters was hired on a short-term contract by the Whitecaps during the 1977 season.

"The way we viewed it, we'd use it as a working holiday and then get back and see what we could do back in the old country," he said. "But things went well and the next thing was they got me tied down to a three-year contract. And in the third year, we won it all."

Waiters inherited a solid roster in Vancouver, saying he could have "turned out a team of Canadians without using any import players and been competitive."

But he added to that talent, bringing in wingers Gordon Taylor, now chief executive of Professional Footballers' Association, and Derek Possee, formerly of former Tottenham and Millwall, among others.

In his first full season with the Whitecaps, Waiters led the team to a 24-6 record and the conference semifinals, good enough to earn the NASL’s Coach of the Year honours.

The '79 championship team featured Whitecap icons Bob Lenarduzzi and Carl Valentine and big-name imports like Alan Ball, Roger Kenyon and Kevin Hector.

The Whitecaps dispatched the rock-star New York Cosmos in the '79 playoff semifinals and then sealed the deal with a 2-1 victory over Tampa Bay at Giants Stadium before 50,699, thanks to two goals by former England international Trevor Whymark.

A crowd of 100,00-plus welcomed the team home. Vancouver was in love with the Whitecaps. But it was to mark Waiters' swansong with the team.

"Changes were made. I ended up being the president and general manager which didn't suit me. And so I resigned and went working for the Canadian Soccer Association."

He was hired as Canada's head coach and manager on Dec. 4, 1982, helping Canada qualify for the 1984 Olympics just 16 months later.

The Canadian men had a good run at the Los Angeles Games, eventually losing to Brazil in a penalty shootout after the game finished tied at 1-1. Waiters never forgot an offside call that cost the Canadians the go-ahead goal.

"If I showed you the video, you'd see that it wasn't," he said. "That would have put us through."

The Canadian men have never been back to the Olympics.

Colombia was originally slated to host the 1986 World Cup but gave way to Mexico. The U.S. failed to reach the final three-team round of CONCACAF qualifying, finishing runner-up to Costa Rica in its group. 

So Canada was the only CONCACAF team to qualify, booking its ticket with a famous 2-1 win over Honduras in St. John’s, N.L., on Sept. 14, 1985.

The Canadians were in unaccustomed circumstances in Mexico, in elite company. Waiters recalled his players looking at the French stars across from them in the tunnel waiting to take the field in Leon in their first game.

"They were lined up waiting to go on and they're looking across and they're seeing Michel Platini and saying 'What are we doing here?'" Waiters said.

But Canada proved a tough out. The French hit the woodwork three times but did not go ahead until a 79th-minute goal by Jean-Pierre Papin that proved to be the difference.

"We were a bit unlucky against France in the opening game because we should have repelled the goal. It was a bad play from a throw-in," said Waiters.

"But we created a good impression because a lot of people watched that game." 

There were two unfortunate goals in the 2-0 loss to Hungary. A bad bounce in the penalty box in the first. The second came after Canadian 'keeper Tino Lettieri made a good save, only to see a rebound knocked in.

"By the time we played Russia, all of our directors had gone home because they had assumed it was all over," Waiters recalled. "Had we won that game — had we, we didn't — we would have a stood a chance of qualifying because of the number of teams that did qualify for the second round."

The Soviets won 2-0 and Waiters' team was done. Thirty-four years later, Canada has yet to go back.

"People say 'Oh you did great, went to the World Cup.' But there's no satisfaction really to have gone there and not gone again," Waiters said.

Still, he took solace in the advances that were to follow thanks to Major League Soccer.

Waiters stepped down as Canada coach after the World Cup but returned for a second stint from October 1989 through the 1991 Gold Cup. He was influential away for the pitch, using his coaching expertise with both CONCACAF and FIFA.

Waiters was awarded the Aubrey Sanford Meritorious Service Award in 1996 for outstanding service to Canadian soccer. He was inducted into the Canada Soccer Hall of Fame in 2001, the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame in 2019, and the Soccer Hall of Fame in British Columbia as part of its inaugural class in 2019.

He was also honoured as a Canada Soccer Life Member in May 2019.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 10, 2020

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press