Scottish-born, Australian-based coach DUNCAN RYAN tells DAVE CLARKE why coach wellbeing matters and the importance of playing time for all youngsters MORE
‘I was going to make it – one way or another’
Billy Gazonas was one of the leading college soccer players of the mid-1970s.
He played left-back for Hartwick College, in New York state, and in his senior year captained the team to the NCAA title, before winning the Hermann Trophy as the best collegiate player of the year. He would go on to play pro in the North American Soccer League and then coach.
But his story was not just one of glory and garlands. After his first college game, when he watched the whole match from the bench, Gazonas sat in tears on the bus home.
Here, Billy talks to former SCW editor Dave Clarke about his journey from that day to the moment he lifted the NCAA crown – and what youngsters can learn from his experiences…
SCW: In the UK, where I am based, we don’t really understand the college soccer system. It’s huge isn’t it, and such an important sporting facility…
BG: “It’s totally different. In the UK, if your aspiration is to be a professional footballer, pretty much from high school age they’re signing you on as an apprentice.
“In the United States, it’s different. Now that the MLS has grown in stature, they take players right out of high school, but when I was growing up, you really didn’t have the opportunities.
“College soccer was basically the feeding ground for what was then the North American Soccer League and the best players got drafted.
“Of course, the league was dominated by foreign coaches and players, and there were restrictions – you had to play, say, one or two North Americans, but in most cases the foreign players were taking all the skillful positions.”
SCW: There were tough moments in your story. When your parents first came to watch you play, the coach Timo [Liekoski] didn’t put you on. That must have been hard for you to take?
BG: “It was our first regular season game and the only game my parents were going to have the opportunity to see because it was about an hour away.
“I was so excited, even though Timo wasn’t giving me the time of day. Every pre-season game, I got on for five or six minutes before the end of the game.
“It was humiliating, my eyes were filled with tears. And that has stayed with me…”
“But it was so humiliating, my eyes were filled with tears. And that has stayed with me – there wasn’t a day that went by in the next four years that I didn’t think about that moment and push myself more than maybe I would have.”
SCW: Your story ends in triumph. In your last game as a college player, you won the NCAA championship as captain of the team. It doesn’t come much better does it?
BG: “And considering how, after my first game, I was devastated in tears in the back of the bus, yeah, it is like a dream.
“Basically, I believed I was a better player than the coach thought I was because I’d come off an injury. And I wasn’t going to be outworked by anybody. I was going to train as hard or harder than anybody.
“There was no backup plan. I was gonna make it one way or the other.”
SCW: You played two-touch possession soccer. That’s a huge thing, especially on some of the pitches that you played on. If your first and second touches are poor, then someone’s going to slide in. That’s a great way to be coached, isn’t it?
BG: “I believe so, because it forces the player, at whatever age, to try to think ahead and ask, ‘What am I going to do when I get the ball?’. It shows the emphasis that that first touch has to be perfect.”
SCW: You used to train on your own a lot. You would pass the ball off the wall and then take a quick look over your shoulder, just to get into the habit of scanning. In lockdown, nearly all my players were at home in the back garden – and practising little things like looking over your shoulder, one-touch and two-touch, these are all really great things for the kids to do…
BG: “If you constantly focus on all of these little habits, eventually it becomes so natural that the minute you step out onto the pitch, you’re doing it.
“Did you ever follow Andrea Pirlo off the ball? Forget when he had the ball – you watch him jogging and every three or four seconds, his head scanned all the opportunities and what was going on around the field.
“I think, especially if they’re young, if you can get them in a habit, even when they’re just kicking the ball back and forth, it’s a great advantage for players.”
SCW: When you were at college, one of your favourite subjects was psychology. Does psychology help you in dealing with the pressures of being a sportsman?
BG: “I think I was very strong mentally – I could focus in the game. In practice, if you kicked me, I was going to kick you right back, because that’s the way it was.
“I could focus in the game. If you kicked me 50 times it didn’t matter…”
But in the game, I could have a switch and it was about winning the game. So if you kicked me 50 times, it didn’t matter.
“I was able to just focus, I was mentally very strong and, and I just didn’t let things get me off my game.”
SCW: There are some little things that you are proud of. One of them is when you managed to do a rainbow kick in a match for the first time…
BG: “I wanted to do it one time on Elmore Field, our home field. It was the last regular season game [against Syracuse] and the opportunity presented itself because if I’d lost the ball it wouldn’t have been the end of the world, they still would have had to travel 120 yards or something to score a goal.
“It made me feel good – it was the only time I’ve ever done that in a game!”
SCW: And you’re now in four Halls of Fame for soccer?
BG: “I’m in my high school hall of fame, Mercer County hall of fame. Hartwick College hall of fame and the AHEPA – the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association.
“At the time I got inducted into that one, I went in with Greg Louganis, who won a gold medal in the Olympics for diving. There’s people in there like Pete Sampras, too.
“It’s for Greek Americans and I’m very proud of that.”
“I was studying Spanish. Timo had some connections so I could have maybe gotten on the Real Madrid youth team…”
HEAR MORE FROM BILLY GAZONAS ON OUR PODCAST — CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD