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Tony Waiters - A Canadian Soccer Giant

Obituary of the former England international, the only man in history to take Canada to the World Cup finals.

Tony Waiters, pictured during his Blackpool days, passed away last Tuesday.

I first became aware of Tony Waiters in the early 70’s.

Technically his playing career had already ended, yet here he was answering an emergency call at Burnley, whose first-choice goalkeeper of the time, Peter Mellor, had sustained an injury.

It was over three years since he’d last played, having announced his retirement at his only previous Football League club, Blackpool, when they suffered relegation in 1967. Between then and joining The Clarets he worked as a regional coach for the Football Association and then in youth development for Liverpool.

Waiters played another 38 league games for Burnley before retiring from playing a second time to concentrate on coaching, in 1972.

He took over the managerial reins at Plymouth Argyle, a club which had spent the previous four seasons in the third tier of English football, that same year with the aim of achieving promotion to Division Two.

PLYMOUTH ARGYLE/Tony Waiters
Tony Waiters as Plymouth Argyle coach in the mid-70’s.
Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

Immediate success didn’t follow, but a great run in the 73/74 English League Cup in which Plymouth defeated three First Division clubs away from home, bought Waiters time. Argyle were finally beaten in the semi-final by another first division side Manchester City 3-1 on aggregate.

But the cup run provided Waiters’ Plymouth with the impetus required for a promotion push the following season and Argyle went up after finishing runners-up to Blackburn Rovers.

Waiters remained in southern England for another two seasons before answering the call from afar, Vancouver to be exact, whom he joined mid-season 1977. Again Tony was successful. He lead the Whitecaps including big-name star players, Alan Ball, Kevin Hector, Trevor Whymark and Roger Kenyon, to a surprise NASL Soccer Bowl Championship in 1979, defeating star-studded New York Cosmos along the way.

But his greatest coaching achievements were yet to come, as manger of the Canadian MNT. Taking over at the tail end of 1982 with World Cup qualification the unlikely target, Waiters wasted little time moulding a squad which not only achieved that objective at Mexico ‘86, but reached the Olympic Games quarter-finals in LA in 1984, losing to a star-studded Brazil that included Dunga, only on penalties, after Canada had led in the match with less than 20 minutes to play.

The Brazilian squad was made up of players from mainly Internacional Porte Alegre, supplemented by others from Corinthians, Flamengo and Santos. Waiters had to work with players from Tulsa Roughnecks, Victoria Athletics, McMaster University and Tacoma Stars, a professional indoor soccer team. One player, John Cutliff had his club listed as Harvard.

Canada had gone close to World Cup qualification in 1982. Defender and 1986 captain, Bruce Wilson takes up the story, “We should have gone to the 1982 World Cup in Spain and were gutted when we didn’t. Tony then came in and was the person who really made the biggest difference following what happened in 1982.

“He had the total loyalty of the players. Tony fought for money from the Canadian Soccer Association. He told the CSA we needed money to prepare properly for being on the world stage. He made sure that money was made available.

“We took Brazil to penalty kicks in the quarters of the 1984 Olympics and almost made the semi-finals, and then qualified for the World Cup two years later,” noted Wilson.

“Much of that was due to Tony Waiters. No Canadian teams have gone further.”

World Cup qualification for 1986 was confirmed the previous September when Canada defeated Honduras 2-1, in of all places, St-John’s, Newfoundland.

England football
Playing for England against Belgium in October 1964, Waiters tips away a shot from Wifried Puis. The game ended in a 2-2 draw, with former Seattle Sounders player and coach Alan Hinton scoring one of England’s goals.
Photo by Monte Fresco/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

In Mexico they were drawn in a tough group, losing all three games to European opposition, but they did hold European Champions and eventual semi-finalists France scoreless until Jean-Pierre Papin broke Canadian hearts with the winning goal on 78 minutes.

Waiters undeterred, had moulded a bunch of journeymen footballers into a team, on a continent where there was no opposition of any real quality, a scarcity of half-decent grass pitches and such a general disinterest in the sport that no sponsor wanted put forward financing to help the national team.

Dale Mitchell, scorer of two goals in the Olympic tournament of 1984 said, “The team that tried to qualify for the World Cup wasn’t really a team. It was just a group of individuals trying to go their own way. Tony changed all that. He got the team to play together.”

Somehow the money was found to bring players from their clubs, five of the ‘86 squad played in Europe and one in Mexico, to represent Canada throughout the qualifiers.

What Tony Waiters had done was more than just coaching, he’d had to first awaken enough people to provide the resources from which to build a campaign which saw matches played in Victoria, Toronto, Newfoundland, Guatemala City, Port-au-Prince, Tegucigalpa and San Jose, Costa Rica.

Canada played eight qualifying games, and lost none!

The Canadian bench acclaim their side’s World Cup qualification in September 1985 at King George V Park in Newfoundland after defeating Honduras 2-1. Tony Waiters is second from left.

Waiters may have had an even more famous brush with the World Cup. Playing for Blackpool, the club he made 257 league appearances for, he was capped by Alf Ramsey five times in 1964, as the soon to be knight of the realm sought an understudy to Gordon Banks in the England team, with the 1966 World Cup in mind.

Ramsey indeed selected him for his initial squad of 40, but with Banks always going to be the #1, Waiters lost out to Sheffield Wednesday’s Ron Springett and Chelsea’s Peter Bonetti, for the other two goalkeeper spots, when the squad was finally cut to 22.

Canada Soccer called Waiters “a tremendous ambassador for the game.”

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

And his former ‘86 World Cup goalkeeper Paul Dolan paid tribute saying, “This one hits hard. He gave so much to Canadian soccer and so much to me personally,”

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.

Tony Waiters is survived by his wife Anne and children Scott and Victoria.

Anthony Keith Waiters, born Southport, England, 2 February 1937. Died peacefully, British Columbia, 10 November 2020, aged 83 years.