Football and the United States are often seen as recent bedfellows, the MLS began in 1993 and the olé football of its predecessor the NASL didn’t begin until 1968, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s a recent import. However you’d be wrong, its roots go back to the mid nineteenth century and it all began in one small town in New Jersey. The town of Kearny, or to give it its nickname, Soccer City.
Situated just ten miles West of Lower Manhattan near Newark airport, Kearny’s roots go back to seventeenth century colonial America when in 1668 (on July 4th of all days) Major William Sandford paid £20 to Chief Tantaqua of the Hackensack tribe and named his new purchase New Barbados Neck. The new homestead played its part during the Revolutionary War when British General Henry Clinton used a property on the site as his headquarters for raiding parties.
During the nineteenth century as Kearny expanded it became part of the Township of Harrison and one of its more notable residents, General N.M Halsted campaigned for greater political representation for the Kearny area and in 1867 he got his wish when the New Jersey Legislature created “the Township of Kearny”. Kearny received its name from Major General Phil Kearny, who during the Civil War was the Commander of the New Jersey Forces and owned a property known locally as Kearny Castle.
Following the discovery of Copper in the early eighteenth century a mine was established, though it fell into disrepair by the end of the century. Heavy industry really began to make its mark upon Kearny in the later part of the 1800’s and it was this upturn in productivity which brought football to the area.
Football came to Kearny, like in so many other places in the Americas via European migration from the old world to the new. Migrants seeking a better life for themselves, their families and children wanting to leave the overpopulated heavy industrial cities of Britain and trying to better themselves in new surroundings. The Clark Thread Company moved their operations in the 1860’s from Paisley in Scotland to Kearny and with them came an influx of Scottish immigrants who brought with them their cultural heritage, including football.
Similarly to Britain, there had been in some private schools in the North Eastern United States who played a game similar to football but they tended to be a mixture of football and Rugby, often with teams of up to 25 per side. What the migrants brought to Kearny and the United States was football for the masses and the old cliché of working class men employed in hard conditions during the week and expressing their Proletarian oppression on a football pitch on Saturday afternoons was introduced to a waiting and enthusiastic American public.
As other factories began to open and more and more migrants began to take root, it became obvious that the numerous amateur clubs needed some kind of structural organisation if football was to feasibly continue within Kearny and the New Jersey area. The American Football Association was established in 1884 representing the loose confederation of leagues from the New Jersey/New York area. The league began to standardise rules and introduce concepts such as penalty kicks, goal nets and rather bizarrely allowing free kicks without the need for an appeal first and the banning of officials from betting on the outcome of matches.
The American Football Challenge Cup was given its inaugural season in 1885 featuring teams from Newark, New York, Connecticut and two from Kearny, Rangers and ONT (standing for Our New Thread, a new product from the Clark Company). ONT beat New York FC to win the first title.
Following this victory ONT were invited on an 11 match tour of Canada and returned with nine victories along with a draw and a loss. Return matches were made by the Canadians later in the year and culminated in what has been described as the United States’ first ever international football match – albeit not officially recognised. The match was watched by 2000 eager fans crammed into Park Field in Kearny. Though the Canadians won 1-0, it set in motion a series of matches between the two nations over the next few years and always featured significant representation from Kearny based players - there were eight Kearny based players in the Canadian loss. The match report in the New York Times noted that “one or two players indulged in a fist fight” and of the 2000 people watching the match there were some 60 ladies.
As the years progressed, football began to flourish amongst other communities in the region both American and migrant and ONT began to fall behind teams from New York, Brooklyn and Newark and also Kearny Rangers, yet another product of the Kearny area.
After the first foray into professional football ended within three weeks of its founding in 1894, ideas such as matches during factory shifts were never going to catch on, the National Association of Football Clubs was founded the following year with yet another Kearny team, Scots, as its one of its founding members. Kearny Arlington brought success to the town as they won the American Cup in 1898.
Following yet another suspension of the league and cup, a touring English team revived interest in football in New Jersey and the league and cup was reinstated in 1906 and it wasn’t long before again Kearny tasted success. Clark Thread Company’s new team was known as Clark A.A and they defeated Kearny Scots for the 1907 American Cup and finishing runners up two years later. Kearny Scots won the cup in 1914 before finishing runners up a year later.
Of the many teams from Kearny, Kearny Scots seem to be the most significant, although they have only played at a semi professional level. Having appeared under several different guises in the fledgling National Association Football League and later the second American Soccer League, Kearny Scots could be seen to be oldest football team in the United States still operating. They had among their alumni Archie Stark and Billy Gonsalves.
Stark, born in Glasgow but emigrated to the United States with his family when he was 13, was a forward who played for both Kearny Scots and Kearny Irish. Signing his first professional contract at just 14, Stark also fought in World War One in France. He made just two appearances for the US national team although he did mange five goals – he declined an offer to take part in the 1930 World cup as he couldn’t take the time off work – and won the inaugural American Soccer League with Kearny Irish in 1933. Gonsalves was born in Rhode Island to Portuguese migrant parents and was an accomplished defender. Despite only spending one season with Kearny Scots, Gonsalves is fondly remembered by the club and also featured for the national team at the World Cups in 1930 and 1934. Both players were inducted in to the United States’ National Soccer Hall of Fame in 1950.
More recently Kearny has produced two players who have made a significant impact upon the wider game in the United States, John Harkes and Tony Meola with both players attending Kearny High School together. Meola’s father Vince, himself an Italian immigrant, recognised the influence that football in Kearny had upon his family. In a 1990 interview Meola Sr reflected upon his decision to move his family to Kearny in 1972; “my son wouldn’t be where he is. I’m lucky I’m here, otherwise who knows?”
Meola Jr got his chance when he tried out as an eight year old for his local team. The team coach (a Scottish born migrant) needed a goalkeeper, chose Meola to go in goal and was impressed with what he saw. Who knows what would have happened to Tony Meola if he hadn’t lived in Kearny – he was also a talented baseball and American football player, but then he could have ended up working with his father in the family barbers shop.
Harkes, himself the son of a Scottish migrant, had a very successful career featuring spells in England with Sheffield Wednesday, Derby County, West Ham and Nottingham Forest as well as featuring in the MLS with New England Revolution, DC United and Columbus Crew. He played 90 times for the US national team over 13 years before being inducted into the Hall Of Fame with his Kearny predecessors Gonsalves and Stark.
The overriding feeling within Kearny’s football scene throughout its footballing history is migration. The first clubs were made up of Scottish migrants and with Kearny Scots and Kearny Irish, clubs still harked back to the old countries. Today Kearny Irish (or to give it its full name of Kearny Irish American Football Club) is more commonly known as Kearny Celtic. Indeed in a none too subtle tribute to its Glaswegian namesakes, the club is also nicknamed The Bhoys and the home kit is the familiar green and white hoops and the away kit are the also familiar light green and black hoops.
Kearny is a town built upon a history of industrial grind and a hard work ethic, brought across by migrant labourers seeking a new life and a better future for their children. What they also brought was the love of football which has become ingrained in the town’s development. The last word goes to Vince Meola who maybe sums it up best when he states “it’s inside your blood, it's soccer”.