We spoke with John Pugh, President of Ottawa Fury FC, and the man responsible for bringing professional soccer to Ottawa.
A place called Hereford, it’s on the border between England and Wales, Pugh is a Welsh name. It’s famous for Bulmer’s Cider and Strongbow, and obviously Hereford cattle.
What was your favourite team growing up?
I always supported Manchester United. They had a certain aura about them. My boyhood hero was a guy called Denis Law. He was a goalscorer and that’s what I played, so he was my idol.
The OSEG website says you played semi-pro soccer in England. What clubs did you play for? How long?
I played locally in Hereford for a little while, and I chose what university I wanted to go to on the basis of their soccer program. I went to a university in Swansea, and they played in the top league in Wales. The top team in that league actually plays qualifying games for the (UEFA) Europa League, although they don’t get very far generally speaking. That meant that on weekends we were playing against men, who would get paid a little, while we were just students. They were tough games. So when we played other universities it was a piece of cake. We won the British universities championship, and while I was in Swansea there was a scout from Tottenham Hotspurs. That led me to travel to Tottenham where I trained with the first team, not just the academy. But in the end that didn’t work work out, probably for the good, because my computer sciences career was taking off. I did play for Swansea City which played in what was a reserve league for what are now Premier League teams. Then I played in Durham up north where I got a job. And then I got a job in Sheffield where I played for the oldest club in the world, Sheffield FC.
When did you come to Ottawa? What kept you here?
My wife and I, we were in Sheffield, thinking about starting a family, and we said “Well, let’s do something.” At that point I was teaching computer science, and I saw a job posting for a visiting professor at Carleton for a year. So that’s how we arrived here, and we never really went back. It was a great time at Carleton, they were just opening a school of computer science there, so that was a great opportunity for me. My wife teaches the hearing impaired. There’s a great program here which interfaces with a program at CHEO so that kids gets earlier identification of hearing loss, so she was happy as well. We went back [to the UK], sold the house, and 30 years later we’re still here and we never regretted it.
In 2002, you bought the Fury organization. What prompted you to take over Fury at the time?
Yes, myself and two colleagues started a company called The Object People, which got acquired in 2000 just before the bubble burst. I worked for the company that bought us for about 18 months. At that time my son was going through the soccer system here, Ottawa was clearly not the best place to be if you were a good soccer player. If you want to play for the provincial team, the provincial team is based out of Toronto, and therefore it’s tough to get down there every weekend to train with them. If they train midweek, you can’t go. There were a lot of good kids playing soccer, both male and female. Many of them were not getting the opportunity they deserved. Myself and a few others got together and said “what the heck can we do about this?” There was a W-League women’s team here at the time, so we decided we could use that as a vehicle to build a club around, ultimately to do two things. First, to eventually bring professional soccer here for spectators to watch. Second, to build a youth development program that would give Ottawa kids the same chances they would get if they were living in Toronto or Montreal.
By my count, Fury FC has more minutes played by Canadian players than any other team in North America. Is this a conscious effort by the organization?
Yes. Well, they do have to earn that playing time. But the fact is, we set out, if we could, to find a Canadian coaching staff. So we did. It wasn’t that we didn’t interview people that weren’t Canadians. But we felt the best person for the job was Marc Dos Santos. He had great success [coaching] the Impact. He had won a previous incarnation of the league we were about to play in! He’s very worldly, speaks the language of soccer and has had success wherever he’s been. He was brave enough to go to Brazil and coach down there. That’s like a Brazilian ice hockey coach coming up here! You’re not going to get a job easily, you have to earn your stripes. So we brought him in and he built his staff, which is mostly Canadian. It’s true that teams like Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver would probably like to have more Canadians playing at the MLS level, and they all have development programs to develop Canadian talent, but when it comes to minutes on the field, its been easier for us to pick up Canadian talent to compete at the NASL level. We’re very happy right now, we have our Canadian National Team captain, Julian De Guzman, playing for us and we’re very proud of that, and yes if you add up the minutes played you’d probably find ourselves and FC Edmonton at the top. If there are two players who are equal, we’ll take the Canadian. Once they’re on the squad, if they earn the time, they earn the time.
The NASL is now in its ‘Fall Season’, which marks a year and a half since Fury FC stepped on the field. What have been some of the challenges you have faced so far?
Obviously there’s been no pro soccer here. There’s no history at the professional level. We had to build an organization from the ground up. We’ve had some advantages, we have a great coach who is a great communicator, and we have a great stadium, probably the best stadium in the league. But it has 24,000 seats to fill, so we have to build a culture and a fan base. That’s probably been the biggest challenge so far. It’s tough being a northern club, because we play earlier in the spring. It’s cold. It’s not exactly ideal conditions to watch a game. But the last three games before the break we had over 5000 in attendance, and we want to keep building on that. We’re trying to emulate what clubs like Portland and Seattle have done in MLS, where there wasn’t always a soccer culture, but the fans have embraced it, with the atmosphere and supporter groups. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish here, with supporter groups like Stony Monday Riot and the Bytown Boys. It’s different in soccer. When you go to a soccer game, YOU are part of the entertainment, which isn’t maybe normal in North American leagues, where sometimes it can be kind of quiet. In soccer there are no signs that say “Hey, now it’s time to make a noise.”
Because of the lack of an established soccer culture, do you feel there is a need to educate the average sports fan in Ottawa about the game?
Yes, and we need them to get to a game, basically. We have a program called the Fury Fanatics which is starting to phase in in a big way. We have 27 clubs participating, and if you count the number of kids they have under [the age of] 14 participating it’s over 20,000 and they’re each given a lanyard which entitles them to come to any game [for free]. That’s beginning to work well. The kids get to watch the pro game in addition to playing the game, they get to experience the atmosphere and get to know the players. We have a lot of players going out in the community. We’ve been doing everything we can think of to interface with the community, and in particular with the soccer community. Canadian Tire is sponsoring the Fanatics, and there’s a cutout of Richie Ryan in every store, so people are starting to get to know our players. There’s player turnover every year obviously, but we’d like some of our senior players to be here a period of time, have kids know who their favourite player is, whose name they want on the back of their jersey.
Last year Fury FC hosted a friendly against Scottish giants Glasgow Rangers. Are there any plans for hosting other big international sides?
I’m not sure we’re going to be able to do that this year, but absolutely it’s something we’d like to do. It’s a win-win for everyone. Fans love it, we love it. It’s just a question of being able to do those things financially. Yes, eventually it’ll come. We haven’t been able to do it this year, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. We are looking to do it in the future and we have some ideas.
Tampa Bay Rowdies partnered with Brazilian side Sao Paulo FC earlier this year. Would you considering doing something similar?
Yeah, in fact, when we were the ‘old Fury’ [before joining the NASL] we had a partnership with Tottenham Hotspurs which lasted three of four years. So yeah, there are a lot of partnerships underneath the covers,where we have very good connections with other clubs. I can’t say there’s anything in the works, we wouldn’t want to [officially] partner with another club to the detriment of others, but it is a possibility. We’re always talking with other clubs.
There are rumours of a new nation-wide professional Canadian Soccer League in the works. Do you know much about it?
Our national team coach is promoting that idea as something that is necessary. There are a lot of Canadian players playing around the world and not in Canada. Canada has three MLS teams and two NASL teams. That’s not a lot for a country the size of Canada. So yeah, it would be better if we had that, but we also have to have the strong ownership groups that have the ability to operate them at a high level. Our country is at a disadvantage being so stretched from east to west. Yes, does Canada need it’s own league? I think we’d all like to see that. But we need to make sure it’s something that is going to be viable and sustainable for a long period of time. Are there other cities that could sustain an NASL team besides Ottawa and Edmonton? Yeah, I think there are a couple. But has anyone come out concrete and said ‘yes we’re going to do this’? No, I don’t believe so.
Do you think Canada is at a place now where it could support such a league? Would you consider moving Fury FC to such a league?
I think we have to decide at what level that league should be. I think what we’ve found so far are the cities that can support MLS. So that’s that. We a few more cities that can support soccer at the NASL level. Outside of that, can we support a league across Canada? I believe we can, but we have to be careful about how we do it. We need to make sure the right things are in place for it to be successful, and deciding at what level it should be at. The geography issue is considerable, in terms of travel.
[As for moving from NASL] It is premature to even talk about that,but we want to bring the highest level of soccer that we possibly can to the fans. I’m sure if you asked that question in Montreal or Vancouver they would give you the same answer. That’s for the fans, and also for our own players. We’ve got some promising young players in our academy, some of them training with the first team, so now they’ve got something to aspire to.
Lastly, what are your expectations for Fury FC heading into the Fall half of the season?
Well, we’re fighting for one of three playoff spots. New York Cosmos have their spot locked up as Spring Season champions, so we’re looking for one of the three spots left. If our defense performs the way it has, that provides us with a platform to go out and win some games. We’ve signed a new striker [Aly Hassan] and we have our captain back [Ritchie Ryan]. We feel like our Spring Season was hampered by the fact we had a considerable number of injuries to key players. But once we start putting some wins together and start putting some goals in the net, people will start thinking “Hey, let’s go to a Fury game.”
That’s it for my questions. Thank you for bringing professional soccer to Ottawa, and thank you for your time.