I found Paul Cannell with old friends at the back of a downtown pub Wednesday, polishing off a Red Bull and vodka on the rocks – a toxic concoction that is downright tame for a Geordie who snorted cocaine at haunts all over Washington a generation ago.
Cannell, now 58, had multiple tours with the Diplomats in the North American Soccer League. He was a center forward who didn’t shy from a ruckus. He was an entertainer, scoring 38 goals in 81 appearances, and, infamously, dropping his shorts to protest a disallowed goal against the Tulsa Roughnecks in 1978.
Off the pitch, Cannell was the life of the party – and in the 1970s, the party never stopped.
As part of the brigade of Europeans exported to soccer’s new frontier, Cannell left his native England to play in Washington, Memphis, Detroit and then D.C. again before the Dips went under in 1981.
These days, he lives in North Shields, a coastal town east of his native Newcastle. He owned a bar for a few years, but the sour economy took a toll, and he decided to sell. So he turned his full attention to writing a memoir about his soccer upbringing and those days -- and late nights – barnstorming around North America.
“I love America – I’m all Uncle Sam’ed up,” he said during our happy-hour chat at the Elephant & Castle at 19th and I streets Northwest. “I’ve written it as it was – no ghost writer. It’s full of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.”
And much more. Cannell handed me a red box containing the nearly completed manuscript that he soon plans to self-publish in England and make available for purchase to online readers. He would also like to pitch it to an American publisher.
The title: “F&*%$ Hell, It’s Paul Cannell.” (Those are my symbols shrouding the real word, not his.)
While he played for Newcastle United early in his career, supporters at St. James Park serenaded him with that catchphrase. Given his antics and debauchery, it fit. And still does.
The front cover comes with a warning: “This book contains graphic violence, scenes of a sexual nature and drug taking. It may also contain flash photography as well as many interesting stories about the ‘Beautiful Game’ in England and the USA. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!”
Among the people, places and things mentioned in the book: Jerry Lee Lewis, The Who, Johan Cruyff, President Ford’s daughter Susan, Howard Stern, John DeLorean, Black Pudding (don’t ask), Winston’s of Georgetown, Sign of the Whale on M Street, Chadwick’s, White House lawyers, Lorton Prison, corvettes, an elephant on the field, Dulles customs agents, Quaaludes, flying lessons, broken bones, semi-professional disco dancing, and the Newcastle Evening Chronicle headline “Cocaine Cannell.”
“For years, people were telling me to write a book,” he told me. “I started writing one in 1979, but I was still in the game, a lot of the people mentioned in the book were still in the game, and it didn’t seem right.”
Determined to rekindle the project, Cannell returned to Washington last spring to “get the brain cells working again.” He attended D.C. United’s 2011 season opener against the Columbus Crew at RFK Stadium – “absolutely fantastic stadium.” (Are you sure you ditched the drugs in the 1980s, Paul?)
Despite the hard living, he has retained an extraordinary amount of detail: In our conversation, he recalled names of streets, restaurants, front-office employees and newspaper beat writers. He recounted friendships with Washington Bullets and Redskins players, including John Riggins.
He passed through D.C. twice on this recent visit, which also included stops in Memphis and Orlando. For old time’s sake before flying to the States, he dug up his Virginia driver’s license issued in 1978.
Does he still get the urge to knock a ball around?
“Back in England, they say, ‘Come on, have a game!’ Because I am fit. But over time, your hamstring goes, your big toe goes. I tend to talk the game rather than walk the game.”
A 1978 Sports Illustrated profile of Cannell