Friday, March 22, 2013

Original Orlando Lion: Justin Bryant

Last March we did a three part series on the original Orlando Lions (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), the club that preceded the Lions the City Beautiful know today. After stumbling across our original series, former Orlando Lions goalkeeper Justin Bryant reached out to us with some kind words and a few pictures from his playing days (see bottom). Here is the interview that ensued: 

What venue did the Orlando Lions play in during your stint with the club? 

"We played in the Citrus Bowl. This was before the renovation for the 1994 World Cup, so it was a little smaller and didn’t have the press facilities it has today."

How would you compare the atmosphere back then to an Orlando City SC matchday atmosphere today? 

"No comparison. There were ‘soccer fans’ in 1987, but no supporters’ culture like there is today. I would say the crowds back then were almost entirely young kids and their parents, whereas today, there are lots of young adults who want to create an atmosphere and be part of the experience, rather than sit and watch passively. Orlando City fans today know how to put on an atmosphere. I’m hugely impressed by it, and also a little jealous. It would have been great to have had support like that in the 80s."

What was your time with Boreham Wood FC in England like? And how did it compare to your time with the Orlando Lions?

"Borehamwood was a tremendous learning experience for me. I came back a completely different goalkeeper. It wasn’t glamorous – my debut in 1988 was in front of about 300 fans, and the pitches were mostly mud – but it was serious, direct, physical football, and there was no faking it. The style was completely different to the slow, possession-based style the Lions played. I learned how to deal with crosses, how to kick, how to communicate, all by being slung in at the deep end. I was also fortunate to work with Alex Welsh, who was and still is an excellent goalkeeper coach. I was an outsider at Borehamwood. Americans hadn’t yet streamed across the Atlantic en masse at that time, so I had to overcome some doubts and stereotypes, and play my way into the fabric of a team. I feel like I did that pretty successfully."

Can you elaborate on the time you had in South Africa that led you to write Season of Ash

"I spent a few months in 1993/94 visiting my dad, who had moved to South Africa when I was just a kid. I had begun writing seriously during my last year at Borehamwood, in 1991, and by the time I got to South Africa, I’d had a couple of short stories published in literary journals and was trying to write a novel. I had newly developed political sensibilities, and the first-ever free Presidential election was coming up. I actually returned to the US before the election, but I’d seen enough of the hope, fear, and violence that had swept the country to have the idea for my novel. I wrote the first draft in six months, but revised it for years, and didn’t get it accepted for publication until 2003. Fiction writing is 20% creativity and 80% revision, in my experience."

How has soccer allowed and helped you to progress into a writing career? 

"The two developed independently, but in recent years, I’ve begun to write more about soccer, and it’s an obvious advantage to have had a playing and coaching career. My pieces in both XI Quarterly and The Howler (forthcoming in Issue 3) are excerpts from the memoir of my playing days that I’m working on. There aren’t a lot of ex-players who have MFAs in creative writing, so I’ve found a nice niche. I write a column for Goalkeeper Magazine, an English publication which was originally a print magazine but is now online only. I’ve done pieces for some good blogs too, such as In Bed With Maradona and Talking Baws, and of course my own, The Goalkeepers’ Union. I enjoy feature writing, and I’d like to get the memoir published eventually. But I think of myself primarily as a fiction writer, and don’t have any ambition to be a fulltime soccer journalist, covering games and interviewing players and coaches. I’m close to finishing my second novel, and also have a story collection that I wrote as my thesis when I was in the MFA program at New York University. As for making a living, that’s still primarily goalkeeping. Until recently, I was a goalkeeper coach with Downtown United Soccer Club in New York City. I’ll soon be moving to Raleigh as a staff coach with Triangle Futbol Club and Director of Goalkeeping for NC State Women’s Soccer. I still play, too. I played for the Brooklyn Gunners, an amateur team, for the last five years, and will be looking for a good team to play for in Raleigh." 

During your tour of Scotland, how did the atmosphere compare to the American soccer atmosphere back then? 

"Night and day. As I mentioned, Lions crowds, while enthusiastic, were fairly passive. There was no singing, no chanting. The Tour was in 1988, back when British stadiums had standing terraces. This was particularly noticeably when we played St Mirren and Dunfermline Athletic, who had smaller, more intimate stadiums. While the crowds weren’t huge – probably five or six thousand – they kicked up a hell of an atmosphere. There is nothing like terraces. Even the best atmospheres today can’t compare to what it was like back then."

Would you be able to give a brief recap/highlights of the match against Dunfermline Athletic? 

"Great night! Winston had started the previous games (Celtic, St. Mirren, Aberdeen), and I had played the second halves. John Higgins, the manager, decided that I deserved to start the last game. The terrace behind my goal was right on top of me and completely full, and very loud. We were under pressure from the start, and I made a few saves I was happy with. We scored against the run of play, but then Dunfermline equalized with the last kick of the half, a deflected shot that gave me no chance. I took my seat in the dugout for the second half, happy with how I’d played on the Tour, and with Winston in goal, the game ended 2-2. But Dunfermline had gone to the trouble of having a trophy made for the winner, so they announced the game would go to penalties. As soon as I heard that, I turned to John Higgins and said, “Put me in goal for the penalties.” John asked Winston, Winston graciously said he was fine with it, and I saved the first two penalties in front of that packed terrace and we went on to win the shootout. That’s how the Orlando Lions won their first (and only?) trophy. I have no idea where that trophy is today. I hope John Higgins has it. The Tour was almost singlehandedly his doing." 
A final note on the man behind the original Orlando Lions: 
"I think people should be aware of how Mark Dillon basically willed the Lions into existence. He started with an idea and made it a reality in a remarkably short period of time. John Higgins was his assistant coach, and was at every training session and game. I doubt Mark or John ever made a nickel out of it, and even if they did, it would have been poor compensation for the hours and energy they poured into the Lions. It was a genuine labor of love. They created a piece of Florida soccer history from the strength of their passion for the game."

Thanks so much to Justin for sharing his story on the original Orlando Lions, just a small piece of Central Florida's rich soccer history. Make sure to check out his book and other writings which we linked to in our article.

Click photos below to enlarge: 

Orlando Lions' only trophy. Win against Scotland's Dunfermline.
John Higgins hand on Bryant's head.

Follow Justin on Twitter. Check out his debut novel Season of Ash

Photo credits: Justin Bryant himself 

1 comment :

  1. This is really great to see! I grew up watching these guys and I remember the names like it was yesterday. I was so glad that Orlando City used the Lions name too.


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