English island deep in heart of Texas - The Province

Former star's managerial career brings him -- and others -- to Austin

By Marc Weber

When you phone the Austin Aztex information line, the impression you're left with is not so much bucking horse as it is Buckingham Palace.

No Texas twang to greet you. Just a lady with a proper English accent -- struggling through the Spanish menu translation.

"She's not only British," reveals Aztex head coach Adrian Heath, "she's the owner's wife."

British-born Austin businessman Phil Rawlins bought the USL-1 expansion club that has a decidedly English flavour. Austin (0-0-1) hosts the Vancouver Whitecaps (0-1-1) tonight (5:30 p.m., USLlive.com).

Rawlins is an owner and director of English Premier League side Stoke City, and the EPL club has a formal partnership with the Austin franchise.

The Aztex hope to benefit through the sharing of players and training information, and the Potters hope to tap into the expanding Texas player pipeline.

"We feel like we've got a big opportunity," said Heath, the longtime Stoke City and Everton midfielder who most recently served in a caretaker coaching role at Coventry City. "It's a hotbed of football and we're on our own down here."

Staffordshire-born Heath came to Texas a year ago after being appointed coach of the Aztex. One of the first things he did was visit Vancouver.

He wanted to check out how the Whitecaps ran things.

"They are one of the standard-bearers and people like Bob [Lenarduzzi, Caps' president], he's like Mr. USL," said Heath, noting how happy he was for Vancouver's successful MLS bid.

"Going back to when I was a kid, Vancouver was always synonymous with North American football. Alan Hinton was there and Alan Ball; Peter Beardsley. When you saw the names of the players that were coming over, they were some of the better players in our country at the time."

Heath also made his way to the Dallas Cup youth tournament two weeks ago and was impressed with Vancouver's residency team, which lost the final to Brazilian side Sao Paulo.

"A great ambassador for the USL considering I watched two or three huge clubs play and the Whitecaps were miles better than them," said the 48-year-old, adding that the Aztex are working on a residency program of their own.

Three English players and a Welshman dot the Aztex roster, among them forward Gifton Noel-Williams -- a former Watford and Stoke City player who brings a veteran presence at 29 -- and former Manchester United academy player Eddie Johnson, who is looking to revive his career at 24.

"Eddie would be the first to admit he's lost his way a bit, but he's a very good player and one we hope will move on from us," said Heath, expressing excitement over the chance to build a team from scratch.

If this season can provide half the thrills of this past weekend for Heath, it will have been a successful one.

His club's season-opening draw with Minnesota was sandwiched between massive wins for Stoke City, who all but secured another season in the EPL, and Everton, who advanced to the English F.A. Cup final on penalties.

Heath scored two of Everton's most memorable goals en route to the 1984 F.A. Cup title -- a 2-0 win over Watford. He played in the '89 final, too.

"I have to tell you that it couldn't have been a better weekend for me," he said. "There was a tear in my eye when that last penalty went in."

mweber@theprovince.com
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