So many pieces fell precisely into place, it’s not surprising that the Sounders’ very first season came to be known as Camelot. A huge opening night turnout, the immediate and steadfast bonding between enthusiastic new fans and deeply appreciative and earnest players.
It was beyond what anyone had hoped for, in terms of both wins and bottom line, but also in laying a firm foundation for everything that has been built in the 44 years since. Today, comes the story of a somewhat forgotten figure who, in retrospect, casts a much larger shadow than his diminutive frame or equally slight statistics might suggest.
As is too often the case, we duly recognize people too late, after they have passed. Unfortunately, that is the context of sharing these memories of an original Sounder who died thousands of miles away from Seattle on the Friday before Christmas.
Willie Penman is a name with which you should become familiar. When you next thrice bellow the name of a goal scorer, know that Wee Willie was the first to send a Sounders crowd to its feet, the first to feel the rush of sound and energy follow the ball into the back of the net. It’s as simple as this: Penman scored barely two minutes into the first Sounders home match. And the rest is history.
A True Original
Over 12,000 attended the first meetup at Memorial Stadium that Mothers’ Day evening in 1974. It was a night when the global game planted a flag in Seattle, and the clever little Scotsman began to hammer that pole into the ground, beginning with that strike from distance. But he did much more, exhibiting a flair for operating artfully in traffic and never backing out of a duel, despite standing just 5-feet-6 and weighing 150 pounds. For reference, that is to say, Willie would actually look up to Nico Lodeiro.
For sure, Penman was a big contributor at his stops previous to Seattle. He helped Newcastle United win the 1965 Second Division and promotion to the top flight (for the next 13 seasons), and he sparked Third Division Swindon Town’s unlikely run to the 1969 League Cup final, where they upset Arsenal.
When John Best assembled that first Sounders squad, he weighed character as much as physical ability. Best sought some veteran leadership to guide the younger players along. Next to Jimmy Gabriel, Penman’s CV was the most impressive of that original lot. In 1974, he was nearly 35 and coming off an MVP campaign at Ireland’s Dundalk while simultaneously managing Cheltenham in England’s Southern League.
A Go-To Guy
He was Seattle’s fourth signing, with his announcement coming just four weeks prior to the opening match. Best described Penman as “a man of great ability to make plays and hold a team together.”
“It was a good mix of young heads and older players,” notes Dave Gillett, 12 years junior to Penman and a fellow Scot. “Willie was the kind of player you could give him the ball in a tight situation, closely defended, and he would not lose possession and make a good pass. He always knew his next move before he got the ball.”
Straightaway, Penman was the toast of the town during that first week of Sounders mania. His goal ignited an all-out attacking performance that captivated the crowd and culminated with the Seattle ensemble waving good-night following the 4-0 win over Denver.
“We had talked of getting an early goal before the game,” Penman told reporters. “We got it, didn’t we?”
Short, Sweet Time in Seattle
While he never scored another goal for Seattle, Penman earned applause for his work rate and quick combination play in midfield, with Roy Sinclair and Hank Liotart. A hamstring strain ended his season prematurely with five games to go. The Sounders just missed the playoffs, going 10-6-4 (converting tiebreakers in draws).
Lesley Penman barely remembers visiting her father that summer. She was only 4 when her mother and sister made the long flight to Seattle. She has since seen snapshots taken of Willie while fishing and sharing backyard picnics with his Sounders teammates. They are all smiling, and her dad was a key reason. “He had fond memories of his time in Seattle and absolutely loved the social life and the lifestyle,” Lesely confirms.
“He had a tremendous work ethic and always a smile on his face,” discloses Adrian Webster, another teammate.
“He had a great personality, always happy, in good humor and wanting to learn about a new place,” recalls Gillett. “He was great for team chemistry. He had been around the block and could tell a good story.”
Willie Could Weave a Tale
There’s an entertaining fable of Penman during his Walsall days. While visiting the Old Course at St. Andrews came a last-minute request from the clubhouse to caddy for a VI. An excellent linksman in his own right, Penman volunteered. That memorable day he carried the bag for Hollywood legend Bing Crosby.
There are also stories of Penman still making the rounds. Back-up keeper Ballan Campeau remembers Jack Curran, trainer for both the Sounders and Sonics, bringing 7-foot-2 Tommy Burleson into the locker room. Burleson stooped while going through the door before extending his hand to Penman.
“Willie walked right up, with that huge grin of his, bypassed Tom’s handshake and shook Tom’s knee,” shared Campeau. “Hilarious.”
Penman made a notable first impression, and one of his final moves before returning to Britain left a lasting mark, perhaps never to be repeated. He stopped by the offices of The Seattle Times and personally said farewell to beat reporter Vince O’Keefe.
That was consistent with his character. “He was very popular, very sociable and everybody would say my dad’s got a great sense of humor,” says Lesley. “People call to extend their condolences and then, after a bit, start to laugh, and tell some of his stories.”
He Made a Difference
A people person throughout, Penman retired as a professional player soon after his stint in Seattle, and he soon began a long and successful career in sporting goods sales. In his retirement, he regularly made the rounds to Newcastle and Swindon reunions, first with his wife Agnes and, after she passed, Lesley.
He had been recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s, yet medication was improving his condition and his sudden downturn Dec. 22 was unexpected, says Lesley. Penman died at age 78. He was the only Sounder born before the outbreak of World War II.
His life began in the Fife village of Kirkcaldy, and at age 15 he followed his uncles into the local coal mine on an apprenticeship. An all-around sportsman, Penman might have become a pro golfer or cricketer. Instead he was plucked from the mines and signed by Glasgow’s Rangers, and 14 years later scored that historic goal at Memorial Stadium.
“If not for football, I would still be in the mines,” Penman told The Times’ O’Keefe. “John Best sold me on coming here, and it was too good an opportunity to turn down,” adding, “It seems we have good fans. That was a good welcome they gave us. Everyone has been kind.”
Over the past few years, Gillett and Penman became reacquainted via long distance. Willie Penman never returned to Seattle, but he was well aware of the big crowds coming to Sounders FC matches.
“He was proud of the fact he played here, and he knew how far we’d come,” say Gillett. “And he should be proud, because he helped build the team we have today.”