Skip to content

From football field to the sidelines, Paul Mariner left a powerful impression

Former England striker Paul Mariner experienced football at its highest level, playing at the 1982 World Cup and winning both the FA Cup and the UEFA Cup. He saw a different side of the game when he took charge of a slumping Toronto FC in 2012.

Former England striker Paul Mariner experienced football at its highest level, playing at the 1982 World Cup and winning both the FA Cup and the UEFA Cup.

He saw a different side of the game when he took charge of a slumping Toronto FC in 2012. But he left a big impression wherever he went.

Mariner’s death, after a battle with brain cancer, was announced by his family on Saturday. He was 68.

“Paul lived a full life and was fortunate enough to represent a group of fantastic football clubs as well as his country, all of which meant the world to him,” read a family statement, which said Mariner died Friday.

Mariner's career took him around the world, from Australia to North America. Away from the pitch, he had a diverse career in both business and television.

An aggressive centre-forward, he scored 139 goals in 339 games for Ipswich, helping the club win the FA Cup in 1978 and the UEFA Cup in 1981. His other clubs included Plymouth Argyle, Arsenal and Portsmouth.

He scored 13 goals in 35 appearances for England, playing at the European Championship in 1980 and the World Cup two years later.

He was initially appointed Toronto FC's director of player development in January 2011, but was elevated to head coach and director of soccer operations after Dutch coach Aron Winter left after a disastrous 1-9-0 start to the 2012 season. 

The team rebounded under Mariner, going 4-2-4 in all competition before injuries and lack of depth took their toll. TFC finished the season on a dismal 0-10-4 run in league play.

Mariner proved to be a polar opposite to the icy cool Wintr. He wore his heart on his sleeve, with a colourful vocabulary to match.

“It’s just the way I roll," Mariner said of his high-energy approach. “That’s my MO (modus operandi). Either you like it or you don’t like it.” 

Toronto gave the coaching reins to New Zealand international defender Ryan Nelsen after the 2012 season. Mariner went on to broadcast MLS games with the New England Revolution.

"An incredible player, coach, and broadcaster, Paul’s unwavering kindness and good humour left an indelible mark on all who knew him and his Revolution family will remember him best as a beloved friend," the Revs said in a statement. 

"A leader both on and off the pitch," added Toronto FC.

With his booming voice and big personality, Mariner was hard to miss. 

"A man who would light up every room he entered," said Mike Masaro, Toronto FC's former senior manager of communications.

And a man who knew the right thing to do. 

Frank Yallop remembers one such personal touch when, at age 17, he was invited to play for the England youth soccer team against Scotland at Ibrox.

When he got to the dressing room, a message from Mariner awaited the young Ipswich Town player.

"Sitting on my seat was a telegram from Paul … saying 'Just play your normal game. Good luck,'" recalled Yallop, who went on to play for and coach Canada.

"I've still got the telegram, which was pretty special coming from an England international and a legend at Ipswich."

At Ipswich, Mariner learned under the late legend Sir Bobby Robson, who called him Nipper as a father would a son. Robson bought Mariner from Plymouth Argyle in 1976 for 220,000 pounds (CAD$380,725).

Mariner, who grew up in Lancashire in northern England, recalled how his manager would think of him whenever Ipswich played at Manchester United or City, Liverpool or Everton.

"He'd say 'Nipper, is your mum or dad coming?' I'd say yeah and he'd say 'Well there's a couple of directors' box tickets.' That's like the royal box for working-class people like my mother and father," Mariner explained.

"He'd always say 'Make sure you give them a wave when you score.' That sort of gives you motivation: A, to play for him and B, to score and wave to your mum and dad. It may not sound much, but in those days it was a massive gesture."

In taking over from Wintr at TFC, Mariner listened to his players. Dress codes were eased, formal team meals reduced and players given more freedom.

But it was still serious business. Mariner paced the Toronto sideline like a caged animal, with every grimace or arm movement speaking volumes.

"You can't say he's not involved in the game," Dutch striker Danny Koevermans said at the time. "I think if you asked him he would rather get some cleats on and go on the pitch to be the 12th man."

Mariner said he was at his best with Ipswich. It was there that he got his first England call-up, won cups and was runner-up in the league.

"I think I probably played my best football there," he said. "I was still going strong when I went to Arsenal but injuries sort of clipped me back a little bit there."

He went on to play in Australia, Malta and New Zealand. While playing for a team in Auckland, he did commentary work for New Zealand television on the 1986 World Cup.

Four years earlier, he had scored for England in a 3-1 win over France at the tournament. The goal helped him equal Jimmy Greaves' six-game consecutive goal-scoring record for England.

"I'm proud to be associated with what I've done in the past," Mariner said. "But I very very rarely talk about the past. I never talk about the past with players. I always talk about the present or the future."

Mariner ended up in the sports agency business after starting up the First Artist sports agency with Jon Smith, a millionaire Arsenal supporter who had just sold his music business.

"He said to me 'What are you going to do, Paul?' I said 'I don't know.' He said 'Well why don't you put your contacts in and I'll put my money in and we'll form a company.'"

Their first two deals were to become the European agent for Diego Maradona and to serve as agent for the England national team's endorsements.

In a 2008 interview with England's Growing Business, Smith recalled getting players to do their laces up on when coming on as a substitute to ensure the boot manufacturers got their time on camera. The agency also persuaded players to celebrate goals in front of certain advertisements.

Representing Maradona was "extremely interesting, to say the least," Mariner recalled. "A very quick learning curve."

While working weekdays for the agency, Mariner commuted to Malta to play for a pro team there. He'd leave Friday, play Saturday and return Sunday to England for another week at the office.

"It was a bit of a tough go but you've got to pay the bills," he said.

He spent the better part of a decade in and out of Japan where he partnered with American Tom Byer in developing young players using a system developed by late Dutch coach Wiel Coerver.

Fate played a large part in Mariner's life.

He was at England's Bisham Abbey National Sports Centre in the late '80s when he was approached about playing for the Albany Capitals of the American Soccer League.

Mariner ended up as an assistant coach at Harvard with John Kerr, who he met and became friends with at Portsmouth. Years later, Kerr invited him up to Boston where Mariner coached in the Ivy League and ran Kerr's local soccer club.

In 2004, former Liverpool defender Steve Nicol asked Mariner to become his assistant at the New England Revolution. They spent five years working together with the MLS side.

Mariner also managed Plymouth during the 2009-10 season.

While emotional on the sidelines, Mariner — a Gemini — said he was always able to switch gears at the final whistle.

"I'm like a 500 Norton (motorcycle)," he explained. "I'm going at 120 miles per hour when the game's going on. But as soon as the referee blows his final whistle, it's as though my engine just turns off and I just go right back to relaxing."


Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter

— With files from The Associated Press. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 10, 2021

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press