Paul Cannell, the high-scoring center forward of the NASL's Washington Diplomats, strode into the locker room before a recent game against Vancouver with a monstrous black cowboy hat over his dark locks. "This is so you can tell the good guys from the bad guys even if you don't speak English," he shouted gleefully at his multinational, polyglot teammates.
For the 24-year-old Englishman, wearing a black hat is like carrying coals to Newcastle, where, in fact, he grew up, the son of a butcher, and where he played First Division soccer before coming to Washington. Cannell is recognized by teammates and opponents alike as the roughest player in the league. He also ranks seventh in scoring in the NASL and is one of the game's more outspoken characters.
Cannell made a forcible impression early in 1976, his first season with the Dips, by colliding so violently with Cosmos Goalie Bob Rigby that Rigby was sidelined for the season with a broken collarbone. Cannell also scored 13 goals and two assists that year.
Contract troubles kept him at Newcastle United last season, but Cannell came back this year, having been purchased outright by the Dips. He picked up where he left off, reinstalling himself as the darling of the Washington fans and unnerving keepers with elbows, hips, head and body. Cannell is the first player this season to be suspended by the league for a game, a result of acquiring 20 penalty points. Depending on the severity of the infraction, one to five points are assessed for each yellow warning card given a player. It seems certain that Cannell will amass 30 points before long and thus be set down for two more games; he might even reach 40, meaning he would miss three additional contests.
The Dips' coach, fellow Englishman Gordon Bradley, is concerned about this prospect. "Paul missed three games with a bad shin, then the penalty game," he says. "With a possible five more games he could be out, we'll hurt. He's the key of our attack. I hope he stops it."
After opening the season with an 8-2 record, the Dips lost six straight before beating New England 2-1 last Wednesday night in a game in which Cannell had a goal and an assist. Even with their slump, which is attributable in part to the four games Cannell missed, the Dips are still in second in the Eastern Division of the National Conference, behind the 14-2 Cosmos.
Cannell, who is a well-mannered, jovial man off the field, recently stood at the sideline during practice, balancing a cup of Gatorade on his head. "I love a rough game, that's me game all the way," he said. "That an' scorin' goals. I like to stir up the broth, make things happen."
Team president Stephen Danzansky, who was watching Cannell's balancing act, tried to explain what made Cannell one of the biggest flakes outside of Battle Creek. "Paul's not an evil flake—he's, uhm, an exuberant flake," he said. "He's not a media flake either, he's a real one. He's not a great flake yet like Rodney Marsh [ Tampa Bay] or George Best [ Los Angeles]. But I'm sure he'll get there."
Whatever brand of flake he is, Cannell is a tough competitor. His card-drawing fouls are not cheap shots—cutting down blind-sided defenders or stepping on downed players. It is his excellence around the goal that gets Cannell into trouble. When his team is on the attack, he lurks in the penalty area in front of the goalkeeper, pacing and trotting, drawing a defender or two with him—he's often double marked—poised to run in and leap high in the air to head in a goal from a centering pass or a corner kick. This leads to collisions with goalkeepers coming out to grab the ball.
"He's just amazing in the air," marvels Bradley. "He can even deflect a shot with his head to the foot of a waiting teammate."