Were this his native England, Minnesota United coach Adrian Heath wouldn’t sit here unnoticed on a bar stool, as he does when he regularly meets his boss, neighbor and landlord, team owner Bill McGuire, at their favorite local Mexican restaurant to sip supersized margaritas and talk shop.
Everybody who knows Heath back home still calls him “Inchy,” an undersized working-class hero nicknamed in his youth after a pint-size cartoon character. He scored 120 career goals, including two he is remembered for across Britain that helped make first-division Everton great again in the mid-1980s.
“You go into a bar there with him and he’ll never pay for a drink,” McGuire said. “He was a legitimate superstar.”
Thirty-five years later, Heath is the only coach the Loons have known in MLS play. He enters his fourth season entrusted with a two-year contract extension and authority over a team he led last season to a winning record and the playoffs, both for the first time.
At age 59, Heath coaches a new generation in a changing game “because it’s the nearest thing to playing and nothing beats that,” he said. He used his expanded authority to add 11 players — including a starting goalkeeper and striker — to a team that opens its season Sunday at Portland.
He says he’s “all in” as coach and decisionmaker and hopes this job is his last.
“And that doesn’t mean just two years,” he said. “I’m about beyond that because I’m excited not only what we can do, but I’m really excited about the league and where it’s going. … I would like to be here long enough to say the time is now for me to call it a day.”
He and longtime assistant Mark Watson assumed control during a front-office reorganization last fall that made sporting director Manny Lagos the new chief soccer officer focused on United’s youth academy and second team.
McGuire calls it a “logical” change that still requires “collaboration” but also better positions the club to build its future.
Heath has faced fan criticism that included calls for his dismissal in his first two seasons and beyond. Fueled by what he calls “more opinionated” social media, it’s still nothing like England, where police escorts have led coaches out the back door for their safety.
Year 3 brought better players and success as well as a new contract and promotion for a man who’s not only McGuire’s coach but also a Wayzata tenant: He and his wife, Jane, live in a house McGuire owns on what Heath calls “McGuire Hill” near Lake Minnetonka and McGuire’s own home.
The two exchange late calls after games and meet for drinks often to discuss and debate soccer and their team, to which Heath has added new goalkeeper Tyler Miller, striker Luis Amarilla and for which he still pursues Argentine midfielder Emanuel Reynoso.
“I don’t want to be in charge of everything because football clubs are too big now,” Heath said. “But the way the club grows, I’ve always believed somebody eventually has to have the final say. I’m not a huge believer in committees because, well, the committee doesn’t lose the job when the results don’t go well, you know?”
Labor and love
His granddad, Len, worked England’s railroads and scrubbed off each day’s grime in a garden bucket behind their three-bedroom council home in the village of Knutton in a place called Newcastle-under-Lyme known for its coal mines and pottery. His father, John, was a gas-pipe fitter.
From each, Heath learned about a hard day’s work. From grandparents, parents, uncles and sisters all living under the same roof with no indoor plumbing, he learned something else.
“People say we didn’t have a lot in them days,” he said. “One thing we did have is a lot of love in the house and everybody got on. I wouldn’t change that for anything.”
On Sundays, they gathered in the front parlor and sang along to show-tune records only his granddad was allowed to play on a big gramophone. Those times inspired a lifelong love for music in a guy who still fancies himself a singer.
“I can sing anything, from Rod Stewart to Frank Sinatra,” he said.
His dad and granddad first took him to see the local team, Stoke City, when he was 4. When he was 11, his gym teacher praised his ability in a school report, predicting he could achieve anything he chose. Those life-changing words made him imagine a life beyond the pits or in the military.
At 16, Heath bet on himself and soccer by signing a pro contract with his home team, whose games he had attended for years.
“When I look back, probably the best day of my life,” he said.
His 5-6 size inspired his nickname from the short-lived Hanna-Barbera cartoon “Inch High, Private Eye.”
“If I go home, nobody calls me Adrian,” he said.
Today he still can list people, including a teammate, who told him he was too small.
When someone gestured toward his shoulder, Heath interrupted and asked: “Which shoulder? Both shoulders. I had chips on both of them.”
When he was 21, an Everton team not that far away in Liverpool paid a club-record $900,000 transfer fee to sign him. Baby-faced with a mullet hairstyle highlighted blond and very short shorts, he starred seven seasons for Everton, The club won its league twice, the 1984 FA Cup and UEFA Cup Winner’s Cup, and meant everything to a city rocked by unemployment and a heroin epidemic.
“I had some talent and I made the best of what I had,” Heath said, “but I’ve been very blessed.”
Three days after he was selected to play for England’s national team, he tore his ACL and missed both that chance and a season.
“I was quite a Liverpool supporter and he played for that Everton team,” said United goalkeeping coach Stewart Kerr, who was 10 at the time. “I remember him. He was absolutely a nuisance. I didn’t like him at times, but I appreciated him.”
His opportunistic goal in a dramatic 1984 League Cup draw with third-division Oxford, and a lunging header that defeated Southampton in an FA Cup semifinal, remain among the most revered goals in Everton history.
“I still get stuff to sign every week through the mail, from England, South Africa, Australia,” Heath said. “Invariably, it’s one of them two goals.”
Heath played for seven teams, then coached three more. When an interim job coaching Coventry City didn’t become permanent, he followed former Stoke City director Phil Rawlins to the U.S. in 2008 to start from scratch a USL team in Austin, Texas, that had no players, no name, no stadium.
“A real leap of faith,” he said.
Heath and the Austin Aztex relocated to Orlando after two seasons. They won two USL titles in four winning seasons after that, then ascended to MLS in 2015 with Heath as coach. He was fired during the second season with a 4-8-4 record. Months later United hired him to lead it into MLS because he was accomplished, affordable, knew well an expansion team’s challenges and is personable.
“I don’t like long faces, I don’t like miserable people,” Heath said. “I like enthusiastic people. I try to create a good environment for players to work. I have a saying on the training ground: Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. And over a 10-month season that’s hard.”
A longtime Timberwolves season-ticket holder who has studied pro-sports operations stable and not, McGuire extended Heath’s contract because of progress made last season that included a first-round playoff loss.
“I’m not one who believes all you’ve got to do to change things is you change a coach,” McGuire said. “I know teams that change coaches every year. That’s crazy.”
Heath has remained relevant because he daily watches what United’s Brent Kallman calls an “insane” number of games, both in MLS and worldwide, and knows how to motivate today’s young players without a heavy hand. He uses modern-day analytics but ultimately trusts what he always has: his own eyes.
“If we have to go long, we’ll go long,” Kallman said. “But he wants us to play soccer that’s easy on the eyes. We play the ball on the ground and we move the ball fast.”
Heath said he appeals to a player’s nature, remembering what motivated him when he was a star.
“How would your mom and dad feel today watching you play?” Heath asked. “That resonates more than me screaming and shouting that you played badly.”
He also has found himself at home in Minnesota, where he spends summer Sundays off on Lake Minnetonka. He was delighted with a lakeside North Shore getaway last fall and enjoys his neighborly discussions with McGuire over margaritas at San Pancho overlooking Long Lake.
“I’m more in than I’ve ever been,” Heath said. “I love the team. I love the city. I love this guy. I just want to keep moving it on.”