By Dennis Miller
One of the best things about growing up playing for the Ballistic United Soccer Club was the chance to play for and learn from different coaches as you aged through the ranks.
They were glorious times and the source of many a great memory. As we have grown older – older than the coaches when they were coaching us – we now must endure their passing.
It is always a gut punch when it happens, but while we mourn, we also search back in our memories and embrace the time we played for the coach.
Such has been the case since the December 8 passing of Ian Lang at the age of 79.
“The one thing he always had was a love for the game and a love for his players,” said Gordon Lang, Ian’s son. “Growing up, if there was a game somewhere, we were there.”
Lang came to the United States from Scotland in late June of 1965 and settled in Hayward with his wife Margaret. In 1969 the Lang’s moved to Pleasanton with their kids.
For most of us, it was the Under-16 level where we had our chance to play for Ian.
It was the first time for us playing for a non-U.S. born coach and that meant it was to be some exciting times. Ian was the first coach most of us had played for that suited up and scrimmaged with the team.
He ran circles around us, frustrating to the point that we might have gotten a tad bit physical. If you got the best of Ian with a hard tackle, you best watch your back the rest of practice!
It provided a unique experience where we would learn on the fly and grow as a player through game experience, rather than technical work.
“He was still the best player on the field when we were in Under-16’s,” said Kevin Crow, a former professional and United States National Team member, and now the Technical Director for Ballistic. “He has a great sense of humor – he was always funny.”
I can echo Crow’s feelings as I was a member of the team with Crow. He also brought up another valued trait of Ian – honesty.
“He was always supportive, but always honest,” said Crow.
Indeed. During both games and practices, Ian was always there to critique his players, something that might not fly in this day. And while the pointed criticism might sting, Lang would always follow up later with praise. You knew he cared about your development as player and a person.
“I think that’s something that’s missing today,” said Gordon of his father’s style of coaching. “As a coach you have to be totally honest and that should still work today.”
There is a reason why Ballistic teams back and the 1970’s and 1980’s won a lot – coaches like Lang. Each had a different story, some big on motivation, some not.
“He was never big on speeches,” said Gordon. “He was more of a ‘you know what to do, now go out and do it.’
Of the many fond memories, I have of playing for Lang was when we made the trip to Mexico City for one of the biggest youth tournaments in the world.’
Knowing the elevation level in Mexico City would be a challenge, Ian went out and brought in fellow Scotsman and close friend Bobby Clarke to coach, as well as a pair of players from Fremont – Grant Clark and Ron Lasteri – and George Fernandez from Newark.
We knew we would have some intense practices leading into the tournament, but I don’t think any of us could have imagined what was coming.
It was as if the two coaches were transformed into drill instructors. I remember all of us taking turns puking in between conditioning drills during the first week of practices. At the end of the day, you just wanted to go home and lay down for the rest of the day, which was not a normal attitude for 15-year-olds.
In the end, that conditioning was the key to us eventually winning the tournament. We didn’t take a big team numbers wise down to Mexico, but once there we were put to the test, losing one player to injury and two more to quarantine.
We advanced to the finals to take on the Mexican national champs with only 12 players. Within 10 minutes of the game, we had a player red carded, and another injured, leaving us with only 10 players for the rest of the game, played in front of thousands of fans.
We battled back, twice falling behind and twice fighting to tie the game on two Crow headshots. We battled through overtime, with the game coming down to kicks from the spot.
Right from the get-go, the Mexican goalie was leaving his line and committing to a corner before the ball was kicked. When it came time for my kick, I approached the ball, swung my leg, then stopped just before hitting the ball.
The goalie dove to one corner and I rolled the ball into the other. We started celebrating, but the ref blew his whistle and ordered me to retake the kick.
Next thing I knew, Ian was sprinting from midfield ready to take the ref apart. I vividly still remember what happened next. Ian looked at me and said, “Forget this, we’re getting out of here. We don’t deserve this.”
I looked at Ian and told him calmly, which is surprising given my emotional nature – “I will make it – just let me take the kick.”
Ian looked back and said, “you better.”
I took it, made it, and perhaps celebrated a bit too much, running up to the goalie while he laid on the ground, and well, expressing myself. When I got back to the team, Ian was the first to me and simply said, “well done.”
Two kicks later we got the win, shocking the mass of fans at the game.
It was a moment, and a tournament that has always was a focal point of conversation our group of players would have with Ian whenever we talked over the next 40 years.
I can still clearly recall how Ian helped carry us through the week, creating an incredible soccer memory.
“It’s still one of my favorite games of my life,” said Crow, who ended playing in a pair of Olympics, countless other National team games, and several professional championships. “It will be impossible to ever forget that.”
It was a trip down memory lane to chat with Gordon. We laughed a lot telling stories. We all lost a tremendous former coach and friend onb December 8.
For Gordon, it was much more.
“The big thing for me – I lost my pal,” said Gordon.
That was another great thing Ian gave to us – a coach when we played for him, and friend for life afterwards.
RIP Ian – you never be forgotten.