The words still ring in Gavin Wilkinson‘s ears.
“You’ll never be a professional soccer player.”
The words from his father lit a fire under the 12-year-old Wilkinson, igniting a hardworking motor that runs as strong now as it did during his childhood in New Zealand.
Hard work and success have been traveling companions throughout his life.
“For me it was always about the grind, the hard work and perseverance,” Wilkinson said. “I see it as a point to prove. That I can do it. That I can be successful.”
That work ethic drives Wilkinson as general manager of the Portland Timbers. The wheeling and seemingly always dealing Wilkinson works long hours, many of them on the phone or traveling around the world to scout and sign players in the constant effort to improve the Timbers and the Portland Thorns.
Wilkinson, 40, might not receive much credit from outside the organization, but his tireless pace helped the Timbers surprisingly reach the Western Conference championship series and the Portland Thorns win the National Women’s Soccer League championship in 2013.
“We’ve got a hardworking culture here as a team and he personifies that,” Timbers owner Merritt Paulson said. “This guy lives it. He eats it. He breathes it. He drinks it.”
Wilkinson and coach Caleb Porter scouted and signed two newcomers — forward Gaston Fernandez and defender Norberto Paparatto — that have the league buzzing about the Timbers taking the next step toward winning a championship. Both players are from Argentina, where Wilkinson unearthed midfielder Diego Valeri before the 2013 season. And it was Wilkinson’s action that put the Timbers in position to select Steve Zakuani in the re-entry draft.
Valeri produced a scintillating 2013 season, leading the team with 10 goals and adding an MLS-leading 13 assists on his way to being selected to the MLS Best XI squad and named league newcomer of the year.
Wilkinson also engineered the deals to acquire center midfielder Will Johnson, goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts, forward Ryan Johnson, center back Pa Modou Kah and left back Michael Harrington. All were key components in the Timbers’ rise in 2013.
“Gavin and I work hand in hand — every day on every thing,” Porter said. “There’s a lot of overlap. We work very well together, because we see the game similarly.”
Wilkinson and Paulson surprised the soccer world again when they signed goalkeeper Nadine Angerer to the Thorns roster for 2014. Angerer won the Ballon d’Or award as world’s top women’s soccer player for 2013.
Through a keen eye for talent, shrewd negotiating and nearly nonstop hard work, Wilkinson has helped guide two teams to the top level of professional soccer in the United States.
“I think Gavin has a tremendous work ethic. I believe that oftentimes, not enough credit is given to that characteristic,” said Richard Motzkin, executive vice president at Wasserman Media Group and agent for, among others, Porter, Ricketts and Darlington Nagbe. “Gavin is passionate about the Timbers and that contributes to the hard work.”
• • •
The younger of Brian and Rose Wilkinson’s two boys, Gavin learned the value of hard work while growing up in the diverse South Auckland, New Zealand. He describes his neighborhood as lower middle class, but a tough area of town.
“Our place was broken into three times, one of which was by a kid in my classroom,” Wilkinson said. “I only figured it was one of them when they started wearing our clothes to school.”
Brian Wilkinson was a baker who worked long hours, and Rose worked three jobs, cleaning and catering, to help make ends meet. Rose said the hard work was a value she learned as a child and passed down to Gavin and older brother Andrew.
“On one of the cleaning jobs, Gavin would often come with me at 5 o’clock in the morning and help me for two or three hours before he went off to school,” Rose Wilkinson said by phone from Wellington, New Zealand.
Gavin landed his first job delivering discount coupon books at age 8, followed by a stint as a newspaper delivery boy. He was cleaning bathrooms at age 13.
“We didn’t have a lot of money when Gavin and his brother were little,” Rose Wilkinson said. “So the boys had jobs and that meant they could do a little bit more with their own money. With Andrew, he wouldn’t mind buying the cheapest pair of soccer boots. With Gavin, he’d want the best boots available.”
Gavin loved soccer, which he started playing at age 4, but the sport is very low on the “coolness” scale in New Zealand, where rugby is considered the national sport and the All Blacks are one of the world’s dominant teams.
“Soccer was a sissy sport where I grew up,” Wilkinson said. “Rugby is a blue-collar sport, so I played rugby to show that I could play. But I wasn’t motivated to play rugby.”
Instead, Wilkinson always dreamed of playing pro soccer.
“My dad would say, ‘You’re too slow. You’re never going to be good enough,’ ” Wilkinson said. “I saw what he said as an obstacle.”
• • •
Wilkinson was a member of New Zealand’s U-19 and U-23 national teams before signing his first pro contract with Perth Glory in Australia. After bouncing around and playing in Ireland, Portugal and Hong Kong, Wilkinson joined the new Portland Timbers squad in 2001.
The center back played for the team for six seasons, one of the longest consecutive tenures in franchise history. Anchoring the defense, Wilkinson finished his Timbers career ranked fourth all-time in games played, minutes and fouls.
“Gavin would be the first to admit he wasn’t overly blessed with pace,” said Bobby Howe, Timbers coach from 2001-05. “So if you’re a defender and you’re not quick, you have to be right. Gavin was right most of the times. Above all was his ability to communicate with those around him. He was like a coach on the field.”
Many of those fouls were a result of Wilkinson’s playing style, which could be generously described as hard-nosed and physical, though some opponents might use a darker term.
“Some people would say I was dirty,” Wilkinson said. “I would say I was slow to arrive and a little bit late to most challenges. But I enjoyed the physical element to the game.”
Regardless of how Wilkinson’s on-field play is characterized, one aspect was nearly indisputable: Wilkinson, similar to his days in South Auckland, didn’t back down from a challenge.
“He didn’t take any nonsense from either side,” Howe said. “Ours or the opposition.”
Wilkinson’s first two games with the Timbers were against archrival Seattle and he quickly immersed himself in the rivalry. He needed six stitches to close a gash above his eye after absorbing an elbow to the face. The next night, apparently unfazed, he slammed into a Sounders player and required more stitches, to close a cut on his chin.
“I had to man up going against him, because he was definitely a man and I was a boy,” said San Jose forward Alan Gordon, a teammate of Wilkinson’s in 2004 and 2006. “He made me grow up and toughened me up a little bit.”
Wilkinson moved into coaching as a player/assistant coach under Howe in 2005. After Howe was fired that year, Wilkinson was under consideration to be the head coach, but he decided to remain as a player/assistant coach to Chris Agnello in 2006. Agnello resigned after one disastrous season, and then-team president John Cunningham approached Wilkinson again about becoming the team’s coach and general manager.
“He was well respected and he had good integrity,” Cunningham said. “He was smart and had good instincts. I will say he was well respected by his peers and his fellow players, the coaching staff and the soccer community.”
This time, Wikinson agreed.
• • •
The new coach/general manager faced a challenge off the field soon after he took the job.
As an alternative to the sometimes boisterous and unruly Timbers Army section of the stadium — some fans had complained about excessive drinking and profanity — the Portland Timbers Official Supporters Club was created to represent a more family-oriented atmosphere.
“We were trying to find a balance,” Wilkinson said. “It wasn’t about eliminating any one or two things. It was a matter of trying to create a place for everyone. I think that was taken out of context, where one was meant to overshadow the other. That was never the concept.”
Gavin Wilkinson has dealt with controversies and endured criticism during his tenure as coach, general manager and interim coach of the Portland Timbers.
Some in the Timbers Army took offense to the creation of the new group, and things escalated into a war of words between management and the Timbers Army.
“There were some pretty hard feelings in the very early stages,” said Maggie Cleary, a 33-year-old local schoolteacher who has been a Timbers Army member since 2003. “I think some people thought management was trying to get rid of the Army. They had made it pretty clear, calling us things like hooligans. It was kind of ridiculous, because they didn’t know the type of people that were coming to the games.”
The row was largely resolved after management met with members of the Timbers Army, with Wilkinson coming away with a greater appreciation for the passion of the fans. However, another move by Wilkinson prompted a fresh round of complaints from some fans following the 2008 season.
As part of his never-ending search to improve the roster, Wilkinson invited forward Roger Levesque to play in an exhibition game as a trialist. Just one problem: Levesque had been playing for the archrival Seattle Sounders and was widely considered Public Enemy No. 1 for numerous transgressions — real and rumored — by Timbers supporters.
When word that Levesque would wear a Timbers uniform reached the hardcore supporters, they were apoplectic. As Levesque stepped on the field for the friendly against Toronto, one sign hanging inside the stadium read, “Real fans hate Levesque.”
“At that stage, I didn’t know the level of resentment for the player,” Wilkinson said. “That’s one of the learning curve situations and there should have been greater communication. Ultimately, the fans are a lifeblood of the organization. You don’t want to do something that disengages them or makes them feel they are being disrespected. I probably wouldn’t do it again.”
The controversies created hard feelings among a segment of fans, some of whom were quick to display their antipathy toward Wilkinson years later, after the team joined Major League Soccer in 2011.
• • •
Never has Wilkinson’s perseverance been tested more than it was in the summer of 2012 after Paulson fired coach John Spencer and named Wilkinson interim coach.
The criticism surfaced after Wilkinson traded popular goalkeeper Troy Perkins to Montreal for Ricketts on Aug. 7, 2012. Porter, the incoming coach, was the catalyst behind the decision, but Wilkinson took tremendous heat for calling Ricketts “an upgrade,” words he now regrets using.
Some fans, still fuming over the incidents from years before, directed a fusillade of criticism toward Wilkinson, also calling him out for the acquisition of Kris Boyd, a million-dollar flop. Boyd hasn’t been the only miss by Wilkinson and the coaching staff. Forwards Kenny Cooper and Jorge Perlaza were high-profile failures, while midfielder Franck Songo’o, outside back Kosuke Kimura and center back Mikael Silvestre all came and went after brief tenures.
“He doesn’t make the same mistake twice,” Paulson said. “When he makes mistakes, he acknowledges it. That’s a quality I look for in leaders. A willingness to acknowledge mistakes and correct them.”
“That was lowest point since I’ve been here, without a doubt,” Wilkinson said of August 2012, when fan criticism led to a Twitter hashtag and stadium signs that said “GWOUT.”
The Timbers were winless in their first seven games under Wilkinson, including a 5-0 loss at Dallas, arguably the worst loss in their MLS franchise history. A 3-2 loss at New York in mid-August — in a game the Timbers had led 2-0 — propelled the fans to a new level of vitriol.
Fans created the Twitter hashtag “#GWOUT”, which started trending after the loss at New York. Paulson rushed to Wilkinson’s defense, lashing out at some fans on Twitter. The exchange heightened tensions, with #GWOUT signs popping up in the Timbers Army section of the stadium before the Timbers’ home game against Vancouver the next weekend.
Wilkinson ignored the signs as he walked off the field at halftime and into the tunnel under the north section of the stadium, where the most passionate critics were located. But he admitted that the signs hurt.
“That was lowest point since I’ve been here, without a doubt,” Wilkinson said. “You never want to be the one people are criticizing.”
Paulson, incensed by the criticism, engaged in a now-legendary argument with a small group of fans on Twitter, calling those fans “morons” and “idiots.”
Paulson left no doubt that Wilkinson was firmly entrenched as general manager.
“I always had a faith that it would all work out and knew the ship would get righted and Gavin would play a big role in righting the ship,” Paulson said.
In the face of criticism, ridicule and people questioning his competency as a general manager, Wilkinson kept plugging away. He said he fell back on what he always does when he is challenged: Work harder and prove the doubters wrong.
“I was in the office very early in the morning and leaving very late at night,” he said. “I wasn’t sleeping that much. It was like, ‘Let me show you. I’m going to work twice as hard.’ My family was coming down and having dinner with me in the office. Their understanding was key, because if I didn’t have that, I’m not sure if I could’ve gotten through it.”
• • •
No matter what type of soccer event he’s involved in, Wilkinson admittedly can’t prevent the competitive juices from flowing. He’s been seen on the field engaging in juggling and “head tennis” competitions with the players. He usually wins, but that’s because he’s been known to change, fudge and outright ignore the rules on the fly for an advantage.
“I play a couple of games indoor each year,” he said. “I’m physically not capable of being competitive. That doesn’t mean I won’t try occasionally, but I have to be careful. I have to look after a brand, and the last thing you want is a general manager kicking somebody out on the field at some remote park and causing a problem.”
Flip Wilkinson’s personality script, and a doting husband to Heather and father to Kienan and Brooke surfaces, one who will go to great lengths to accommodate family, friends, staff, players and fans.
Gavin met Heather, an elite college sprinter, at an event celebrating top athletes in New Zealand. Gavin said Heather asked him on a date in 1996, and the two were married in 2002.
Wilkinson says his wife’s perseverance over the years has helped him through tough times. As he played in a number of different countries, she remained at home. She left her family in New Zealand to join him when he came to the U.S. and now is raising the kids in Portland.
The Timbers have created a “family” atmosphere inside the home locker room at Providence Park, thanks in part to Wilkinson’s willingness to go the extra mile. He knows that a happy player usually results in a hardworking and productive player.
“You treat people the way you want to be treated,” Wilkinson said. “I’ve been that player that’s gone to a different country and had experiences that were phenomenal and had experiences that were dreadful. Some of it is feeding off our own experiences in the game.
“We brought in a player that didn’t speak any English who felt more comfortable playing Xbox with my kids than talking to me. The common language was the Xbox. Here they are, having dinner at my place and sleeping over. I didn’t want the kid to come and stay at a hotel and not know anything. So he spent hours playing Xbox with my kids.”
• • •
Most of Wilkinson’s critics are silent now, after the Timbers’ success in 2013. The hard work and global travel — he spent time in a half-dozen countries in the past 18 months — paid off.
Porter was named coach of the year, Valeri was selected as newcomer of the year and Ricketts was named goalkeeper of the year. Ricketts and Will Johnson joined Valeri on the MLS Best XI squad. Harrington was called up to the U.S. men’s national team in January.
The Timbers’ success was a breakthrough and 2014 looks bright, but for Wilkinson, the search for players and improving the team goes on.
“I understand that I’m part of a growing sport and part of a learning process within the sport. The moment you think you know everything, the moment that you think you’ve arrived is the moment that you’ll be flat on your ass,” Wilkinson said. “I try to teach my kids, there’s no such word as can’t. Everyone knows it’s a parenting technique. But I believe in that saying.”
— Geoffrey C. Arnold