Statue will forever immortalize soccer in Harrison & for all of West Hudson

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Mention the word “soccer” to Harrison Councilman Michael Dolaghan and it’s like unleashing a volcano of names, dates, championships and legends involving individuals and teams from Kearny, Harrison and East Newark.

At times, his recollections of people and events are so vivid you could believe those events are happening in the moment.

And, to a large extent, they are, as evidenced by the continued dominance of local teams in county, state and regional soccer matches.

That’s why — given the rich legacy soccer has left in West Hudson, from its origins in the teams fostered by the old Scottish mills and German breweries — Dolaghan and friends mounted a fundraising campaign to pay tribute to that legacy by commissioning a monument to that beloved sport.

That monument — in the form of a 9-foot-tall bronze statue of the proto-typical soccer player of West Hudson — will be unveiled Saturday, Oct. 8, at 11 a.m., in Library Park in Harrison, where it will be permanently exhibited.

Friends of Harrison Soccer and the Harrison Education Association, sponsors of the campaign, declare the statue “will stand as a reminder of a proud chapter of Harrison’s past, present and future and of a community’s love affair with a sport.”

The dedication ceremony, its sponsors say, will mark the “celebrating of more than 135 years of history, passion, joy and tears” in marking West Hudson as “the cradle of soccer in America — the sport that has given Harrison and the world so much.”

Like so many others before and after, Dolaghan and folks like former Kearny soccer prodigy and, later, professional Hugh O’Neill, and others too numerous to mention got their start in “the beautiful game” at the Kearny Oval and, of course, the Harrison Courts, adjoining Library Park.

In the U.S., local enthusiasts trace the game’s East Coast origins back at least to the 1880s and the Clark O.N.T. (Our New Thread) team, whose name sprang from the thread mill along the Passaic River in Newark but the team — whose members came from the mill workers — played on the other side of the river in East Newark.

The team captured the championship of the formative American Cup for three straight years and hosted international soccer matches featuring teams from England and Canada.

“Clark O.N.T. is really the epicenter where the game flourished,” said O’Neill. “It was from there that tons of clubs, on both sides of the river, sprung up during the golden age of soccer during the ‘20s and ’30s.”

Hopefully, he said, the redeveloper of the Clark Thread plant can be persuaded to set aside space for a West Hudson soccer museum.

Throughout West Hudson, soccer clubs like the Thistle in Kearny and others sponsored by parishes and local businesses recruited the best youth players for local and regional competition. Dolaghan recalled his paternal grandfather, as the owner of a bar at Fifth Street and Harrison Avenue, sponsored soccer teams in the early ‘50s that competed in various New Jersey leagues.

Many youths also played for their local schools, with Kearny and Harrison high schools typically featuring the premier talent, as attested to by the record number of championship seasons logged by both schools over the decades, notably the 1950 Harrison High squad that recorded an undefeated, unscored upon season as Group II state champs.

And it should come as no surprise that no less than 11 sons of West Hudson have been enshrined in the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame in Fresco, Texas: Archie Stark and Adelino “Billy” Gonsalves (who spent 35 years in Kearny), both installed in 1950; Davey Brown in 1951; George Tintle in 1952; Jim Douglas in 1954; Fred Shields in 1968; Tom Florie in 1986; William “Shamus” O’Brien in 1990; John Harkes and Tab Ramos in 2005; and Tony Meola in 2012.

The last three played in the World Cup during the 1990s when Kearny came to be popularly known as “Soccer Town, U.S.A.”

Kearny’s enthusiasm for the sport has been vividly captured in a 2019 documentary of the same name.

That same year, Dolaghan — perhaps inspired by the fever-pitch intensity of the film — enlisted the aid of the Harrison Education Association and Friends of Harrison Soccer to launch a fund-raising campaign to underwrite the design and fashioning of a “public art statue representing the proud history, success and reputation that this community has achieved throughout the soccer playing communities of the United States.”

Dolaghan said the sculptor, Andre Iwancyzk, a native of Poland who ended up fleeing his native country due to his support of the Solidarity movement, was recommended by Jersey City monument maker John Burns Jr., who has been serving as the campaign’s project manager.

Iwancyzk developed a reputation as a fine artist in the U.S., where he received several commissions for public art projects. No stranger to the West Hudson/South Bergen area, he designed and executed the granite bust of Christopher Columbus resting atop a pedestal in North Arlington’s Columbus Park dedicated in 1992.

“We showed Andre 25 or 30 pictures of West Hudson soccer players primarily from the ‘20s and ‘30s, and he came up with a generic look for a player from that era,” Dolaghan recalled.

In early 2020, Iwancyzk, then living in Somerset, commuted to a friend’s studio in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, to begin scoping out the statue. Soon after, however, complications ensued. The pandemic took hold and rather than driving to New York, a hotbed of COVID-19, the artist opted, instead, to relocate to a Jersey City workplace, arranged with help from Burns.

But the pandemic created supply-chain issues and materials like silica, bronze and granite — all needed to assemble the statue — became scarce and more costly to acquire, driving up the project’s cost by about $40,000 and stretching out its completion time to 14 months, according to Dolaghan.

“We’re still raising funds to cover the overall cost,” he said.

Among the many volunteers working on the campaign, Dolaghan singled out Henry Villanueva as having been “invaluable with his computer expertise in helping get out the word via social media.” And he lauded Celia Mariano, secretary to the HEA and longtime Harrison Board of Education secretary, for a big assist in processing mailers promoting the campaign and handling tax-deductible donations.

Unfortunately, the sculptor died in March.

Iwancyzk was 78.

Learn more about the writer ...

Ron Leir | For The Observer

Ron Leir has been a newspaperman since the late ’60s, starting his career with The Jersey Journal, having served as a summer reporter during college. He became a full-time scribe in February 1972, working mostly as a general assignment reporter in all areas except sports, including a 3-year stint as an assistant editor for entertainment, features, religion, etc.

He retired from the JJ in May 2009 and came to The Observer shortly thereafter.

He is also a part-time actor, mostly on stage, having worked most recently with the Kearny-based WHATCo. and plays Sunday softball in Central Park, New York