Pele‘s glittering career closed with three years at New York Cosmos, where he graciously agreed to all manner of requests in the name of promoting the beautiful game, including once leading his team out on horseback while wearing a cowboy hat.
These were surreal times in the North American Soccer League. Celebrities mingled in the dressing room and the Cosmos players were invited to hang out at New York’s wild Studio 54 nightclub.
It was also an era of opportunity for a select group of British footballers who got to know the greatest footballer of all time.
Football icon Pele’s stellar career ended with three years at American side New York Cosmos
Pele – considered one of the greatest players of all time – passed away at 82 on Thursday night
Steve Hunt had made only a handful of appearances for Aston Villa when the Cosmos signed him in 1977, Pele’s final season.
It was a glamorous launchpad for a fine career including spells at Coventry, West Brom, a return to Villa and two England caps, all chronicled in his entertaining book ‘I’m with the Cosmos’ published by Pitch in 2021.
‘I was with the apprentices around the Villa Park dressing rooms when Santos came to play in 1972. Pele came in afterwards and had a picture taken with half a dozen of us. That was him all over, very approachable, very humble.
‘It’s hard to believe five years later I was flying off to Bermuda for pre-season with the Cosmos. The team met me outside the hotel. Pele was immaculately dressed in a lemon suit and I looked like Robert Plant, all rock ‘n’ roll, with long hair. I was nervous. He was great, like I’d known him all my life.
‘If anyone could carry off a pastel suit, Pele could. He had style and time for everybody. It was an impossible job promoting soccer in America but he did it brilliantly.
It was also an era of opportunity for a select group of British footballers who got to know the greatest footballer of all time – pictured above, one of Pele’s former team-mates, Steve Hunt
‘Because of his impact, we were selling 80,000 tickets by the end of that season, and when you see the USA acquitting themselves well in the World Cup, that’s a legacy of Pele. No doubt.
‘I was 20 years old, a bit of a hothead, and in one of the first games, I had what I thought was a good effort on goal. It just skimmed the bar and I was quite pleased but Pele wasn’t pleased. He thought I should’ve passed and remonstrated with me. Unfortunately, I reacted the wrong way.’
(Hunt flipped Pele the finger and stuck his fingers into his ears when Pele continued to chastise him)
‘It wasn’t long before my number went up and I was substituted. I’m a little bit ashamed of what I did. But we got over it. I apologised and we went from strength to strength. You couldn’t fail to learn from him.
‘What stuck out for me wasn’t the tricks and the flicks and his general play, which was superb. But when things weren’t going well, in difficult places against hard-tackling teams he would stand up. He’d do as much running as anyone, even in his mid-30s. He was just a winner.
‘Once, in Washington, I got tackled unfairly and trampled on. Pele decided to wade in and help me out. Before you knew it, there were a couple of Washington players nursing sore jaws. I climbed to my feet when the melee calmed down to find the referee show me the red card. I couldn’t believe it.
‘I said: “What’s going on?” and the referee said: “Steve, I’m sorry, I can’t send Pele off, can I?” I smiled because I knew he was right. There were 50,000 people to see him, not me, so I did the walk. This time, he apologised to me and I made him promise not to do it again!
‘The Warner Bros connection meant there were always celebrities in the dressing room. Mick Jagger came in one day. Anything to do with rock ‘n’ roll and I was there. That was my thing.
‘One day, in walked Muhammad Ali and hugged Pele. It will stay in my head for as long as I live. Two of the great superhuman sportsmen meeting. To witness that was astonishing. I was in awe.
Former Coventry and Aston Villa winger Hunt (pictured, left) celebrates with the NASL trophy
‘I had serious doubts if I was good enough to play among this lot. Not just Pele. There was Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia. Then Carlos Alberto joined us, Carlos was so laid-back and confident. He used to say: “They pay me to be cool.”
‘Without him, I think we might have fallen short in 1977 but how can you fail with those players? I decided to knuckle down and give it everything. They bought me so they must have thought I was good enough and it worked out great.
‘We reached the final. I scored one and made the other as we beat Seattle Sounders. Everybody wanted to win it for Pele in his last competitive game. We wanted him to go out on a high. Perhaps it was meant to be. A little bit like Lionel Messi.
‘We had a reunion at Giants Stadium in 1992, with about 40 ex-Cosmos players, split into two teams playing against Masters’ teams, one from Italy and one from Brazil.
‘Pele kicked off in both games. His first question to me was: “What happened to your hair?” The previous time he saw me, I had shoulder-length hair, when I went back I’d had it shaved. He wished me well and was his normal charming self.
Mike Dillon started at Tottenham before three years at the Cosmos in 1975 alongside Pele.
He then moved to Washington where he played with Johan Cruyff. After retiring in 1980, he coached in the States and later returned to England to run a post office. He now lives in Northern Ireland.
‘I had no idea Pele was going there when I signed, but Warner Bros owned the team and they were ambitious. Two or three weeks later, he joined us.
‘We signed all these star players but we struggled to find a stadium. We played in different places, baseball stadiums. We went to Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium and eventually Giants Stadium. I remember him scoring an incredible bicycle kick in Miami. I was close to him, thinking of heading it when he called.
Mike Dillon was another to play alongside the supremely gifted Pele at the New York Cosmos
‘He was already up, in position. When it flew in, he told me it was the best one of those he’d ever hit. But there was no cheer. The Americans didn’t realise what they’d seen. Not until they watched the replay on the big screens, then a cheer went up.
‘I roomed with Pele once in Washington. Only the once, mind you, the only time he roomed with anybody. I don’t think I did anything wrong. He said he thought he was impinging on my privacy because people were always coming in to ask him this or that, or media to talk to him
‘Just getting to know him was brilliant. He was always polite. Quite funny, ready to smile and joke. There was still plenty of football in him. He kept fit and didn’t smoke. He might have a drink but wasn’t a big drinker.
‘I’ve got a picture from Pele’s last game when he played half for the Cosmos and half for Santos. I’m looking at it as we talk. It was on the cover of the Sports Illustrated magazine.
Brian Tinnion spent a decade in the lower leagues with Workington and Wrexham before joining the Cosmos in 1976. He went on to play in Hawaii, Colorado, Detroit and Wichita. After a coaching career in the USA, he lives in Detroit.
‘I never had any desire to leave Wrexham. We were in Division Three and building a good team but John Neal called me into his office one day, and said Ken Furphy wanted me for New York Cosmos. I told him I didn’t want to go to America but it was a good deal for Wrexham.
He did a good sales pitch, did Ken. “Come and play with Pele,” he said. Well, if Wrexham didn’t want me…
Pele embraces boxer Muhammad Ali (left), one of the most iconic sporting figures of all time
‘We played a 4-3-3 at the Cosmos with me on the right and Giorgio Chinaglia on the left and Pele like a withdrawn centre forward. I always remember Pele showing for the ball in one game and I didn’t pass to him.
Ken was shouting: “Give it to Pele! Give it to Pele!” I said: “There are three men on him.” He said: “I don’t care if there are 10 men on him! Just give him the ball! They’ve come to see him, not you!” I just got the ball and gave it to Pele after that.
‘Pele was a lovely, genuine man. There was nothing big-headed about him. He knew he was a star. He knew he was a good player but he didn’t boast about anything. The press came into the dressing room after each game. They surrounded him and didn’t bother us. He handled it well.
‘He would do anything to promote the game. We would sit on the bus for 45 minutes after a game while he signed autographs. He would sign them until the bus driver went to fetch him and say: “That’s enough.”
‘Ken was right, I should have just given him the ball. He could handle it even with three men on him.’