The Aston Villa reserve who stole Pele’s thunder in his final professional match
One morning in 1977, Steve Hunt was preparing for another fixture as part of Aston Villa’s reserve team when he was called into manager Ron Saunders’ office.
Hunt was just 20 at the time, a winger with just seven first-team appearances and one goal to his name and more accustomed to turning out for the second string.
However, the trip to Lancashire to face Preston’s reserves was going to have to wait. Hunt, Saunders informed him, was wanted elsewhere.
“He’d spoken to somebody from New York Cosmos – a lovely guy named Joe Mallett, who was the assistant manager of New York Cosmos, who I’d never heard of,” Hunt says while appearing on episode 11 of series two of MUNDIAL’s award-winning Spotify Originals podcast, GIANT.
“He says, ‘You’ll be joining in a boom time. It’s really taking off. You might like a few of the players we’ve got, there are a few of them that can play a bit.’
“I said, ‘Oh yeah, who’s that?’ He says, ‘There’s a guy named Pele.’ Then came the silence, and I thought, ‘Well, there’s only one.’ I said, ‘Really? Where do I sign?’
In Three Continents, One Pele, MUNDIAL celebrate the main man’s recent 80th birthday by telling three lesser-known stories underlining his cultural impact across the globe.
Hunt arrived in New York to witness first-hand how Pele made soccer sexy to the American masses, having been suddenly catapulted into the most glamorous and cosmopolitan city in the world at the time.
While Pele was busy knocking about with Andy Warhol, wearing fur coats and generally looking fucking amazing, Hunt rocked up in what he likes to describe as “the works”: long hair, a tank top and, erm…clogs.
“Also I’d been bitten by my friend’s Rhodesian Ridgeback dog before I flew,” he says. “He bit my ear, I looked like Van Gough with this big bandage around my ear that I had to meet Pele with.
“As we approached I saw him dressed immaculately, walked over and gave me the biggest smile, the biggest hug, and said, ‘Welcome. Pleased to have you.’ That was it, I never looked back from that moment.”
Getting to train and play alongside football’s original GOAT offered Hunt a unique glimpse into what made Pele so special, although the brilliance of his talent was actually, in theory, quite straightforward.
“He played the game simple but to an exceptional standard,” Hunt says. “He made things look so easy that to the normal footballer, even at pro level, were hard.
“In between were his little bits of magic that nobody else had. Little dummies and little feints, letting things go through his legs and running around the other side of players.
“And he had this other part to him as well which really surprised me – it shouldn’t have done because of the level he got to – but he was a tough guy, a real tough guy. He wouldn’t stand being kicked around.
“He made sure he’d put his foot or elbow in at times and let them know that he wasn’t there to be messed with.”
As a team-mate, Hunt never had to feel the ferocity of Pele’s elbow, but he soon discovered that the Brazilian’s status came with other strange stipulations.
“I took a shot when he thought I should have passed to him. He had words with me on the field. Of course, it was in Portuguese, and me being the hot-headed idiot at the time, I put my fingers in my ear and told him to eff off.
“Within seconds, and I mean seconds, my number was up: off the pitch. You don’t do that to the great man.
“I was very embarrassed, I still am to this day for doing it, but what I do remember about it was Pele sat me down and said, ‘Look, young boy, you’re going to learn from this and you’ll get stronger. Next time you won’t do it.’ And I said, ‘No I won’t, I promise you!’”
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If playing alongside a three-time World Cup winner wasn’t already daunting enough for Hunt, his sense of being starstruck was only heightened by two new signings who were also familiar with the Jules Rimet trophy, Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto. Meanwhile, the Cosmos’ owners, Warner Bros, were also inviting more illustrious guests to their games.
“The turning point for me that season was when obviously Beckenbauer came. He weren’t bad either, you know?!” Hunt laughs. “I thought this can’t be right; me, the lad from Aston, and we’ve got Beckenbauer and Pele!
“And then Carlos Alberto made the threesome – and we never looked back after that. We got better and better and better. You can’t beat class like that.
“The owners were obviously Warner Bros, and they were bringing celebrities to meet Pele. I heard somebody shout, ‘Where’s the English guy?’ I looked around and it’s Mick Jagger.
“I thought, ‘Oh my life!’ All he wanted to talk about was how I’d played. I wanted to talk music and The Stones!”
Hunt may not have earned the reputation of the likes of Pele and Beckenbauer, but his performances on the wing soon earned their respect, so much so Pele lept to his defence after he was on the receiving end of a particularly nasty tackle.
“That’s when Pele came in doing his Muhammad Ali shuffle and threw a few punches. Of course, the referee, after all this, got out his red card and would you believe it sent me off!
“I said, ‘I haven’t done anything.’ The ref just winked at me and said, ‘Steve, I can’t send him off,’ which is true I suppose! There’s me heading down the tunnel and there’s Pele still with his big grin on his face. He did apologise after.”
By this stage of his career, Pele was 37 and was ready to call it a day. But he still had unfinished business in New York.
He arrived in the Big Apple to help popularise soccer around the States. Coming towards the end of his final season, the Cosmos were attracting crowds of close to 80,000 fans. That part of Pele’s mission was complete; now he had an all-too-familiar aim: success on the field.
“What he wanted to do is go out as a winner again,” Hunt says.
New York Cosmos reached the North American Soccer League final in the post-season play-offs, where they were to face Seattle Sounders, paving the way for Pele to bow out in glory.
He probably wasn’t expecting to be shown up by a boy from Birmingham who had told him to fuck off earlier in the season, but Hunt had other ideas. In the 19th minute, he robbed Seattle goalkeeper Tony Chursky of the ball to score a bizarre opener and was lifted into the air by Pele while still holding aloft the boot he had just lost in his skirmish with Chursky.
The Cosmos went on to win 2-1, with Hunt also providing the assist for Giorgio Chinaglia’s winner to earn the MVP award. Watching his opening goal back, the surreality of the occasions seems to strike Hunt.
“There’s my shoe in the air, and there’s Pele lifting me up with my shoe, look! It’s a fantastic moment and it’s such a unique goal as well.
“It’s beyond belief really, it’s like you can’t breathe. You’re that excited and exhilarated about what’s happened – you’ve scored, and not only have you scored in a final, you’ve scored in Pele’s last game.
“When he was holding me aloft I just thought, ‘Pfft, six months ago I was off down to Preston reserves.’”
Listen now to Three Continents, One Pele to hear more from Steve Hunt, plus brilliant stories about how Pele halted a civil war in Nigeria and the day he faced off against Plymouth Argyle. Just don’t blame us if you end up spending far too much money on a New York Cosmos shirt.