Steve hunt played for the New York Cosmos during a period when soccer threatened to break into the mainstream of America sports. Here is a review of his time rubbing shoulders with Pele, Chinaglia, Beckenbauer et al, and how he became a Cosmos legend.
This profile was originally published on Gav’s excellent Les Rosbifs blog. Check his blog out, and thanks to him for hosting it.
Steve Hunt: Telling Pele To “F*ck off”
The New York Cosmos’ 1977 NASL roster was undoubtedly one of the most star-studded in world soccer. A strike partnership of Pele and Giorgio Chinaglia, Brazilian 1970 World Cup legend Carlos Alberto at the back partnering Franz Beckenbauer, a smattering of glamorous South Americans, and ex-Aston Villa reserve Steve Hunt flying down the wing.
Yes, Steve Hunt. One of the stranger things that the NASL through up, was the sight of journeyman English players and American college kids lining up with some of the (albeit aging) stars of the world stage. Usually the journeymen knew their place and remained essentially the same standard of player that they were in the UK. Hunt however was different, and the 21 year-old who signed for the Cosmos in 1977 would go on to become a star in his own right in America.
Hunt was born in Willenhall, a suburb of Birmingham on the 4th of August 1956 and signed for Aston Villa as a schoolboy. Success was hard to come by, and by the age of 21 he had made only 7 league appearances in the first team, with 4 being starts. Disillusioned by the lack of playing time in England he was looking around for a new club when he was approached after a training session by a representative of the Cosmos. Evidently Cosmos’s European PR was not up to scratch as Hunt has stated that he didn’t know who the Cosmos were, or that football was even being played in America, but Hunt was soon persuaded to ditch Birmingham for New York City. He was also different than a lot of the English players who joined NASL teams in the fact that he signed a permanent deal, rather than just a loan deal to cover the summer season. The transfer fee was reported as being £30,000. The idea of playing with Pele was a unique selling point which Hunt could not refuse, even though he had only been married a month. This to an extent represent Pele’s role in establishing football in America. If the NASL was good enough for Pele, who could turn it down by saying it was sub-standard?
Hunt arrived for pre-season training in spring 1977 and quickly realised that he had made a good choice when the training camp was held in the sunny climes of Bermuda. This was further enhanced when his first 2 games for the club were away in Honolulu and Las Vegas. Hunt was a first team regular with the Cosmos, playing as a winger or 3rd forward alongside Pele and Chinaglia. He may not have had the skill of the some of his team mates, but he impressed the crowd with his speed, stamina, and dogged determination.
Although the 1977 Cosmos were a talented team, they were also a team with a collection of large egos and questionable temperaments, none more so that the combustible Italian forward Giorgio Chinaglia. Hunt himself fell foul of his quick temper (and fists). Daring to criticise him in training by calling him “lazy”, Chinaglia responded by punching him in the face, resulting in an all out fight between the pair of them. When the dust settled they sat down for a clear the air chat, and in fact got on reasonably well for the rest of the season. Hunt’s work rate, and his concern about the lack of it in some of his more talented teammates would also lead him to be seen telling Pele to “F*ck off” during the middle of a nationally televised game against the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Hunt had been performing tirelessly on the wing, Pele had decided to tell him that he wasn’t using his head and needed to slow down and think about the game more. Hunt responded with the above comment and raised the ire of some of his teammates for speaking to Pele in such a manner. Hunt had also got some fans backs up mid-season by making an obscene gesture towards them after being booed, although he managed to win them round again.
Hunt was one of the team’s best performers over the season, and was lively in every match. He also registered his first hat-trick in a 6-0 mauling of Toronto Metros-Croatia. He also played and scored in the record beating match against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, when 77,691 fans attended, the largest crowd figure in the history of soccer in America and Canada.
Off the pitch, the Cosmos were also the hottest tickets on the New York social scene, in part thanks to some clever early examples of cross-marketing by their owners, Warner Bros. Cosmos games were frequently attended by rock stars, film stars, politicians, and celebrities of all description, leading to Hunt having conversations with Mick Jagger and Henry Kissinger in the locker room, as well as attending the infamous Studio 54 nightclub on a semi-regular basis.
For his debut season Hunt played 23 games for the Cosmos, scoring 8 goals and registering 10 assists, with only 2 players playing more regular season games. After breezing through the playoffs they were to meet the Seattle Sounders in the 1977 Soccer Bowl, a match that would also be Pele’s last as a professional. Hunt started the game and although no-one would dislodge Pele from the headlines, Hunt was the undoubted star of the show. The game began inauspiciously for the Cosmos with Seattle dominating when in the 19th minute, a piece of impudence and quick thinking by Hunt would break the deadlock. Seattle goalkeeper Tony Chursky had nipped the ball off Hunt’s feet on an attack and rolled the ball out to kick the ball upfield without checking on Hunt’s position. Hunt nipped out in front of Chursky, stole the ball and rolled it into the empty net to put them one up, and leading to Pele lifting Hunt up in the air in celebration. Watch his cheeky goal here:
The Sounders equalised, and with the match heading for extra time Hunt began another tireless sprint down the wing. Reaching the touchline after outpacing the defenders he put in an inch perfect cross for Chinaglia to head the winning goal. Hunt’s teammate Terry Garbett said of Hunt’s performance; “thank Goodness for Steve who was dynamite. It was a great exhibition and a great goal”. Hunt was awarded the MVP as the best player in the Soccer Bowl, which was some achievement when you think of who he was sharing the pitch with. Hunt had ended his first season in New York with a championship ring (the U.S. equivalent of a medal), and a high profile that had ended up with Hunt appearing on T.V. commercials in the states. He had stated that he would leave the Cosmos as the end of the season, but he was persuaded to stay.
The 1978 season would be another successful one for Hunt, featuring in 25 games, scoring 12 goals and making 12 others. This made him the 3rd Highest points scorer in the Cosmos with 36 (2 pts per goal, 1 per assist), behind Chinaglia and Vladislav Bogicevic. The Cosmos again reached the Soccer Bowl where they were to face the Tampa Bay Rowdies. Before the game Hunt revealed that he would be leaving after the game to return to England, and he asked the team to make the victory for him. In the end they beat the Rowdies 3-1 in front of 75,000 fans. Before the game fans held placards imploring him not to leave as he stood in the tunnel waiting to make his entrance and he stated that he had tears in his eyes at the thought of leaving. He also nearly broke down after the warm up, but managed to keep his composure. With the Cosmos winning and the last few seconds of the match counting down on the clock, Hunt sunk to his knees on the Astroturf. He told reporters that he was thinking of his time in New York, the fans, and the good times he had had. He was also endearingly modest stating “I hope i’ve done enough to leave a bit of a memory”.
The fact that Hunt was leaving the team stunned a lot of the fans and his teammates. He had been talked early on in the 1978 season about leaving at the end, even though he would have to take a drop in salary of he went back to England. He stated that he saw the NASL as a stepping stone towards being a Division 1 player. He was living in New York, had a large salary, a well appointed apartment provided by Warner Bros, a personal fanbase, and was rubbing shoulders with celebrities on a weekly basis. Where could he go to better, or even match that?
In the Autumn of 1978 Hunt signed with Coventry City (as a Coventry fan I would have done much the same thing), largely because he had always dreamed of playing for England, and good as his performances were in America they went largely unnoticed back home. By playing regularly in the first division he would greatly increase his chances of getting a call-up, so he said goodbye to New York and hello Coventry.
By 1982 Hunt was still at Coventry, and still cap-less (he would later win 2 England caps in 1984), when he received an offer to go back to New York for the 1982 NASL season. The deal was that New York would pay Coventry $100,000 to sign him, with a clause stating that Coventry could buy him back at the end of the NASL season for the same amount. Hunt was delighted to return, having realised that he missed New York as soon as he had returned to England. In turn the Cosmos were delighted to have him back. Ahmet Ertugrun, the Cosmos President, stated that his return was “a most generous gift to our fans and the team of an electric and popular player”. He also stated that it was “one of the historic moments of our club”, which is high praise when you’ve had stars the calibre of Pele playing for your team previously.
They say never go back however, and the Cosmos and NASL that Hunt returned to was not the same as the one he had left 4 years earlier. By 1982 the NASL’s peak had gone, crowds were down, the calibre of play and players was poorer, and general interest at all levels was beginning to tail off.
Hunt featured in 22 regular season games, scoring 9 goals and making 15. The Cosmos again reached the Soccer Bowl, which they won again, 1-0 against the Seattle Sounders. 4 years earlier in Hunt’s last Soccer Bowl appearance the attendance was 75,000; this year’s game drew only 22,364 fans. Hunt decided to return to England, for him “Pele had gone, and the magic and the crowds went with him”. Hunt returned to Coventry for 2 years after the game, before playing out the rest of his career with West Bromwich Albion. He retired due to injury at the age of just 30 in 1986, before moving into a career in coaching.
Hunt’s career as a Rosbif was remarkable. He played with some of the world’s finest players, in front of huge crowds, met celebrities and politicians, and even starred in ad campaigns. On top of this he also won a championship in every season he played abroad, and was greatly loved and respected by football fans the entire country over. The experience helped him as a player, with him stating that playing with the Cosmos “gave me new confidence and a better understanding of the game”. He also probably played in probably the only 2 seasons where football in America really threatened to break through and challenge the hegemony of American Football, Baseball, and Basketball as the 3 major sports. To paraphrase the famous saying – “may you play in interesting times” – Steve Hunt certainly did.