Steve Hunt: Telling Pele to “F*** Off”

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:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EQYmnOA5umE

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.

 

Advertisements

Laurie Abrahams – From Tailor’s Shop to NASL

Laurie Abrahams was one of the most prolific goalscorers in the NASL. Here is a profile of his career in the states. This article was originally hosted by Gav on his excellent Les Rosbifs blog. Many thanks to him, and go check out his blog.

In today’s time, when talent is highlighted at the under 9 level and players at the top level rarely have any experience of real-life work before becoming highly paid superstars it is worth remembering the people who came through a different way.

Laurie was born in Stepney, East London on the 3rd of April 1953, and had a tough upbringing and although talented on the football field was only playing semi-professionally for non-league Barking. His main job was working in a tailor’s shop, measuring up the customers, making trousers, and selling suits.  He has stated that he had no desire to play professionally as he felt he wouldn’t like the business. He actually only signed for Charlton Athletic in 1977 at the age of 24 in 1977.

After one season with Charlton, making 17 appearances upfront and scoring twice he was approached to move to the NASL and sign with the Boston based franchise, The New England Tea Man (the team’s odd name was due to the fact that they were owned by the Lipton Tea Company, and also to relate to the Boston tea party of 1773). The Lipton Tea Co. Were owned by Unilever, who in turn owned Charlton’s training ground, so when it came to putting a team together Charlton were the first port of call. The Tea Men were a new franchise and had decided to build their team around largely English talent. Irishman Noel Cantwell was named as Head Coach and Manchester United legend Dennis Viollett his assistant. Joining Abrahams on the team would be fellow striker Mike Flanagan (on loan from Charlton), midfielder Roger Gibbins, 37 year old goalkeeper Kevin Keelan, and ex England international Keith Weller amongst others.

Abrahams’ debut season in the NASL was a success, with the team winning their division and qualifying for the playoffs at the first attempt. The team was very dependent on Flanagan who notched a hugely impressive 30 goals from just 28 games. Abrahams played 17 games, notching a respectable 7 goals and 10 assists. During the season Abrahams had started to develop a reputation as being a bit of a difficult character, with even Noel Cantwell stated that he had rubbed him up the wrong way, and wasn’t sorry to see him go at the end of the season. Cantwell stated “he was a bit of a Jack-the-lad, he would play well for a week or two, then disappear, then come back and do something exceptional. I don’t think he took football seriously”

At the end of the season Abrahams left. The contract that the Tea Men had signed would mean that if he stayed another season they would have to pay more money to Charlton which they were unwilling to do.  Abrahams was approached by the Tulsa Roughnecks, another team who had debuted in 1978, and after he impressed in a friendly against Portsmouth was signed. The Roughnecks were owned by oilman Carl Moore, whose son Joe-Max would go on to play for Everton, and had caused a bit of a stir in the pro sports franchise desert of Oklahoma. Like the Tea Men, the Roughnecks were a largely “English” team under Head Coach Alan Hinton (ex Notts Forest, Derby, and Wolves). Abrahams would be paired upfront with Roger Davies, with David Nish at the back alongside Terry Darracott.

The 1979 season saw Abrahams start well in Tulsa, scoring 10 goals in 15 games, but another clash of personalities, this time with Alan Hinton saw him traded mid-season to Anaheim, home of Disneyland, and the California Surf NASL team. The Surf were not one of the NASL’s more successful franchises, and frequently only scraped through into the playoffs before being knocked out in the first round. His half season with the Surf showed his worth with 8 goals from 10 games. His first full season (1980) in California under English Head Coach Peter Wall was successful, scoring 17 goals from 28 games and making 17 assists. Abrahams was the undoubted star of the Surf franchise, wand it was felt that if he played well, the team played well and vice versa. He was also not averse to having a sly dig at his coach stating in the press that “we’ve played well and delighted a few people, but the coach shouldn’t be too pleased with himself. Some days we go out there and get slaughtered”. At the end of the season Wall was fired and replaced by fellow Englishman Laurie Calloway.

The close season also saw Abrahams’ first experience of indoor soccer. The Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL) had been founded in 1978 playing a winter schedule, and had proved to be hugely successful in terms of fan attendance, with some indoor teams outdrawing their outdoor counterparts. The indoor pitch was roughly the same size as an ice hockey rink, with 6 players per team, endless substitutions, rebounds, and a healthy dose of razzamatazz. Eager to cash in on this boom for indoor soccer, the NASL launched its own indoor competition to be played in the winter.  Abrahams had had talks with the MISL’s Hartford Hellions, but terms couldn’t be agreed. Instead Abrahams stayed in Anaheim and played the 1980-81 NASL indoor season with the Surf, scoring 14 goals in as many games. The Surf won their indoor divison, but again lost in the playoffs at the first hurdle.

The 1981 season was not a happy one for Abrahams. Although he featured heavily in the first half of the season, by the second half his relationship with the club had broken down and he found himself increasingly sidelined and hardly featured. The club were reputedly trying to trade him to another team, but he had had a “no trade” clause inserted into his contract making this impossible. From this point Abrahams has admitted himself that his attitude could have been better. The Surf management went around each player asking them if they wanted to play, Abrahams refused to say, not because he didn’t want to play, but upset that anyone would question his desire to play. The management took this as a refusal to play and told him that he would not be involved in any future games. Then on a road trip, the management backtracked telling him he could play, at which Abrahams refused to play. His ex-coach at California Peter Wall has stated that “Laurie was a weird guy with a strange personality, but a brilliant finisher and quick”.  He also stated that Laurie had a difficult attitude and could easily rub people up the wrong way, and wasn’t the world’s best trainer. Another insight was given by his English teammate Mark Lindsay, who said that one day Abrahams out of the blue was going to go into the management office and demand a better contract. If they refused he was going to quit and go back to making trousers.

At the end of the 1981 season the Surf folded, an all too common experience for players in U.S. professional soccer until the MLS provided a more stable environment. The players from franchises who had folded were placed in a special NASL “Dispersal Draft”, where they hoped they would be picked up by another NASL team.

Abrahams was picked up by the Roughnecks, and head back to Tulsa for the next 2 NASL seasons, forming a formidable striking presence with fellow English import Ron Futcher. By this time the future of the NASL was in doubt, and the quality of play and fan interest had dropped sharply. However, these 2 seasons would prove to be Abrahams most successful in his career. In his first season he featured regularly, scoring 17 goals in 31 games. His relationship with the Roughnecks Welsh coach Terry Hennessey was by no means perfect, as Hennessey was always upset with Abrahams’ efforts in training, but he just felt he could play for him. Even Hennessey came close to losing it with him, once saying to him “you are the hardest player I have ever had to manage, when you stop scoring goals you will be gone”. Abrahams responded, somewhat disparagingly towards his teammates, “all you have to do is make sure these clowns get the ball to me”, which at least gives an insight into his levels of self-confidence. Mark Lindsay has also said that maybe some people didn’t get Abraham’s rather dry sense of humour.

It was to be the 1983 season that would be the high point, probably for pro sports in Tulsa. Like most franchises by this stage, the Roughnecks were existing on a shoestring budget (they actually had the lowest budget of any team in the NASL), and were thought to have one of the weaker teams, stuffed with rejects from other teams. Despite this they won their division, with Abrahams again prolific scoring 11 goals from 22 games. They excelled in the playoffs reaching the 1983 Soccer Bowl against the Toronto Blizzard. 58,452 fans saw the Roughnecks defeat the Blizzard 2-0, and claim an unlikely championship.

The close season saw the Roughnecks in danger of folding; only a fan appeal saw them able to field a team to defend their 1983 triumph. Abrahams was gone however, being traded to the San Diego Sockers for midfielder Peter Skouras and reputedly, 2 used footballs. Abrahams scoring touch deserted him in San Diego, with him scoring only once from 19 appearances. Abrahams was largely used from the bench, and said that “San Diego was a very strange team, with a lot of factions”.

After the season the NASL folded, leaving Abrahams ninth in the NASL all-time points scorer list with 76 goals and 63 assists from 162 games. The San Diego Sockers jumped ship to the MISL, a move that made sense as the Sockers had a higher average attendance playing the indoor version of the game. Abrahams was sold however, moving to the once great New York Cosmos for $25,000. The Cosmos by 1984 were playing in from of 4 figure crowds, the stars had gone, and Warner Bros. weren’t able to continue funding the club. They had failed to post their bond for the prospective 1985 NASL season, and instead joined the MISL. Abrahams played 18 games and scored 7 goals before the Cosmos sold him mid-season to the Kansas City Comets, one of the stronger teams in the MISL. This proved to be a good move as after 33 games of the season the Cosmos folded.

Abrahams spent 2 seasons in Kansas City, scoring 38 goals from 55 games, before being reunited with his 1983 NASL Championship coach Terry Hennessey. Hennessey was working in Australia, acting as Head Coach of the Melbourne Croatia in the NSL. Abrahams spent the summer there, scoring 5 goals from 9 games, before returning to the MISL for his final season as a pro. He signed another strong team, the Wichita Wings for the 1986-87 season. After 23 games and 14 goals, he retired at the end of the season, aged 34.

Abrahams was an example of a player who made a career for himself in America. Unknown in his home country he ended his NASL career in ninth place in the all-time points scoring list with 216. He played 167 NASL games, scoring 76 goals and registering 64 assists, and won one NASL Championship. When asked about the secret of his success in America he stated that one reason was it “was easier scoring goals in San Diego in the summer, than Hull in the winter”. He continues to live in America, where he is Assistant Soccer Coach at Irvine Valley College in California.