When you think of some of the huge names of 1970’s world football, Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff and Carlos Alberto would certainly find their way onto your list. But Steve Hunt probably wouldn’t figure. Yet for a few years at the end of the decade, he was considered more valuable than all of these men.
Hunt was born in Birmingham in 1956. His first club was his favourite team, Aston Villa, where he made his first team debut in April 1975, when he came on as a sub for Chico Hamilton in a 4-0 win at Sheffield Wednesday. Villa were a Second Division club at the time. That win secured promotion back to the First Division after an absence of eight years, finishing second to Manchester United.
He earned a starting place for the visit of Sunderland three days later. Ron Saunders had taken over as manager from Vic Crowe that season and led them to League Cup success, their first trophy for 14 years. Crowe had given Hunt an apprenticeship, although not until Hunt’s Mum rang him to complain about the club backing down from an earlier promise.
It was clear from the start Saunders didn’t rate the player, and it seems the feelings were mutual. Hunt had to wait a further year to make his First Division start when Liverpool were the visitors. Hunt’s only previous appearance that season had been as a sub at Anfield. A week later he scored his first senior goal in a 2-2 draw against West Ham at Upton Park.
He would be seen in a Villa shirt just twice more during that year, with his final game being a 2-0 home win over Millwall in the League Cup Quarter Final in December 1976.
For a lad struggling to find a place in a First Division side it seems incredible he would end up playing alongside Pele, Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto, Neeskens, and, for at least three matches, Cruyff. So how did this happen?
One day Saunders told Hunt there was a guy in the canteen who wanted to talk to him. Saunders then said the guy was from New York Cosmos, he’d made an offer and Saunders had accepted it and that was that. Saunders said the club needed the money to build a stand at the Witton End.
Cosmos offered £50,000 and this was too good for the club to turn down.
The man in the canteen was Joe Mallet. Mallet had been Birmingham City manager for a year before working as assistant to Stan Cullis in the late 1960s. By the mid-1970s, he was assistant to Gordon Bradley in the States with New York Cosmos.
Mallett had been given the task of finding a left-sided player to provide width for a team of superstars in the North American Soccer League (NASL). Mallett had originally looked at Tommy Hutchison, then at Coventry City, but decided he was too old. Charlie Aitken, the all-time record appearance holder at Villa, had moved to Cosmos and he recommended Hunt.
Hunt later told Pat Symes in Backpass magazine;
“Within 10 minutes, Joe, a wonderful, wonderful man, had sold me the idea and I was off on an incredible adventure.”
He admitted to Symes he didn’t even realise they played professional football in the US, but once Mallett mentioned Pele played for the Cosmos, there was no holding the 20-year-old Hunt back. He had only been married for two months but his wife, Sue was very excited about the opportunity. So off to the States they went.
Hunt was the youngest in the squad by some distance, but what a squad they had. As well as Pele there were two other World Cup winning captains, Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto. Pele had arrived the season before in what one writer described as “the transfer coup of the century”. He was there to promote ‘soccer’ to the Americans.
For Hunt’s first season Cosmos changed their coach. Former Sheffield United, Blackburn and Watford boss, Ken Furphy took charge. He immediately recruited former Italian international, Giorgio Chinaglia from Lazio.
Hunt and the Italian didn’t get on at first.
“I thought he was lazy”, Hunt said
In turn, Chinaglia was frustrated with the lack of service from the wings. But soon enough Hunt understood his game and the two got along better.
“in goal-scoring terms, he was the best striker I ever played with.” He told Symes.
The stars of the Cosmos soon treated Hunt like he was one of them. Pele treated him as if they’d known each other for years and Beckenbauer even looked after Hunt’s Mum when she flew out to see him.
He never regretted the move, particularly as his first two matches were trips to Las Vegas and Hawaii. He scored against Hawaii too. The Las Vegas game saw him line up against Eusebio.
When Pele scored a hat-trick against Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Hunt laid on two of the goals. He then scored a hat trick himself three weeks later when they hit Toronto Metros-Croatia, 6-0. Toronto had won the Soccer Bowl the previous season.
Cosmos finished second in the Eastern Division and made it into the post-season play-offs. Wins over Tampa Bay Rowdies (who included Rodney Marsh and Steve Wegerle), Fort Lauderdale Strikers (who included Gordon Banks) and Rochester Lancers saw them reach the Soccer Bowl in Portland.
Strikers’ coach, Fareham-born Ron Newman felt Hunt was one to make the difference against his team.
“we pretty much kept Pele out of the game, but Beckenbauer and Hunt killed us”.
Hunt scored twice in an 8-3 win. He also scored against the Lancers to reach the final match of the season.
Hunt was one of three Englishmen in the Cosmos team. Tony Field had been at Blackburn and Sheffield United with Furphy. Terry Garbett had also been at the same two clubs and had played under Furphy when he was at Watford.
They were up against Seattle Sounders, who couldn’t match the stars of the Cosmos, but had former Wales captain, Mike England. They also boasted the experience of Norwich City’s Mel Machin. They were coached by Scotsman, Jim Gabriel, who’d been at Bournemouth with Machin. Gabriel had also brought with him Mike Cave and Steve Buttle from Dean Court. The Sounders also had three Scotsmen including Jimmy Robertson who was at Spurs with England.
The Soccer Bowl ’77 was to be Pele’s final game as a professional footballer. He was given the honour of entering the pitch with the other players all lined up in their positions, holding the ball and running around the centre circle milking the applause.
On the artificial pitch, Hunt put the Cosmos in front after 20 minutes. It was a cheeky bit of play from the former Villa lad. Initially, he’d been sent clear by Chinaglia but the speed of the ball off the pitch allowed the keeper, Canadian Tony Chursky, to collect it at Hunt’s feet.
Hunt’s momentum took him beyond the bye-line. But as Chursky nonchalantly dribbled the ball across his goal, Hunt nipped back onto the pitch, dispossessed him then ran the ball into the net. It was a great moment for the young man as Pele lifted him up in celebration.
Tommy Ord fired the Sounders level within four minutes. With just 12 minutes remaining, Hunt provided some classic wing play on the left. His cross into the six-yard box was headed in by Chinaglia and Cosmos had won 2-1.
Hunt received the MVP for his performance. Imagine that? A year earlier, fairly unknown, he could barely get in the Aston Villa side, now he was voted more valuable than Pele, Beckenbauer or Alberto.
He told Symes;
“That was the biggest moment in the game. We were not a great team that season, despite all the players we had, but we improved as a unit and once we reached the Soccer Bowl, we wanted to win it for Pele. Everything went right for me that day.”
With the season over by August, Hunt thought about returning to England to try and resurrect his career at home. Cosmos were keen to persuade him back to the States. In his autobiography “I’m with the Cosmos”, Hunt explains how Cosmos co-founder, Ahmet Ertegun, who was also president of Atlantic Records, called him and invited him to the England v Italy international.
“I explained I was 100 miles away in Birmingham, and that it might all be a bit of a rush. ’No problem, Steve, I’ll send a limo’ came the reply. That was how Sue and I came to be chauffeured to Ahmet’s luxury London home, where Franz Beckenbauer was waiting with him. It was quickly apparent that I was wanted at Cosmos.”
The 1977 season saw Cosmos break plenty of records. They brought in former Sunderland, Manchester City and England winger, Dennis Tueart. Chinaglia now had incredible service from both flanks.
“Giorgio said me and Dennis were the best two wingers he had ever worked with.”
Chinaglia scored 34 goals that season. Hunt also got amongst the goals. He scored a hat-trick against Gordon Banks as they beat Fort Lauderdale Strikers to open the season.
They won their division at a canter and eased past Seattle in the first round of the playoffs. Up against Minnesota Kicks, they alarmingly were stunned in a 2-9 defeat. Former Middlesbrough striker, Alan Willey, scored five. But the NASL rules meant aggregate scores were irrelevant and so Cosmos’ 4-0 win in the return leg, took the tie into a shootout. Hunt missed his kick but Alberto and Beckenbauer didn’t and Cosmos progressed.
They went through to take on Portland Timbers in the Semi-Finals. Hunt provided the assist for Tueart to score the only goal of the game in Portland. Then in the Giants Stadium Cosmos won 5-0 with Hunt getting the third.
The Soccer Bowl ’78 was back at the Giants Stadium. Cosmos would be up against Tampa Bay Rowdies. Their goals came from Rodney Marsh. He hit 18 to take them to the championship game of the season, after a spell back in England with Fulham. But in the Semi-Final clash with Fort Lauderdale, he’d picked up an ankle injury.
It was touch and go right up to kick-off but in the end, Marsh didn’t take to the field. Rowdies boasted three Englishmen in Graham Paddon (ex-West Ham and Norwich) and Mick McGuire (ex-Coventry and Norwich) and were captained by Peter Anderson (ex-Luton). They also had South African born, Steve Wegerle (Roy’s brother) and former Aberdeen and Scotland international, David Robb.
Tueart, this time, was MVP as he scored in each half for a 3-1 win to the Cosmos.
Two seasons in the NASL and Hunt had two championship winning medals in his pocket.
But the lure of home was still tugging at his heartstrings and by 1978 he was unable to resist.
“America made me grow up as a player and as a person and the overall experience was fantastic.”
He reflected to Symes, adding;
“It was a huge challenge and I like to think I rose to it, but even now it all seems so extraordinary.”
Hunt was then offered another challenge. Coventry City assistant manager, Ron Wylie, approached him before a Cosmos game and gave him the opportunity of moving back to the First Division in England. They couldn’t match his wages, but they could match his ambition.
Before leaving Cosmos Hunt was involved in a three-match exhibition series against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. On the Cosmos side was Cruyff. This was in a bid to encourage the former European Player of the Year to join the club, but he plumped for Los Angeles Aztecs and then Washington Diplomats.
Hunt moved back to England and Highfield Road. Eventually, Dave Sexton took over and started to build a decent young side with Mark Hateley, Danny Thomas and Gary Gillespie. He added Gerry Francis and Gerry Daly for some much needed experience. Four years later America came calling again.
Initially, Vic Crowe approached him to turn out for his Portland Timbers team, but Hunt felt obliged to go back to Cosmos. Coventry Chairman, Jimmy Hill sanctioned a loan move.
By then there were only 14 teams in the league. Although Beckenbauer, Tueart and Pele were long gone, Carlos Alberto and Chinaglia were still plying their trade there. The league now boasted the likes of Johan Neeskens, Teofilo Cubillas and Jan Möller, as well as other English players such as Peter Ward, Steve Daley, Vince Hilaire and John Wile.
In the Cosmos team were two Dutch stars from 1974 and 1978 World Cups, Neeskens and Wim Rijsbergen, as well as two Paraguayans, Roberto Cabañas and Julio César Romero who both represented the country in the 1986 World Cup. They also had Andranik Eskandarian who played for Iran in the 1978 World Cup, scoring an own goal against Scotland. But the player Hunt most admired was Serbian, Vladislav Bogicevic. ‘Bogie’ as he was known was one of the best players Hunt ever played with, which is some compliment given the competition. He had come from Red Star Belgrade and provided Chinaglia with plenty of goals.
Cosmos won their division comfortably, then beat San Diego in the Semis before taking on Seattle Sounders in the Soccer Bowl. It was their fifth Bowl appearance in six years, and Hunt had played in three of them.
San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium was the venue. Eight of the Sounders side were English, including Peter Ward, Steve Daley, Gary Mills, Kenny Hibbitt, Nicky Reid and were captained by Alan Hudson.
The Cosmos’ two Dutch stars were injured, but the side contained some great talent. The game was decided by a solitary goal scored, predictably by Chinaglia after some good work by Alberto and Romero. Hunt now had three NASL Championship titles to his name.
That was it for his US adventure. Back in England he only lasted another couple of seasons at Coventry before moving to West Brom. Bobby Gould had taken over at Highfield Road and Hunt wasn’t keen on the long-ball tactics. After some good years at the Hawthorns Hunt was faced with an old foe, Ron Saunders who was then installed as boss.
“I knew when he arrived my time at Albion was coming to an end.”
Hunt then returned to Villa in time to see them relegated. It seems a pity he was there to see that but missed out on their league title and European Cup success.
“I am often asked if I would have exchanged my Cosmos years for European glory with Villa. It is a hypothetical question because Ron wouldn’t have played me, but my answer is ‘no’. I would never have become the same player without those Cosmos years.”
It was an incredible journey for a young lad from Birmingham. One moment he was struggling to find a first team place at Villa, next he was playing alongside Pele and Beckenbauer, and meeting Mick Jagger, Peter Frampton, Rik Wakeman and riding in limos, going to nightclubs where all he had to say was
“I’m with the Cosmos” and he was immediately granted entry.
The experience never went to his head, though. Hunt remained a good player and was rewarded with an England cap in May 1984, coming on as a sub for Mark Chamberlain (Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s Dad). A week later he came on for John Barnes in a defeat to the Soviet Union at Wembley. He was on the South American tour when Barnes scored ‘that goal’ against Brazil, but never played any of the games.
The NASL was of its time and we’re unlikely to ever see the like again. It fizzled out in the early ’80s so Hunt was very lucky to have been part of it. What a story to tell the grandkids.