Danny Hall: Fond memories of the day Brazilian legend Pele inspired Sheffield Wednesday fans old and young

Pele in full flight against Wednesday
Pele in full flight against Wednesday
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The year is 1972 and, in the middle of the miners’ strike, frequent power cuts forced Sheffield Wednesday’s high-profile friendly against Brazilian side Santos to be played at 2.30pm on a midweek afternoon.

Just as well no-one banked on Santos’ star man illuminating Hillsborough, too. Edson Arantes do Nascimento, perhaps better known as Pele, graced South Yorkshire turf for the second time on February 23, 1972, but failed to live up to his star billing in a 2-0 Santos win. A ‘fluke’ opener, according to legendary Star reporter Tony Pritchett, from Nene put Santos ahead and the game’s only bit of Brazilian magic, from Ferreira, sealed victory.

'King Pele', as the Star headlines of the time crowned him, had a header cleared off the line by Graham Pugh and, still inhibited by a knock picked up against Aston Villa earlier in the week, did little else.

Not that the crowd minded a jot. Almost 37,000 people packed into Hillsborough to see the three-time World Cup winner, many of whom had skipped school - some with permission, some without - to be there. One Owls fan fondly recalls his father’s threatening words about the game; “If I find out you’ve been to school, and not to see Pele, then there’ll be trouble.”

The Santos game was billed as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the world’s best player but in reality, it was Pele’s second visit to Hillsborough in the space of a decade which saw him win the World Cup twice. The first, a 4-2 win for Santos in 1962, saw the Brazilian overshadow Coutinho’s hat-trick with a stop-start penalty which outfoxed both Owls and England goalkeeper Ron Springett, and around 20,000 fans packed into the uncovered Kop.

In the decade since, Pele and Santos toured the world as some kind of glorified circus act; a real-life version of Michael Jordan being kidnapped by the Monstars in Space Jam, and forced to play one-on-one against paying customers with chains around his ankles.

Pele signs an autograph for Star reporter Tony Pritchett, with Derek Dooley watching on

Pele signs an autograph for Star reporter Tony Pritchett, with Derek Dooley watching on

Santos, a club of modest means, had a star-studded squad - with Pele the star attraction - but struggled to afford the upkeep. So they became a touring club for hire, charging teams around the world for the privilege of hosting them. Many did, too; in less than a month and a half, they played over 20 times across eight countries in Europe.

By 1962, the circus reached England. Unlike modern-day football, with almost every La Liga game available on TV and any highlight instantly shunted into a six-second Vine package, opportunities to catch the world’s best players in full flow were few and far between.

One young fan in the crowd was especially hooked: "Even watching Santos provided a whole new meaning to football, the way they passed it around," Neil Warnock, the former Sheffield United boss and now manager of Rotherham, wrote in his column for The Independent in 2011.

"Everything seemed to stop and everyone in the crowd gasped whenever Pele touched the ball. Santos won 4-2 and Pele scored from a penalty, which I remember clearly because he just walked up to it, dummied, watched the goalkeeper dive one way, then rolled it into the other side of the net.

The Star's coverage of Pele's visit to Hillsborough, including a column from Tommy Craig

The Star's coverage of Pele's visit to Hillsborough, including a column from Tommy Craig

"No one had seen that done before - you have to remember this was nearly 50 years ago. The funny thing was Sheffield Wednesday got a penalty soon after and their captain, Colin Dobson, tried to do the same. The Santos keeper didn’t buy the dummy and just picked up Dobson’s shot.

"Pele really was a true great."

Owls fan David Seal was lucky enough to see him twice.

"I remember the '62 game better to be honest," he remembers.

Pele meets the Sheffield public

Pele meets the Sheffield public

"One of my first night matches. Maybe the very first! Huge crowd and Pele scoring a penalty. We were a good side then... runners up to Spurs. By '72 we were poor in Division Two and Pele was past his best, too. Like many have said we walked out of school to go.

"In terms of football, Franz Beckenbauer in the 1966 World Cup was a much stronger memory. He majestically ran the group game against Switzerland; strong and athletic in style, bossing midfield. Same again in the quarter-finals. Looked better than any of the England stars of that tournament. Not one of the divers, either!"

Wednesday's players were excited by Pele's second coming, too. Come 1972, Owls boss Derek Dooley was forced to warn his players to forget about the upcoming Santos friendly, and concentrate on their vital second-division clash against relegation-threatened Watford.

Pele was keen to play, too, despite Villa’s rough treatment - although a £1,000 personal bonus if he played 90 minutes at Hillsborough probably spurred him on - and Owls general manager Eric Taylor reported a huge interest from fans. “The phone never stops ringing,” he said.

So, the match itself? Well, a bit flat, according to Pritchett’s Star report. Headed ‘Santos just leave the fans cold...’ Pritchett wrote: "Pele and the Santos Superstars drew a magnificent crowd to Hillsborough, duly beat Wednesday 2-0 without too much trouble, went home a few thousand pounds better off... yet still failed in their main mission. To entertain."
The day left a lasting mark on some, though. Tommy Craig followed Pele around for the final few minutes of the game and managed to secure the shirt of the great man at the final whistle.

"The match was the great occasion of my life," wrote Craig, in his Star column of February 24, 1972.

The great Brazilian, back in the Steel City at Bramall Lane, poses with the match programme from the Wednesday v Santos game in 1972

The great Brazilian, back in the Steel City at Bramall Lane, poses with the match programme from the Wednesday v Santos game in 1972

"Ever since I knew Santos were coming, I’ve been living for the day. And I had my heart set on getting a souvenir. I asked the referee, Gordon Hill, to give me a sign when there was a minute to go and he blew the whistle as I drifted up to mark Pele.

"When time up came I grabbed him round the waist until he had parted with the jersey! So now, I have more than a memory to remind me of the day I played against Pele."