‘I swapped shirts with Pele – then he stayed for hours signing autographs at Sheffield Wednesday’

Legend would have it that the great man rolled into Sheffield and left the gathered thousands agog; his cleats having left a burning trail of destruction in ‘Roy of the Rovers’ style.
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And depending on which of the 37,000 (plus masses of VAT) crowd members you ask, that’s the doe-eyed picture you get of Pele’s second visit to Hillsborough, as Santos made the trip to Sheffield Wednesday for a money-spinning exhibition match on February23 1972. It has to be said, The Star records it a little differently.

The match kicked-off at 2.30pm due to power shortages brought about by the miner’s strikes, with school children and workers from across the region and beyond bunking off for the afternoon to take in the spectacle.

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Aston Villa had welcomed the Brazilians to an evening match in front of 55,000 a few days earlier. Players and staff from Manchester United and Leeds United had block-booked a number of tickets and were among the crowd.

From The Star on February 24, 1972 - Tommy Craig swaps shirts with Pele From The Star on February 24, 1972 - Tommy Craig swaps shirts with Pele
From The Star on February 24, 1972 - Tommy Craig swaps shirts with Pele

Legendary Owls reporter Terry Pritchett recorded Santos’ 2-0 win – earned with a ‘fluke Nene goal and a ‘searing volley from Ferreira’ as follows;

“Pele and the Santos Superstar drew a magnificent 37,000 crowd to Hillsborough yesterday; duly beat Sheffield Wednesday 2-0 without too much trouble; went home a few thousand pounds better off...yet still failed in their mission - to entertain.

He went on: “Santos had come halfway round the world to play. many supporters had come hundreds of miles to watch...and it all went so flat on them.

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“Sadly, the Brazilians must know, after their experiences at Hillsborough and Villa Park, that their days of swanning around the world on huge guarantees are over. Unless they find another Pele that is.”

If Pritchett was perhaps just a little crabby in his assessment of the clash, that was balanced out by Wednesday cult hero Tommy Craig, who was one of the lucky players to pull on the blue and white and do battle with Pele and Santos that day.

No less, he was the man who claimed the shirt of the man many believe to be the greatest of all-time, who died this week at the age of 82.

Speaking to Alan Biggs’ Sheffield Live TV show, Craig spoke glowingly on the best afternoon of his Owls career.

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“I’ve often been asked the question: ‘What were the highlights of your time at Sheffield Wednesday?’,” Craig said. “And I have to be honest with people and admit that there weren’t many.

“I feel like a bit of a cheat. It was a total one-off and I know I wasn’t going to play against this guy again. A total one-off.

“So I had to concoct a way of being in the right place at the right time or indeed the wrong place at the wrong time, in order to get my hands on the great man’s jersey. A fair bit of planning went into it!

“I had a chat with the referee Gordon Hill at half-time.

“I popped my head in and he asked what I was after. I said: ‘Can you do me a favour? Can you let me know when there are a couple of minutes to go?’

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“There was going to be a stampede for the man’s jersey and I wanted a head start! Well, he slapped me on the back of the head and told me where to go!”

As time dwindled down, 22-year-old Craig had his attention locked above the South Stand.

“That big clock at Sheffield made its way round and my eyes were on the referee,” he said. “We were attacking at the time and I was playing left-back because Pele used to wander over to that side of the pitch!

“When the final whistle wave he would give the crowd a quick wave and get himself down the tunnel.

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“Anyway, Gordon gave me the nod and I grabbed Pele. He got such a fright to begin with because I grabbed him and asked him if he wanted my shirt and that was that.

“It was a bit of a cheat, but I was over the moon and that was my Sheffield Wednesday highlight.”

Wednesday’s then-record signing of £100,000 – who made 214 league appearances for the club between 1968 and 1974 – Craig spoke glowingly of Pele the man as well as the player, with half of South Yorkshire and beyond having lined up from the away changing room snaking down onto Penistone Road.

The shirt hangs proudly in Craig’s house to this day.

Other legends such as Carlos Alberto and Edu featured for Santos. But like their hero Craig, everyone wanted their own special momento from Mr Edson Arantes do Nascimento.

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The Scot went on: “After the game – and you’d have to have seen this to believe it – there was a queue outside the dressing room door, out of the ground and down beyond the car park into the main road down there.

“The man sat for two-and-a-half hours signing programmes and different bits and pieces. The humility of the man was astonishing.

“That’s why he was the best in the world. He was the best I’ve ever seen, ever. But his humility was incredible. A great ambassador for the game.”

And what happened to the Wednesday shirt Craig handed to Pele in exchange for his Santos momento?

“Well I’m sure he’d have been washing his car with that!”

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Sheffield Wednesday: Grummitt, Rodrigues, Clements, Pugh, Holsgrove, Prophett, Sinclair, Craig, Joicey, Prendergast, Sissons.

Santos: Cejas, Carlos Alberto, Rildo, Ramos Delgado, Joel, Djalma Dias, Monoel Maria, Clodoaldo, Edu, Pele, Abel

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