When Pelé emptied Sheffield classrooms as Santos faced Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough

Pelé and Santos were meant to face Sheffield Wednesday on the evening of February 23rd 1972, but the miners’ strike meant an earlier kickoff – and emptier classrooms.
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By the time ‘O Rei’ came to Sheffield in the early 70s, he was a three-time World Cup winner and arguably the most famous footballer the world had ever known. He’d been to Hillsborough before – back in 1962 – but by 1972, brand Pelé had gone into overdrive.

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So it was no surprise that 37,000 headed to S6 for the 2.30pm kick off, many of them youngsters who were bunking off school to make sure they got the chance to see the great man play.

My dad, Steve, was one of them.

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“I think it was just accepted by the school that we were going to be going to the game,” he said when I asked him to think back. “We shouldn’t have, but nothing happened on the back of it. It’s not like were punished or anything.

“Looking back, my memory is that I thought I shouldn’t have done it, I shouldn’t have skipped school, and I was definitely never told that we could go. But there was just an acceptance that it was going to happen. I don’t even know how we ended up with the tickets to be honest.

“I went with my dad, and sat on the South Stand. I remember it being a really fine day, and there was no rain at all. It was really busy. I’d sometimes go to games with mates and stuff, but this one I distinctly remember going with my dad. I’m still surprised he let me go, never mind took me himself.”

Sheffield Wednesday v Santos on this day in 1972. The great Pelé in action at Hillsborough.Sheffield Wednesday v Santos on this day in 1972. The great Pelé in action at Hillsborough.
Sheffield Wednesday v Santos on this day in 1972. The great Pelé in action at Hillsborough.

But with Pelé’s career beginning to wind down, maybe may grandad just knew that it was possibly the last chance for his son to see him in action?

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My dad said, “In my world, he was the most famous player out there. For me, there were players like him and Eusébio, and then obviously local ones like Bobby Charlton, Bobby Moore and George Best.

“There are special people in the game, and a lot of that’s passed down from the adults of the time to the child. I was just a kid when Pelé was at his peak, so with him I knew he was a special player because I was told he was a special player. But watching him play, you could tell he was exceptional.”

But there’s a stark contrast to how Hillsborough will have looked that afternoon, as Santos ran out 2-0 winners, to what it looks like on matchday now. He sat on the South Stand, the same stand I sit on to cover games now, it’ll have just been louder, and busier, and a lot more fun.

For Hillsborough, it’ll be a while until fans are back, but with a road map finally laid out, there’s a chance next season could be the start.

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“That’s what football is all about,” he said when I asked him to compare days like that to what he sees on TV now during the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s about willing the team on, and trying to making a difference for them. There’s no doubt that the players can feel it, and football without fans will never feel right.”

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