The Extraordinary Story of the Other NY Cosmos
An extraordinary thing happened in 1975. The world’s most famous footballer was persuaded to come out of retirement to play for a franchise in the North American Soccer League (NASL). Pele signed for the New York Cosmos.
What followed was a genuine phenomenon. The Cosmos players became the coolest kids in the coolest city on the planet. Ralph Lauren designed strips, the team had its own VIP table at the legendary Studio 54 nightclub and famous fans included Mick Jagger, Robert Redford, Steven Spielberg, Andy Warhol and Muhammad Ali.
Much has been written about the New York Cosmos and their star players, among them Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia. But there were another three men at the eye of this particular storm. Three men more used to wintery nights at Vicarage Road and blustery battles at Bramall Lane.
“I thought it was a joke when the offer came in,” recalls Sheffield United stalwart Keith Eddy. “Some typical American guy with a cigar came over to me in training and told me the New York Cosmos wanted to take me.”
At least Eddy had heard of his suitors. “I didn’t even know who the Cosmos were,” remembers Terry Garbett, a teammate of Eddy’s at both Watford and Sheffield United. “When they told me Pele played for them I said ‘you’re kidding me?’ It was a big step but I thought I’d give it a go.”
The Cosmos had acquired their superstar in 1975 but they soon realised that experienced professionals were needed to make up the team. And so, in 1976, they began to raid the English leagues. On the same plane as Eddy to New York was Everton’s Northern Ireland international Dave Clements, who happily admits: “The chance to play with Pele was definitely a huge factor.”
Memories of Pele remain etched on their minds. Eddy, who was soon named Cosmos captain, says: “He was just a great guy. Sure, he was past his best and at times you could see on the pitch he was getting pissed off. Other times he was just unbelievable. He had qualities others don’t see – his strength was impressive and he could be nasty when he needed to be.”
Garbett is similarly complimentary, saying: “He was just so humble it was scary. A lot of the other big names had egos to match but he was just a nice guy. I remember one game at Yankee Stadium. It was the only time I just stood there and clapped my own player. He ran 25 to 30 yards without touching the ball – beating opponents by selling these outrageous dummies. They kept missing it and the ball went in the net. It was crazy.”
NASL may have boasted the biggest name of them all but the general standard was not a challenge for seasoned pros from Europe. Garbett laughs: “I soon found out the football wouldn’t be so tough. When the ball came to me I was knocking it off first time but there was nobody anywhere near me. It was slow-motion football.”
Eddy agrees, pointing out: “What did make it easier was the rules were slightly different. The 35-yard-line rule meant you could only be offside if you were within 35 yards of goal. This made a huge difference. I used to play sweeper and I’d come off the field at the final whistle feeling like I could play another game. At Sheffield I would be absolutely knackered. It was a good thing because it gave the game space. In England things were too tight at that time and the game was condensed within ten yards either side of the halfway line.”
The important thing as far as the league’s administrators were concerned was that the games were frequently drawing big crowds. “It was certainly an exciting time,” admits Garbett. “For those few years it really started to blow up – especially when it came to the Cosmos. I distinctly remember the Soccer Bowl we won in New York in 1978. They couldn’t shut the George Washington Bridge; there was just too much traffic. We couldn’t believe it was for a soccer match.”
Clements, who had played under English football’s arch-promoter Jimmy Hill at Coventry, was fully aware of how these things worked: “You realised this was football as entertainment. And entertainment was easier to control – certainly easier than winning and losing – so we drew some great crowds.”
For a while things just got bigger and bigger – particular after leaving the confines of Yankee Stadium. Eddy notes: “When we made the move to Giants Stadium all of a sudden we were playing to 77,000 people. For a while it felt like soccer was really taking off there.
“The problem was that it wasn’t quite that simple. Firstly, the majority of the crowds were ethnic minorities - not what the sponsors and TV companies would consider mainstream America. For example, we had a game against Juventus after I moved to Toronto and 35,000 turned up. But they were all Italians supporting Juventus!
“Another problem was that it wasn’t soccer that was attracting them there. It was the facilities and, dare I say it, soccer was a bit of a fad at that time. We saw how fragile the game was when we travelled elsewhere. Cosmos was a very specific phenomenon. I remember going to Vegas and playing a game at noon in front of 2,000 people. Then it was back to Giants Stadium and the huge crowds.”
Garbett echoes those sentiments, admitting: “The sad thing was that, quite honestly, other teams couldn’t compete. Vancouver had a good side but there were only about four teams that even looked like making money – the rest were buying in stars they couldn’t afford to pay.”
Clements experienced these frustrations first hand – but only after nearly becoming manager of one of England’s most glamorous clubs.
Clements explains: “Clive Toye, the head of the Cosmos, wanted me to go back to Europe at the end of my first year to help develop American players in a European setting. We wanted to develop players there and then bring them back to the States. The initial club we looked at – and it is incredible when you think of it now – was Chelsea. There were extensive talks and in the end it didn’t materialise. Soon after, I got the call. Toye had been dismissed and I was high and dry.”
It was a personal disaster for Clements as he had agreed to surrender his place on the Cosmos playing roster in order to pursue Toye’s expansion fantasy. “It was a frustrating experience,” he admits. “If the coaching thing in the UK had come off it could have been the right decision and I’d have been a pioneer. As it was, I sat on the bench as assistant coach. I got a championship ring for our win in 1977 but it wasn’t the same.”
Indeed, for battle-hardened professionals from the English leagues, it seems the glory on offer in the States had a strangely hollow feel to it. Garbett is perhaps surprisingly dismissive of his time there, saying: “I enjoyed the experience in New York but to be frank with you it wasn’t the highlight of my career. Winning the third division title with Watford beats it. That was the best team I ever played in because that was real. The stuff that happened in America - that wasn’t real football.”
But others have been working hard ever since to make the American experience more ‘real’. Clements says: “In the end I think it is good that so many of us stayed out here in the States. There are guys with a lot of experience, such as Keith [Eddy] in Oklahoma, that have put so much back into the sport here.”
Eddy admits that his contribution to soccer in America is more by luck than design. “I was tempted to move home and buy a pub – the classic footballer thing,” he confesses. “Instead I went into real estate and invested in a nightclub in Tulsa thinking I’d stay six months. I’m still here 30 years later.
“The reason for that is because a friend of mine kept telling me I had to go see his son play. I was reluctant but after much pestering I agreed to give him a coaching clinic. Then I got persuaded to coach his U14 side and did so for four years – they did very well and reached the top four in the country.
“I soon got to thinking that if one set of kids could do it then others in Tulsa could. The ambition was to get kids a college scholarship because that’s a huge deal in America. We now have 80 teams at the Tulsa soccer club and it’s staggering how many millions of dollars of education the club has managed to get these kids.
“The funny thing is that when I was at the Cosmos I didn’t want to do the clinics. I’d trade with others to avoid it. If you’d have told me that 20 years later I’d be coaching girls’ soccer I’d have said you were crazy.”
So for the man who captained Pele and the Cosmos and played to full houses of more than 70,000 in Giants Stadium, where do the achievements of the Tulsa soccer club rank?
“It’s something I’m very proud of - far prouder than of being able to kick a football.”
Words by Adam Bate
Illustration by John C Biddle