“I asked how to deal with Pele - he just laughed at me!” The day Newcastle United faced the greatest ever
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The sad passing of Pele has evoked many memories of a player considered by many to be the greatest footballer of all time.
From inspiring Brazil to their first World Cup win in 1958 as a mere 17-year-old, a career spanning three decades and two continents and a haul of 25 major honours established the man born Edson Arantes do Nascimento as an icon of the sport. As Pele and the rest of the legendary 1970 team strolled around Mexico’s Azteca Stadium as they defeated Italy 4-1 in the World Cup final, Pat Howard was preparing for what was watching in his living room as he prepared for what would be the final full season of his time with Division Three club Barnsley.
Little did he know that less than two years later he would be marking the great man. Howard, an uncompromising centre-half, moved to Newcastle United in September 1971 and played in a Magpies side that finished his first season in mid-table in English football’s top tier. A campaign racked with inconsistency was summed up by the fateful FA Cup third round defeat at Hereford, followed by a remarkable 2-0 away win against a Manchester United side containing the legendary triumvirate of Best, Charlton and Law. Competing against that renowned trio would be scant preparation for what was to come, however.
The season was officially ended with a trip to the Far East where games against two Thai sides set them up for an eagerly anticipated meeting with Pele’s Santos, who had become a football version of the Harlem Globetrotters by playing a series of challenge matches against opposition from around the world. A daunting prospect for Howard & Co, and one which was to leave an indelible mark on his memory.
He said: “I think it would be safe to say we were wary of Pele and wary of Santos because they were the best in the world at the time. It may have only been a challenge game in Hong Kong – but it was a nervy situation to be going up against Pele because I was playing third division football only six months earlier. This was a whole new world for me. I approached our manager Joe Harvey for some tips on how to deal with Pele and he just laughed at me. It was a real test, not just for me but for the whole Newcastle team.”
Newcastle, initially, were far from overawed by their glamorous opponents and took the lead on 20 minutes through striker John Tudor. Former Brazil international Alcindo levelled things up 10 minutes before half-time but it was United’s own mercurial man that took centre-stage as Tony Green gave the Magpies a lead at the interval with a stunning long-range effort.
Pele had only shown glimpses of the power, poise and precision that saw him shine on the world’s biggest stage and had been unexpectedly quiet during the opening 45 minutes.
“It’s safe to say that Pele hadn’t really done much in the first-half and we were feeling quite happy with ourselves at half-time,” said Howard. “But he still had that aura about him, he had a little bit of everything. That first touch, his movement, his power and his pace on and off the ball were fantastic. We knew something would come in the second half and we went onto the pitch expecting a reaction.”
Pele did not disappoint. By the time the hour-mark had ticked by, Santos had taken a two-goal lead thanks to a devastating hat-trick from their superstar. A standing ovation met Pele’s eventual substitution after he had delivered a performance that the 28,000-capacity crowd had come to see.
Howard knew he had witnessed greatest in its purest form.
“During the early part of the second half, Pele was just perfect in everything that he did. He punished any space that was left, his never made a poor pass, he was throwing dummies all over the place and he just seemed to get stronger. He was so intelligent, he was unquestionably the cleverest player that I have played against and, for me, he is the greatest of all-time. He just had everything you could want from a footballer. The heat took its toll on us, there’s no doubt about that because it was sweltering, but despite that, it was the experience of a lifetime to come up against Pele. It’s something I will never forget.”
Howard would go on to make over 260 appearances during a five-year stay on Tyneside and played for United in their FA Cup Final defeat against a Kevin Keegan-inspired Liverpool in 1974 and their League Cup Final loss and Manchester City two years later.
He made a move to Arsenal just six months after that defeat against City and went on to join Birmingham City in the early weeks of the 1977/78 season. An unexpected move to the United States offered Howard an opportunity to take on some of the biggest names in world football – although reacquainting himself with that Brazilian superstar remained tantalisingly out of reach.
“I was given the chance to move to Portland Timbers in the NASL in 1978 and I played against some of the greatest players of all-time over there,” Howard, now 75, added. “I faced the likes of Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto during that season when they were playing for the New York Cosmos. Pele had obviously been there during the previous season but had retired before I moved over to the States, so I never got the chance to play against him again.
“He’ll have been happy about that, I reckon!”