40 years on from their birth, the power of the New York Cosmos can still be seen today. Last month’s screening of Once in a Lifetime at Kicking and Screening, London’s first football film festival, was a sell-out. It’s certainly not the first time the club have caused a sell-out, and it probably won’t be the last time either.
The command of the club can simply be summed up from a quote from supporter Tom Watt who was speaking to BBC Radio 4, alongside former player Charlie Aitken.
“They remain the biggest name in American football despite the fact they haven’t existed since the mid-80s.”
During its heyday, the NASL had on show some of the greatest footballers on the planet. George Best, Johan Cryuff, Eusebio, Bobby Moore and Gerd Muller all sampled the American lifestyle for a while, but it was the New York Cosmos who stole all the headlines with their signings. Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia and Carlos Alberto all helped the club become the hottest ticket in town, but it was Pele, the greatest player in the world at that time, who not only promoted Cosmos’ profile, but that of the NASL as well.
Whilst there was an influx of foreign players to the NASL, a number of English players also made the trip over the Atlantic as Trevor Francis, Alan Ball and Gordon Banks all spent time in the States before returning home.
Malcolm Dawes was one of the English players who represented Cosmos in the early 1970s. Here he speaks to Rob Guest about his time with the club and their future.
Malcolm, how did your move to the New York Cosmos come about?
“I was at Hartlepool at the time and it was Grand National day in 1973 and we were playing in the evening. We lost 1-0 to Peterborough in bad conditions as it was windy and the pitches were hard as it was coming to the end of the season. Despite the defeat I had a good game and on the Monday Len Ashurst said to me that Gordon Bradley and some other people wanted to speak with me at the local golf club. They asked me about a move to America with New York and if I could go at the weekend I would fly to Mexico via New York and play Club America in the Azteca stadium. Unfortunately, I couldn’t go as we still needed the points so I missed out on the trip. They also said that they were trying to sign George Best and Bobby Charlton, but Manchester United wouldn’t let them go.
“I had a good year with the club and I was the only player to play in every minute of every game and I was awarded the Player of the Year award. I came back the second year and the league had expanded from 9 to 16 teams. After my second season the club approached me about coming back for a third season in February, but Hartlepool wouldn’t let me go as it was too early and in the end I ended up going to Denver and the Cosmos signed Pele. When I was at the club I wore the number 6 shirt and the next player to wear the jersey was Franz Beckenbauer.”
The move seems to be a real fairytale considering you were playing at Hartlepool?
"When I got back I wrote a story about my time at home and abroad and it went from one extreme to another. When I was with Hartlepool we played Southend, we left about 8am and only stopped for lunch and tea and we would arrive at the ground about 18.45pm for a 19.15pm game. Then we would set off home and arrive back home about 7-8am the next morning. When I was in NYC we flew everywhere and spent a weekend in Miami and St Louis and we would stay at the best hotels. The ground and facilities in America were just superb. One day we flew to Atlanta and a black limo was waiting to pick us up with air conditioning on inside. In contrast to that, on the way back from Exeter the bus broke down so we had to go back on the back of a lorry!!”
The Cosmos were certainly building a good team, what was the quality like?
“The standard of football was very good, we had players from Trinidad & Tobago, Germany, Poland, Israel and it was a good mix. Six of us lived in an apartment together with three of the lads coming from Poland and we all got on fine. In the dressing room Werner Roth acted as an interpreter for some of the players.”
It is widely known that on Pele’s debut for the club the groundsman had to paint some of the pitch green, how did you find the facilities at the club?
“We were at the University in my second year with the club and that was better than Randall’s Island because that was on the edge of the City. You always hear the story of the groundsman painting the pitch on Pele’s debut, but the facilities were always top quality. When we played on Astroturf it was brilliant. Some grounds in the UK had Astroturf like Preston and Luton but that was just really springy, but in the US it was just like a carpet, it was really good quality. In the US the club had really good commercial backing as they always gave away free tickets at schools and they coached 1500 kids in Long Island as well as women and girls. I’ve always said that the UK is at least fifteen years behind the US.”
How much did you enjoy your time in New York?
“I loved my time in the US and I’m dying to go back to New York. I’d also like to meet up with Werner Roth again. We’d train on a Tuesday and Thursday and play at the weekend and then we’d have weekends away in places such as Miami, Florida and St Louis. After I’d finished at Denver, Minnesota offered me a two-year contract but in the end they got four players on loan from Middlesbrough so I couldn’t sign for them. For me it was a bonus to go out and play in the States because I’d come from the lower leagues in England.”
Could you ever envisage that the club would sign Pele?
“The club had always tried to sign Pele. He was the player the club and the league needed to boost its profile. One day it had been organised for Pele to come play 5-aside with the Cosmos team in Central Park but it was raining so we went to the University instead. Once he finished dealing with the media it was agreed that he would get a tracksuit and then start playing with us. Unfortunately that never happened as loads of kids charged at him to get his autograph, so he had to give it a miss.”
I guess you would have loved to line up alongside the greatest player in the world at that time?
“Just to be associated with players such as Pele, Beckenbauer, Chinaglia and Carlos Alberto would have been magic. The players they had were simply the best, they were top of the world. Pele is a global icon, he was probably as big as Muhammad Ali at that time. A lot of people wanted credit for signing Pele, but it was Gordon Bradley and Clive Toye who were the main men. I left in 1973 and Pele signed two years later. It was the right time to sign the player as he had just retired and he was the one player who could life the stature of the league. In America in order to create a story you need the media and that’s what soccer needed because they were competing against half a dozen major sports.”
What are your views on the club reforming?
“I’ve kept all the information on the club from the newspapers when the team played Manchester United for Paul Scholes’ testimonial. I know Pele and Cobi Jones were there and if I knew more about it sooner than I would have made an effort to go. I want the club to do well and in order for that to happen you need good backing, good players and some stability. The standard of football in America has certainly improved, but people have got to remember that it takes time. It really depends on the owner’s background and how much they want it. You’re not guaranteed success straight away so you either have to buy it, or breed it. I’m hoping it all comes off because I am dying to go back over there and meet up with Werner Roth and Shep Messing once again.”