‘One of the things you noticed about Pele,’ says Colin Prophett, as if this was an everyday kind of conversation, ‘was his touch. He killed it. The ball was dead.’
Prophett, a Sheffield Wednesday defender, seen on the left of the three men in blue in the famous image of the match, enjoyed a privilege few have shared: he was on the pitch with genius.
And from up close Prophett knew that while the ball may have been dead, Pele was alive and alert. ‘Such intelligence,’ Prophett adds.
Colin Prophett (left) counts himself fortunate to have shared a pitch with Pele (centre)
On this day, 23rd February 1972, Sheffield was alive and alert too. Pele’s club side, Santos, were in town on a European tour, and while the game was played in the afternoon due to the miners’ strike and a dwindling of power on the national grid, which meant no floodlights, there was electricity in the air all the same at Hillsborough.
‘We’d normally get 25,000-ish for home games and sometimes bigger crowds than that,’ Prophett says, ‘but when we walked out we could see this was more than full.
‘We couldn’t believe it when we looked at the Kop. Look at it.
‘Officially there were 41,000 there but I don’t know how they counted them all. It was lively, such an atmosphere. This was supposed to be a night game but the miners were on strike. So we had to play it in the afternoon but that didn’t stop the crowd. It’s all been covered now, the Kop, gone forever.’
The miners’ strike of 1972 lasted seven weeks and ended five days after this match. Had it not been on, the game would have been played at night and the picture of Pele poised in front of the sprawling, triangular, packed Hillsborough Kop would not have been so clear.
As it is, this has become an image which continues to burn bright in Owls folklore, not least because of the thousands of schoolchildren who bunked off that afternoon to see the greatest footballer in the world at their ground. This is one of the days of their lives.
It was Santos’ second appearance there in 10 years. In the early 1960s the directors of the successful, but small club thought foreign tours was a way to generate income they could not make in Brazil. So Santos became football’s answer to the Harlem Globetrotters and Pele was Meadowlark Lemon.
Thousands of fans packed into the stadium, during the miners’ strike, to witness Pele in action
The tours proved lucrative, if exhausting for the players. Santos first played at Hillsborough in October 1962 when Brazil had just won its second consecutive World Cup and Pele was 22. By 1972 Brazil and Pele had claimed a third World Cup.
Pele was 31 and had retired from international football. He was also leaving Santos a year later, the club he joined in 1956.
As he said in his autobiography: ‘The bird that laid the golden eggs was about to fly the coop, and they were really going to make him play, make him bank some money for the club.’
Santos were paid a healthy appearance fee wherever they went – and tours across various continents were crammed in. In England they played at Arsenal, Aston Villa, Stoke City, Fulham and Plymouth Argyle. Abroad they faced West Ham and Newcastle. They won this game at Wednesday 2-0.
The occasions simultaneously enriched and wearied Santos players; they left indelible memories for opponents such as Prophett.
‘I was at Crewe Alexandra as a youth,’ he says, ‘then joined Sheffield Wednesday at 18 as an amateur. I went into their Central League side, made my debut at Highbury in 1969.
‘I played against some top forwards – John Radford at Arsenal, Mick Jones at Leeds, Law, Best and Charlton at Manchester United, Jeff Astle at West Brom. There were a lot of them about then. That first season was some baptism.
‘Pele, he was different class. He’d been around since the World Cup in 1958, such a touch. Maradona and Messi have come since, Pele had that touch.
Prophett (L) came up against some top players in his career, though none topped Pele
‘And he was brilliant afterwards. I don’t remember much about the match itself, don’t remember the goals, but I remember he signed everything put in front of him afterwards. I’ve a lovely signature from him tucked away.’
One other thing all the Sheffield Wednesday players recall is that one of their number, Tommy Craig, spent the last five minutes shadowing Pele.
‘Our manager Danny Williams had told us not to swap shirts,’ Prophett says – ‘typical manager thinking of the pennies. But Tommy Craig did. For the last five minutes he didn’t leave Pele’s side. He got Pele’s jersey. I don’t know if he got it on the pitch or in the tunnel, Tommy wasn’t showing it off.’
When he stopped playing, Prophett became a scout – for Reading, Southampton and Middlesbrough. At 70 he still works, today for Swansea.
But 23/02/72 is never far away, the day Prophett played against Pele in front of a heaving Hillsborough Kop. As he says: ‘People still talk about that photograph.’