I saw Hunt play for West Bromwich Albion several times in the mid-1980s when I was a student in Birmingham, England. By that time he had evolved into a smart midfielder with a keen eye for the killer pass. In this book he mentions a 4-1 home victory over Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest that I remember well for the quality of passing soccer between two fluent teams, at a time when the English game still suffered from too many high balls hoofed over the top of sticky fields. His coach Johnny Giles told him after the game that he hadn't played a wrong pass all afternoon.
England, though, didn't much care for players who could pass the ball. Hunt won just two caps for his country, both as a substitute. He talks about the under-used genius of another cultured midfielder of his era, Glenn Hoddle, who -- although he won over 50 caps -- should, Hunt argues, have been the player that the England team revolved around for a generation. The English Football Association, however, was at that time a cabal of conservative old boys who inexplicably relied on the primitive long ball 'philosophy' of a clueless cove with a posh accent, Charles Hughes.
Hunt learned a different kind of game altogether at the feet of Pelé and Beckenbauer. Although he was shocked to be discarded by Aston Villa without having any say in the matter, he has no regrets, despite an unsettled first year in New York when he and his wife Sue felt alienated in a vast and strange country. His story was a familiar one for working-class British lads displaced in a league with shootouts, plastic surfaces, cheerleaders and crowd-rousing gimmickry. Where did they fit in to this circus? And what were their wives supposed to do, stuck in a hotel room or a small apartment while their partners were off on a week-long road trip?
Some went back home after a hot and frustrating summer, cursing the surfeit of razzmatazz, while others stuck it out and went on to bloom. Hunt played well enough in his first year to be able to ask the Cosmos for better conditions, and was rewarded with a car and an apartment overlooking the Hudson river. Now the question most people ask about his career is: "What was it like to play with Pelé?" And Beckenbauer, and Carlos Alberto and Giorgio Chinaglia?
The book title's a bit of a misnomer, being the phrase that supposedly got you instant entry to Manhattan's high spots in the 1970s. Hunt admits that he only went to Studio 54 twice, and understates that "the world described in the film Once in a Lifetime did not entirely represent my lifestyle in the first year." On the field, he soon learned about the team hierarchy. Pelé yelled at him for shooting instead of passing to the all-time greatest, and when Hunt showed him the finger in response, he was immediately subbed out. When Pelé instigated a brawl against the Washington Diplomats, it was Hunt that the ref ordered off while breezily telling the player that he was the sacrifice for the Brazilian's misdemeanors. Pelé was untouchable in the rookie league he'd been signed to boost and promote.
Hunt was a hot-headed young man who defended his corner, even against Chinaglia: "Giorgio had a lust for goals and like so many great strikers he could be selfish. I let him know what I thought of his selfishness, and he belted me on the chin. I wasn't the type to let that go and replied in kind. When this conflict had died down we had a chat and sorted it out. His job was to score goals. Apparently, mine was to make them for him."
Having accepted Chinaglia's combination of sporting genius and personal narcissism, the Englishman started to appreciate the joys of possession soccer, and to learn from the best. Beckenbauer was "a smashing bloke," whose kindness to Hunt's mother while visiting New York he's never forgotten. The calmness and tactical ease of players like Carlos Alberto ("a Rolls Royce of a player") and the Yugoslav midfielder Vladislav Bogicevic ("a football genius") influenced Hunt's game for the better. During a second spell at the Cosmos, he was in awe of the Dutch World Cup runner-up Johan Neeskens. All of this, he thinks, made him a better player than if he'd stayed at Aston Villa under the cold, authoritarian coach Ron Saunders.
After his peak years in England at Coventry City and West Brom, Hunt ended up back at Aston Villa, but was forced to retire at 30 due to a chronic knee injury. There was no benefit game, no payoff, and he was suddenly out of professional soccer with no qualifications and no back-up plan. His narrative at this point becomes a familiar (if understandable) one of ex-players from this era: 'I don't begrudge the pros of today their astronomical wage packets, but ...'
His eventual co-author, retired teacher Ian McCauley, bumps into Hunt on the Isle of Wight, where he's working as a janitor. They get talking about soccer, and that's how this book made its way into print.
Hunt settles a few scores, praises his family and friends and some old teammates, and is refreshingly free and undiplomatic with his opinions -- like all opinions, you can take them or leave them. There are many repetitions that even a cursory edit could have taken care of, and the serial tendency to quote other books (possibly from McCauley's shelf rather than Hunt's) becomes an irritant that interrupts Hunt's authentic voice. This voice is at its best when it comes at you like it would across the table in a bar -- musing, laughing, reflecting and reminiscing on the inevitable ups and downs of sporting life.
Ian Plenderleith is the author of Rock n Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League (St. Martin's Press)