04. Len Glover GettyImages-78951231

Former Player Remembers: Len Glover

Described as ‘the best uncapped winger in the world’ Len Glover’s performances on the left flank for Leicester City between 1967 and 1976 were outstanding. Last week, prompted by the sad news of the great Pelé’s death, Len spoke to Club Historian John Hutchinson about playing against and socialising with Pelé in the North American Soccer League in 1976 and 1977.
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Back then, Len was captain of Tampa Bay Riders and Pelé was playing for New York Cosmos. Len featured in 395 games for City between November 1967 and April 1976. He was signed by Matt Gillies from Charlton Athletic for £80,000 which, at the time, was a British record transfer fee for a winger. 

In April 1976, he signed for the NASL side Tampa Bay Rowdies. In his two seasons in the USA, Len played against Pelé on four occasions. The Brazilian star, who sadly died last month aged 82, played for New York Cosmos, whose side contained other big stars such as West Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer and Italy’s Giorgio Chinaglia.

In August 1976, Tampa Bay Rowdies, who had finished top in the NASL Eastern Division played New York Cosmos, who had finished second, in the quarter-finals of the play-offs. The game, in front of a crowd of nearly 37,000, was at Tampa. 

Len recalled: “We were the top two sides. It was a big game. It was on television. The night before the game, we had this big do in Tampa where the players from both sides, including Pelé, came to a restaurant to have a drink and something to eat.” 

Tampa won 3-1. Pelé scored Cosmos’ goal, but Len impressed many too.

“I got player of the match for the game,” Len remembered. “Rodney Marsh was properly upset! I was 32. Pelé was about 36.”  

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Len Glover & Pelé

Len Glover meets the great Pelé.

A year later, on 10 August, 1977, Tampa Bay Rowdies and Cosmos met the play-off final. The venue this time was Cosmos’ Giants Stadium in New Jersey. The crowd was 57,828. The game was Pelé’s 1,350th game, and his 93rd for Cosmos. His two goals in the 3-0 victory over Tampa Bay Rowdies brought his career total at that point to 1,275 goals.

A photograph bearing the date of the final which belongs to Len, who was now captain of Tampa Bay Rowdies, indicates that he was privileged to socialise again with Pelé on that occasion. 

“I’ve got some lovely pictures from that day of me with Pelé,” Len explained. “They are in an envelope. Friends ask me why I haven’t framed them. In one of the photographs, I’m with the two greatest players in the world at the time, Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer! Pelé has signed the photo: ‘To Lenny Glover, from your friend Pelé’. In another photo, I’m with Pelé, who signed it: ‘To Lenny Glover. All the best. Pelé’. What’s that worth to me? You know, It’s fantastic!

“The photos were taken at this big do where the players from both sides came and had a drink and something to eat, because the play-off was a big game. Our photographer was taking all of these photographs when we were talking. We didn’t even know he was taking them. Then he said he wanted a picture of Franz Beckenbauer, Pelé, Adrian Alston (an Australian World Cup player), Giorgio Chinaglia and me. New York Cosmos was owned by the Warner Brothers, and Chinaglia was married to one of their daughters. He was good and scored loads of goals for them.

“I’ve also got a ball signed by Pelé,” Len revealed. “Even today, friends come round, see the ball and say: ‘Aww, that’s the Pelé ball isn’t it?’

“Pelé was a gentleman,” Len continued. “He was such a lovely guy. He had time for everybody. He was absolutely brilliant, both on and off the field. On the field, when a chance arose just outside the box he’d score. It was lovely to watch. Off the field, he was inundated by fans. You can imagine what that must have been like. Whether or not people knew about soccer, they all knew about Pelé.

The ball was played up to Pelé and Mike, instead of marking him closely as he had been, had given Pelé just a little bit of room. Within two seconds, Pelé had turned and scored, just like that.

Len Glover

“I remember playing against Pelé in a cup game at New York Cosmos. We had an Australian defender called Mike and I told him that although Pelé wouldn’t be dashing around everywhere, he mustn’t think that meant he’d got the better of him. It was 0-0 at half-time and Pelé hadn’t done anything. Mike was right up his backside. Then, about 15 minutes from the end, the ball was played up to Pelé and Mike, instead of marking him closely as he had been, had given Pelé just a little bit of room. Within two seconds, Pelé had turned and scored, just like that. Even at his age, Pelé just had that skill. Once he turned, you knew you were in trouble. 

“People ask me who I think the best player was, Pelé or [Diego] Maradona? My answer is that it doesn’t matter. They were both fantastic footballers. Pelé had won the World Cup when he was 17! When I was 17, I didn’t know what time of day it was!”

Len then explained how, after his career at Charlton Athletic and Leicester City, he found himself playing for and captaining Tampa Bay Rowdies, one of the top clubs in the USA, and playing in games against the likes of Pelé, Beckenbauer and Chinaglia.

He said: “In my last season at Leicester (1975/76), although I didn’t know it was going to be my last season at Filbert Street. I had to have an Achilles operation. It was a big operation, and it takes a long time to recover, to get your speed back and to get back on your toes. It seemed to be taking forever. 

“Jimmy Bloomfield thought I wouldn’t get fit again but I knew I would. He went and bought Brian Alderson from Coventry and then I did get fit a few games before the end of the season, coming on as a substitute.

“Then, all of a sudden, I got a call from Tampa Bay Rowdies manager Eddie Firmani. When I was a youngster at Charlton, Eddie had come back from playing in Italy. When we played together, I thought the way he’d held the ball and everything was great. We’d got on brilliantly.

“When he phoned me he said: ‘Len, I know you’ve had an injury and now that you’re now fit again, would you like to come to our squad on loan for our season? Then you’ll be as fit as a fiddle and raring to go when you get back to Leicester next season’.

“I thought that was just what I needed, but when Eddie phoned Jimmy Bloomfield, he was told I couldn’t go on loan but Tampa could buy me!

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Len Glover

Len appears in the 1969 FA Cup Final.

“I couldn’t believe it! I went straight in to see Jimmy Bloomfield the next day. I didn’t hold back. I said: ‘Jim, are you having a joke! I know why you’re doing this. It’s because you signed Brian Alderson, and because I’m coming back fitter than ever, you don’t want to have dirt on your face’.

“He denied this was the case, and then I told him: ‘Anyway, I don’t want to leave Leicester because I’ve been here for nine and a half years and I’ve got a testimonial coming up when I’ve done 10 years’. His response was that I’d only done nine and a half years at Leicester!

“I went home to discuss it with my wife, and she said that if I stayed at Leicester I’d be messed around. I thought about it and then phoned Eddie up. I told him that I had a testimonial coming up, and he came back to me to tell me that Tampa would buy my house for me to help offset the loss of the testimonial. I decided to leave Leicester for good and go to Tampa. 

I must admit that I loved it out there because of the way you were looked after. Every Monday, about six players would go to a lovely hotel to meet fans who had paid to have lunch with you.

Len Glover

“Frank Worthington (Leicester City’s England international striker) was really upset when I told him I was leaving. We played really well together. On the pitch, he always knew exactly where I was and vice versa. We had a telepathic understanding. 

“I went to Tampa for two years. The only reason I didn’t go back for a third year was because, about a month before I was due to go back, I’d done my cartilage. NASL teams were only allowed to play a limited number of foreign players. If I’d gone there, I wouldn’t have been able to play straight away, so their manager Gordon Jago didn’t re-sign me and so that was that.

“At Tampa Bay, we had big crowds. We had a big stadium and full houses. When our season finished, Tampa Buccaneers played there. The pitch was beautiful. They watered it at night and the sprinklers came up through the pitch.

“I must admit that I loved it out there because of the way you were looked after. Every Monday, about six players would go to a lovely hotel to meet fans who had paid to have lunch with you. Also, one day a week the club paid for you to take your family to a particular restaurant for a meal so a nearby family could eat with you. Another thing we did after training was to pair up and go to Clearwater Beach. I’d go with (the ex-Liverpool star) Tommy Smith and we’d do a little bit of heading the ball to each other. Kids would join in. You didn’t just go home after training as we’d done in England. We had to do something.

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Len Glover

Glover pictured during his conversation with John Hutchinson.

“The Americans were also very good at marketing NASL soccer. In order to get big crowds when it wasn’t a big game, the club would make the tickets cheaper. They also teamed up with McDonalds so that, after the game, you could go to a McDonalds restaurant and get a free meal. They were brilliant at that sort of thing. They really knew how to advertise.”

When Len was in America, the popularity of the NASL was at its peak. Founded in 1967 following a merger between the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL) and the United Soccer Association (USA), it was the first truly national top flight professional league in the USA.

In the mid to late 1970s, the NASL attracted many internationally famous players such as Johan Cruyff, Johan Neeskens, Gerd Müller, Eusebio, Gordon Banks, Bobby Moore and George Best.  

Some of Len’s ex-Leicester City teammates, including Frank Worthington, Keith Weller, Alan Birchenall, Jon Sammels and Steve Earle also played in the NASL.

The league collapsed in 1984 due to, among other factors, over expansion and the economic recession of the early 1980s. However, it did much to develop an awareness of and an enthusiasm for soccer which hadn’t previously existed in the USA. 

It also provided Len with the incredible privilege of playing against Pelé, the world’s best player.

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