The biggest crowd of the season - 21,464 – turned out on 12th March 1973 to see Brazilian superstar Pelé and his Santos team play a friendly against Second Division Fulham at Craven Cottage.
It was the 31-year-old’s first game in the English capital, as he had spent all of Brazil’s matches at the 1966 World Cup at Everton’s Goodison Park, and the likes of Carlos Alberto and Edú were alongside him for Santos’ ‘world tour’.
Fulham Manager Alec Stock was not overawed - as he acknowledged beforehand: “It’s a serious game for us. We beat Benfica a year ago [to mark the opening of the Riverside Stand] and hope to do the same to Santos. We thought it would be very unfair to our players to drop them for guests and spoil the fine spirit they have. Exhibition matches are bad things for spectators and we’re going to give Santos a run for their money.”
Fulham skipper Alan Mullery had come up against Pelé at the 1970 World Cup, but planned on going a little softer on the forward this time around, saying: “Tell Pelé that I won’t be marking him too closely this time. The fans want to see his skills, not me trying to stop him play.”
Making strides onto the Craven Cottage turf, the world’s best player still had “the speed and wriggle of a young adder” according to The Daily Express’ Steve Curry, while The Daily Mirror’s Jack Steggles wrote: “There was an excited buzz every time the ball reached Pelé.”
But wing-wizard Edu proved to be Santos’ outstanding player on the night. He hit the bar with a first half free-kick and Curry described his skills as “staggeringly brilliant” on the left flank before Fulham were handed the lead late in the opening 45 minutes.
An appalling blunder by Santos goalkeeper Claudio gave the Whites the opening goal on 35 minutes as he got hold of Alan Pinkey’s cross, but let the ball slip through his hands and into the net.
Santos, playing at almost walking pace, were soon level, though, as an explosive burst carried Pelé yards clear in a race for a throughball and goalkeeper Peter Mellor brought him down. Pelé picked himself up to send Mellor the wrong way with the spot-kick and tie the game at 1-1.
“I wanted to save a Pele penalty,” Mellor told writer David Lloyd years later in the 2011 programme for Brazil v Ghana, played at the Cottage. “I had stopped spot-kicks from George Best and Jimmy Greaves and wanted to make it a hat-trick. I asked Alan Mullery which way Pele normally shoots. He told me left, but Pele sent the ball the other side. I was been desperate to save this one and protect our lead – but I didn’t have a chance.”
The Whites would hit back seven minutes from time to secure the winner, however, as Steve Earle was bodychecked by Vincente outside the box. The forward got himself in a great position from the resulting free-kick, which he sent home from close range to inflict only Santos’ second defeat in 12 matches of their tour and ensure that Pelé would never forget his trip to SW6.
Our young striker John Mitchell - celebrating his 21st birthday - would not forget the day either. “Playing Santos was a fantastic opportunity for the whole Club," he told Lloyd. "We were up for it and there was a wonderful atmosphere generated by the fans.
"My claim to fame from the evening was nutmegging Pelé – although, as my teammate Les Strong is always quick to remind me, I didn’t really mean to do it! I turned with the ball, miscontrolled it, and that tricked the world’s best player. When I realised what I’d done – deliberately or otherwise – I almost stopped in my tracks. But we did really well."
Fulham's left-back Fred Callaghan added: “One thing I remember was getting Pelé to autograph five footballs after the game – which was great of him - and I passed them on to people to raise money for charity."