He doesn’t talk much about it these days. The memories are locked away, recalled only in special circumstances. But ever since Eusebio’s death on Sunday, Hilary Carlyle has looked a little differently at the photograph hanging proudly on his wall.
It was April 9, 1977. Pele’s New York Cosmos were in Las Vegas for their NASL season-opener against the Quicksilvers, a re-badged and re-located version of San Diego Jaws. Somehow, the new franchise had persuaded a 35-year-old Eusebio to join them.
He had been in America for two years, bouncing from one cash-strapped team to the next, his already-damaged knees struggling with the weight of expectation and the litany of poor playing surfaces. Two of his former Benfica team-mates, Toni and Humberto Coelho, had also signed for the Quicksilvers. An imposing Holy Trinity. But there was another intriguing new arrival. Another centre-forward.
Carlyle, a Derryman, was a FAI Cup winner with Finn Harps in 1974 — his partnership with Brendan Bradley a legendary one. The following year, a move to Celtic fell through after he failed the medical. In 1976, he headed for America and joined San Diego. Now here he was. In the searing heat of the Nevada desert, standing between two of the greatest ever footballers. Jock Stein had told him he could shield a ball like no other player he’d seen. Not even Eusebio. Now here he was, shielding his new team-mate.
“He and Pele were having words and had clashed a few minutes before. I was too wrapped up in the game to take in what they were saying. But I just got between them and tried to calm things down. An American photographer called me afterwards, handed me the negative and I got the photograph developed.”
Both superstars struggled that evening. The Quicksilvers scored an unlikely 1-0 victory, though it proved the highlight of their season. They’d finish as the second worst team in the Pacific Conference. Eusebio could only muster two goals in 17 games and didn’t stick around, eking out a couple of more years in the deep, dark and obscure soccer backwaters of America. Pele would fare much better — ending his NASL adventure later that year as a champion.
For Carlyle, his stay in Las Vegas was brief but memorable. The city’s bright lights and big names were intoxicating, though it was another Irishman who provided the majority of entertainment for him and his team-mates.
“Brendan Bowyer was very big in Las Vegas at the time. He was a fan of mine and he’d invite me to his shows as a guest. I’d bring a couple of the players along, including Eusebio. He went a few times with us. Caesars Palace was another regular haunt of ours.”
Carlyle brought the curtain down on his NASL sojourn by playing a dozen games for Team Hawaii. But he swapped Honolulu for Ballybofey and was back at Harps before the end of 1977.
The following year, Jim McLoughlin brought him to Dundalk where he enjoyed considerable success, racking up a number of domestic trophies and featuring in some memorable European ties — even scoring in a European Cup clash against Maltese outfit Hibernians. And it was that competition that brought about another encounter with Eusebio, 12 years after the first. A poetic postscript.
Derry City had racked up a historic treble in 1989 and, the following season, faced Benfica in the first round of the European Cup. The first leg was at the Brandywell.
Carlyle had a special interest in the fixture. His younger brother Paul was an integral part of the Derry midfield. But additionally, an old friend was in town. Two, as it turned out.
The Benfica team were staying at the Everglades Hotel. Eusebio, then part of the coaching staff, was with them. Carlyle, intrigued as to whether he might catch a glimpse, paid a visit to the Prehen playing fields where the team were training. The first face he spotted was Toni, his former Quicksilvers team-mate, who was putting the squad through their paces.
“Toni spotted me and nodded to Eusebio to come over to him. They started to talk and Toni was pointing at me. He got someone else to take over the session and the three of us headed off for a nice, long chat. We talked about life, what we were up to and swapped stories about the old days.”
Benfica scraped a 2-1 win at the Brandywell. Fittingly, with his older brother and Eusebio both looking on, Paul Carlyle scored the Derry goal. It had to be.
This past week, Hilary Carlyle has looked at the photograph on his wall and remembered the good times. “I played with Eusebio at the end of his career. He didn’t have the legs anymore but he was still deadly.
“If he got a chance, he didn’t miss. He was a quiet, well-mannered man. But he was very witty and could be a messer at training or in the changing room.
“For me, he was one of the top three players of all time alongside Pele and Best.