There is an annual event in New York City every year called ‘Tartan Week’ held during April. The event, as it suggests, is a celebration of all things Scottish.  But however celebratory the event is it’s unlikely the name of Charlie Aitken will ring out from those watching the parade from the 5th Avenue pavements. 

That though should not detract from the role a man from Edinburgh played in the Cosmos great soccer summer of sport in 1977.

During two years in the mid 1970’s (1976 and 1977) Charlie Aitken was a New York Cosmos player and played alongside the likes of Pele, Franz Beckenbeuer and Giorgio Chinaglia in the famous green and white playing kit.  He is one of only a handful of Scotsmen to play in the NASL during the iconic heydays of the 1970’s.

And, because of his association with the great Cosmos side, perhaps Scotland’s most successful NASL player.

Charlie Aitken had spent spent 17 seasons with Aston Villa in the English leagues as a full back.

Joining in 1959 as a teenager he was given a free transfer at the end of the 1975/76 season.  To this day he remains Aston Villa’s club’s greatest ever servant and the club’s highest appearance maker with over 600 appearances in league and cup competitions to his name.

But in all those appearances Aitken can point to only a solitary League Cup winners medal in 1975 when Villa, thanks to a Ray Graydon goal, defeated Norwich City to lift the cup at Wembley in front of 95,000.

The reason for the lack of success enjoyed at Villa is simple. The period coincided with a era where Villa went from winning the FA Cup in 1957 to being a club in free fall – even once being as lowly as an English Third Division club.  Successive managers from Joe Mercer to Tommy Doherty had been unable to stop a horrendous decline; a decline that was only arrested under the successful managerial reign of Ron Saunders.

Today’s media and marketing rich MLS may be a far different league to the NASL that Charlie Aitken ventured across the Atlantic to play in, but the money on offer even back then was tempting.  For someone who had spent nearly two decades on the muddy pitches of English football the glamour of New York Cosmos was a gift from a above for a 34 year old who had just been given a free transfer.

Pelé had joined the Cosmos on June 10th 1975 from Santos on a reported salary of around $1.4 million per year, an enormous wage for a sporting athlete at that time.  For the under performing NASL the signing of Pele was a huge coup and one that turned an assortment of journeyman foreigners and veteran semi-professionals into a huge commercial presence that captured the imagination of New Yorkers.

Aitken joined Cosmos during a period that saw rapid expansion for the NASL as more teams came forward with the modest franchise fee to join the league.  Quickly the league was beginning to have a nationwide appeal with San Jose, Seattle and Vancouver giving the league a West Coast and Canadian angle.

Soon after a further five more franchises were added including Chicago Sting and Minnesota Kicks from the large urban centers of Chicago and Minneapolis.

By 1976 the NASL was now a league of 20 teams split across four divisions

Charlie Aitken joined a Cosmos side that was coached by Englishmen. 

First came former Blades boss Ken Furphy and he was joined by Gordon Bradley.  Both coaches had used contacts in the English game to bring players across the Atlantic Ocean.


Despite only one star name in the great Brazilian, Aitken began playing for a side where crowds were beginning to explode.

After many years at the Downing Stadium and the Hofstra Stadium in Long Island the Cosmos moved to the unusual Baseball surroundings of the Yankees’ Stadium in the Bronx after its re-opening in April 1976.

From a low of 3,500 in 1974 attendances rose to an average of 18,227 during the 1976 regular season.  By 1977, Aitken’s second and final season, average crowds grew to almost 40,000 weekly as the side were crowd NASL Champions.

Cosmos games were now fit to be played at the Giants Stadium in New Jersey.

While Aitken was seen as a stable, steady and reliable player for the Cosmos the key crowd pullers were the front line pairing of Pele and Giorgio Chinaglia who had arrived from SS Lazio.

The presence of the Italian proved to be hugely popular to the large Italian expat community who lived in the New York area.

Where Pele had the popularity on the field, off the pitch Chinaglia held sway as the Godfather of the side.  The Italian had his own office in New York City, and the use of his own Cosmos AmEx credit card. More so, the squad roster was streamlined depending on whom Chinaglia wanted as part of the dressing room.

Aitken’s steady presence on the left flank for Cosmos brought stability and composure to a side playing in the Atlantic Conference.   Also amongst his colleagues were Ramon Mifflin and Dave Clements the Irishman.  His 16 games in 1976 were not enough for Aitken to be given even an honorable mention when the all star teams were named at the season end.

Yet his role in promoting the NYC brand in New York was huge.

Teams at this time were split into Northern and Eastern divisions with the Rochester Lancers, Miami Toros, Washington Diplomats, Boston Minutemen and Toronto Blizzard.  This meant fixtures required air travel rather than coach travel.

Tampa Bay Rowdies were the top side and it was Tampa who Cosmos would lose to in the Conference semi final. 

That seasons eventual NASL champions were Toronto Blizzard headed up by  Eusebio.

The 1977 season was the 10th of the NASL yet it was a streamlined league made up of only 18 teams. 

Squad rosters consisted of a total of 17 players, 6 of which had to be US or Canadian citizens. This meant a squeeze on foreign players – especially those regarded as veterans.

On the pitch the NASL began using its own variation of the penalty shoot out procedure for tied matches.

Matches drawn at regulation time went to a golden goal overtime period, if still tied, it went onto a shoot-out. Instead of penalty kicks, however, the shoot-out attempt started 35 yards from the goal and allowed the player 5 seconds to attempt a shot.

This was the so called “victory goal” brought in to make the NASL appealing to those watching at home.

Fans who were basically unable to understand the concept of a ‘draw’.

By this time the New York Cosmos were the most glamorous team in world football. Aitken found himself at a club that was the strongest franchise in the league, favorites to be crowd champions and backed by Warner Communications.

Despite the progression, CBS television coverage and the pull of world superstars, the league in 1977 was still only a short season played mostly during the summer months. Moreover, huge differences existed in terms of player contracts meaning the likes of Aitken were on far smaller contracts than Giorgio Chinaglia and Pele.

This was now a side featuring Franz Beckenbauer and the Brazilian Carlos Alberto.  Steve Hunt, a former colleague from Aston Villa was the goalscoring star as the Cosmos defeated Seattle Saunders 2-1 in the Portland final to become NASL champions.

Charlie Aitken played only 8 games in that NASL winning season but he played a large part in what was a ‘summer to remember’ – the most fabled season in the Cosmos’ history when the soccer bowl was won. 

For many it was fun whilst it lasted; likewise for a steady number 17 from Edinburgh.

By 1978 Aitken was gone from the playing roster deemed unworthy of another contract by Eddie Firmani and replaced by the likes of Dennis Tueart in the squad.

The Cosmos themselves eventually folded and it is only now with American Soccer ‘reinvigorated’ tin the MLS that the Cosmos brand has re-emerged.  Yet despite huge marketing campaigns where the Cosmos have tried to position themselves alongside other reinvigorated franchise brands, the Cosmos still find themselves behind to new sides.

The New York Red Bulls and New York City are now the main MLS sides in NY.

The Cosmos do however continue to be very well known globally but Charlie Aitken less so. 

It is the number 9 of Chinaglia or the number 10 of Pele that is more often that not seen on the Cosmos shirt rather than the 17 of Aitken.  At Villa, Aitken is remembered as the clubs record appearance holder.

And, despite only 22 appearances at Cosmos, he remains an integral part of the Cosmos heritage given the role he played in that golden 1977 Summer to Remember.