China Tour 1975.

In 1975 the New Zealand Football team was invited on a tour to the People’s Republic of China.   This was to prove my ‘swansong’ as an International player, however, it would not signal the end of my International career, as I was to go on and carve out a varied and diverse vocation as a Coach with both NZ and Cook Island teams.

In some regards I could consider myself fortunate to be included in Barrie Truman’s squad as I had been left out of the previous International games.   However, an unfortunate injury to my teammate at Stop-Out FC, Keith Barton, opened up the opportunity for me to be included in the travelling party to China.

The Chinese team had visited New Zealand earlier in the year where they had conceded two closely fought defeats and gained a creditable draw.   Obviously, they would be a different proposition in their own country.

Our touring party consisted of: Mr Terry Killalea (Manager), Mr G Thomas (Asst. Manager) Barrie Truman (Coach) and Dr Matt Marshall, as the management team.   The playing squad consisted of; Keepers, Phil Dando and Praven Jeram.  Defenders:Tony Sibley, Ian Park, John Houghton, Adrian Elrick, and MT.  Midfield: Brian Turner, Graham Storer, John Legg, Warren Fleet, and Dave Taylor.   Strikers: Earle Thomas, Kevin Mulgrew, Iain Ormond, Gary Patterson and Kevin Weymouth.

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The New Zealand National Squad to tour China and Indonesia.

We were met in Hong Kong by the Asian correspondent for the New Zealand Press Association; Derek Round.   Derek was a very experienced journalist who had worked on the Vietnam War amongst many of his Asian assignments.  He was very knowledgeable about China; accompanying the squad throughout the tour.   It was disturbing to learn of his recent (2012) brutal and violent death at his home in Wanganui.

Another member of the News Network accompanied us in the form of NZ Radio Commentator; Alan Richards.   Questions were asked, in some quarters, as to why Alan was chosen, as he was better known for his Cricket commentaries.   In fact Alan had an in depth affiliation with football and held managerial positions with the North Shore United club for many years.   Alan encountered many problems when trying to get his broadcasts from China through to NZ, particularly when we played matches in the provinces.

At this time China was ‘unknown’ under Chairman Mao’s Communist regime and it was pointed out that we would be only the second sports team to visit the country since the Cultural Revolution, almost a decade previously.   There was talk at some stage that we may have to cancel the tour, due to financial restraints, but the Labour Government at the time was keen to cement friendly relations with China, thus ensuring that the problem was quickly sorted out.   I believe that the Chinese were also keen to reaffirm their ties with FIFA, which had soured over dealings with their ‘enemy’ Taiwan.   As footballers, we remained unconcerned about the politics involved, as far as we were concerned, we were embarking on an exciting tour into unfamiliar territory to play the game that we loved.

After arriving in Hong Kong we were ushered onto a train which took us to the Hong Kong/ China border; from there we boarded another train whose destination was the southern city of Canton.   I can vaguely recollect the smooth running train taking us through the rural countryside with what seemed like hundreds of peasants labouring in the fields with very little in the way of agricultural equipment such as tractors.   I can also remember hearing the continual propaganda messages being relayed to the passengers through speakers situated in the carriages.   These were mostly about the exploits of Chairman Mao and the prosperity that his regime had brought to the Chinese people.

On arrival in Canton we spent the night in a hotel before boarding a plane to take us to the Chinese Capital of Peking (since renamed Beijing).   In Peking we were housed in a majestic hotel where a no less distinguished visitor than Henry Kissinger had vacated not long before we arrived.   The Chinese were excellent hosts and each day after training they would take us on an excursion to places of interest.   I climbed on the Great Wall of China, visited the Ming Tombs, and spent some time in the magnificent Forbidden City, near the centre of Peking.

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Our Chinese hosts took us on many ‘outings’ including the Great Wall and the Forbidden City.

We trained at the ‘Workers Stadium’, the venue of our first match against China.   I couldn’t work out whether the air was lighter or the balls we trained with were different but I seemed to ‘ping’ the ball effortlessly.

A crowd of ninety thousand spectators crammed into the stadium, the most ever to watch a NZ sports team in action (up to that time).   It was a surreal atmosphere, as the large crowd were strangely hushed, compared with the chanting of noisy European crowds.   I can remember remarking to Johnny Legg, that the supporters made more noise at Edgely Park (home of one of my past clubs; Stockport County).    I didn’t expect to be in the starting line-up and my expectations were realised, however, because I was the oldest player (31yrs) the Chinese nominated me to lead out the team, carrying the NZ flag.   As I led the team into that vast arena I can recall wishing to myself that I was in the starting line-up as I knew I wouldn’t have the opportunity to play in front of such a massive crowd again.   I cannot remember whether the teams came on to the pitch together, but what sticks in my mind is the Chinese players, dressed in all red tracksuits, coordinated and marching in unison; very much military style.   The game, a 2-1 defeat, has faded from my memory, except that when Iain Ormond scored our goal there was a prolonged silence, before the loud speaker system intervened, telling the crowd to be polite to their visitors, and applaud the goal.   This they immediately did.

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Even though I didn’t play at least I carried the flag!!!

We didn’t hang around for long after the fulltime whistle, electing to return to the hotel to shower and change.   The trip back to the hotel provided an amazing sight with thousands of people on bicycles making their way down the wide boulevard, interspersed by hundreds of trucks, packed with people, transporting them back to their communes.   When I commented about the numbers of people at the game, an interpreter told me that they could have filled the stadium twelve times over, such was the interest.

After we had changed we were whisked off to the British Embassy; why the British embassy?  I’m not sure, possibly New Zealand didn’t have an Embassy in Peking at that time, although there were Kiwi diplomats at the reception.   I can remember meeting the famous New Zealand writer; Rewi Alley at some stage of the evening.   He had spent many years in China, writing about, and supporting the Communist Revolution.   At the time I didn’t realise the extent of his achievements in China, but he impressed me as a very intelligent and sincere gentleman.

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Rewi Alley; a great New Zealand writer.

Unfortunately, my memory of this reception is became increasingly blurred, as I became more intoxicated as the night wore.   I strongly suspect that my drinks were being ‘spiked’ with whiskey by Ian Park, but I do recall arriving back at the hotel in a taxi and thrusting a wad of Chinese notes at the driver.   The driver carefully picked his way through the notes taking only took correct amount, closed my hand around the rest of my money before driving off into the night.   On reflection I wondered where else in the world would I find such honesty from a taxi driver!

The next day we faced a ten hour train journey into the provinces to play against Shantung.   We had to be up at the crack of dawn and with my head throbbing due to the previous night’s escapades I wondered how I was going to survive the journey.   What a relief to find that the train had sleeping accommodation and that our squad had been allocated several four bed units.   Along with Earle Thomas, Kevin Mulgrew and Ian Park, I gratefully sank into bed and we were able to sleep off the aftermath of the previous night’s celebrations.

The game in Shantung was won with two goals from the ever reliable Dave Taylor, in front of a comparatively small crowd.   I think that this was to do with the match being televised to a live audience.

Many of our party were finding the food unpalatable (the Chinese had the same problem with NZ food) however, the banquets were so lavish that I found I could pick out enough to sustain me.   The Chinese were magnificent hosts and each day after training we were taken to visit, Communes, Schools, Hospitals, Factories and other places of interest.   At one stage we were allowed into an operating theatre to watch how acupuncture worked as an anaesthetic, during surgery.   I witnessed two operations; both pretty gory, with the patients fully awake whilst the surgeons opened them up and operated.

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Chairman Mao keeps a watch on us..

The people were very friendly; however, the players were pretty physical and got involved in many ‘off the ball’ incidents which the referees didn’t pick up on.   Before one game Barrie Truman and I demonstrated to the referee and linesman our interpretation of a foul.   They nodded their heads in agreement, but come game time they carried on allowing their players to clatter into the man before playing the ball!!

Generally, it would be fair to say that the technical individual abilities of the Chinese players was similar to our own, but, apart from the game in Peking, our organisation and tactical knowledge probably gave us the edge in the other games.

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Some PR work of our own; this youngster wasn’t afraid of the camera.

From a cultural perspective there were numerous anomalies which we encountered on a daily basis.   Although it was obvious that the Communist Revolution had upgraded the standard of living for the workers and peasants from the days of Colonial exploitation, some of the propaganda was ‘over the top’.   For instance we were shown a movie of how the Chinese were the first to reach the summit of Mt Everest, during the 1960’s.   Obviously, this was countered by us reminding them that our own Edmund Hilary and his party had achieved this in 1953.   The Chinese public were not aware that the USA had landed a man on the moon, when I questioned an interpreter on this issue his answer was that they did not need to know.

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Our touring party with a misty looking Shanghai as a backdrop.

You could usually count on Brian Turner to liven things up with his extraverted approach to life: one particular incident standing out in my mind.   After hours of travelling in the provinces we finally arrived at our accommodation, which was clean, but looked as if there hadn’t been a lick of paint since the Second World War.   Brian was becoming increasingly irate at the lack of his home comforts, expressing this as he entered the room that I shared with Ian Park.   “See that bed, Maurice,” he fumed, pointing at an insignificant bed in the corner of the room, “I’m getting into it and I don’t want to be disturbed for the next two days.”   With that he launched his, none too diminutive frame, onto the bed, only to be met by a loud crack as the bed collapsed underneath him.   Unprintable expletives rang from his mouth as Ian and I rolled around in laughter.

One of the games was scheduled to kick off at 9am in the morning in order for our party to catch a flight to Canton.   Where else in the world would an International game be scheduled at this time?    I questioned who would turn up to watch a game so early in the day.   It was certainly a weird experience arising at 6am for a pre-match meal and sure enough as we approached the stadium there appeared to be far less people around than usual.   Our bus drove through the stadium gates and unbelievably thirty thousand people were already inside, filling up the terraces.   Apparently, many of the spectators were workers coming off the night shift at the steel mills.

In the main centres such as Peking, Shanghai and Canton I assumed that the locals were fairly used to seeing strangers in their midst, however, deep in the provincial areas it was obvious that ‘Westerners’ had rarely been seen.   Time and again we were pointed at with incredulous and disbelieving eyes as though we had arrived from a different planet.   On one occasion I set off from our hotel, with two other players, to replace my battered suitcase, only to become increasingly uneasy as we made our way down the street.   People began to crowd around us as we made our way to the store and by the time we had reached our destination there could have been more than two hundred people following us.   As I tried to do business with the store operator an increasingly larger crowd gathered around the shop to get a good look through the window.    I had taken my old battered suitcase with me indicating to the shop assistant that I didn’t want it back and that he could he dispose of it.   No such luck; as we made our way back to the hotel we were followed by a host of people wanting to return the suitcase to me.   I somehow managed to convey to them that I didn’t want the suitcase anymore, only to be summoned to the hotel foyer about an hour later to be confronted with; my battered old suitcase.

We were able to discern that the locals were very apprehensive about having their photograph taken, therefore, when the crowds around us started to get too large one us would pretend to take a photo of them.   To our sadistic amusement this would cause a massive stampede of people scattering in all directions to avoid the camera lens, however, before too long they would return to continue their scrutiny of our unfamiliar features.

 

Despite our many ordeals the tour was a success both on and off the field of play.   Our Chinese guests promoted a philosophy of “make friends not war,” and although this didn’t necessarily apply to their approach to the games, they treat us magnificently in all other respects.  Their propaganda machine continually reminded us how much progress their country was making, and it would have been hard to dispute that everywhere we went people seemed healthy, fed and clothed (albeit in workers uniforms).

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Adrian Elrick and Praven Jeram were both consistent throughout the tour.

Disappointingly for me; throughout the whole tour, (which extended to Singapore and Indonesia) I only played in two full games and came on as substitute in another, however, I was able to assess and support the squad as much as possible.   Praven Jeram deservedly held the number one Goalkeeping spot with Phil Dando stepping in when needed, without letting anyone down.   The back four performed admirably with John Houghton dominating the centre of the defence and Adrian Elrick ‘sweeping’ from behind him.   At fullback both Tony Sibley and Ian Park were defensively very competent and could get forward to bolster the attack when called upon.   In the midfield Brian Turner, Warren Fleet, John Legg, Dave Taylor and Graham Storer were rotated on a regular basis.  In many ways I regarded Graham Storer as the ‘find’ of tour with his phlegmatic personality having a positive effect on the squad both on and off the field of play.   Graham joined me at Stop Out FC at a later date, but somehow his career seemed to lose its way, and he wasn’t able to fulfil the promise that he showed on that tour.   Up front, the unflappable Iain Ormond alongside Earle Thomas and Kevin Mulgrew were a potent force in most of the games, with Kevin Weymouth and Gary Paddison playing minor roles in the proceedings.

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NZ Captain Earle Thomas here in action in a National League match.

Earle Thomas effectively captained the squad, leading by example by taking a battering from opponents coming in from behind and rarely complaining.   Earle was a typical ‘target man’ with a superb touch which allowed him to receive under pressure.   Kevin Mulgrew was the perfect foil for Earle; an out and out ‘lefty’ Mulgrew was able to latch onto Thomas’ flick on’s to good effect.

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Barrie Truman deserved credit for his contribution to the tour. 

Much credit for the success of this tour had to go down to the Coaching skills of Barrie Truman.   His astute use of each individual’s strengths, his organisational skills in setting up the team pattern of play and his innovative training sessions were instrumental in the team’s record of one defeat out of ten games played.   I felt that Barrie was at his peak in terms of his International Coaching career at this time and should have capitalised on this by gaining a long term contract.   However, his tenure on the New Zealand National Coach’s position was only to last a short time before he was replaced by Wally Hughes….