Maurice Tillotson: When New Zealand toured Chairman Mao’s China.

By  Donald Ross

  • 04/07/2017

China and Chinese football are great unknowns to many people even in 2017. Both were a whole lot more unknown in 1975. At that time Mao was ruling a China that was largely cut off from the outside world and still recovering from the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution. Yet this is the China that Maurice Tillotson and his 16 New Zealand teammates toured.

Yorkshire born Maurice Tillotson had an eventful playing career that spanned three continents. He started at Huddersfield Town and also played for Stockport County, with a spell in Canada in between. The defender then moved to Belgium where he made over 100 appearances for Royal Antwerp. Tillotson arrived in New Zealand in 1971 and was recognised as New Zealand Player of the Year in 1973 for his “astute use of the ball, quickness to launch an overlapping counter attack and distaste of any clearance which might give away possession.” He’d missed the home summer internationals against China in 1975 but was recalled to the national squad for their historic tour to China in October that year.

New Zealand hosted a three game series against China earlier in 1975

In contrast to Tillotson’s international career path, China was only just beginning to adopt a more international outlook in the early 1970s. Sport was seen as one way to promote this and where the US table tennis team famously led in 1971, their New Zealand counterparts followed in 1974. New Zealand’s footballers weren’t far behind. Up to this point the Chinese national team had been limited to games against other communist countries, fellow Asian nations and African trade partners but New Zealand’s 1975 visit broke that mould.

Whilst aware of the political backdrop to the tour, it did not unduly concern Tillotson and his teammates. “Most of the players in the squad had previously toured in Asia with the NZ National team so it was not something that held any apprehension. There was an element of ‘entering the unknown’ where China was concerned, however, the expectancy of international matches was the major anticipation.”

Their first glimpse of this unknown world came through train windows on their journey from Hong Kong to Guangzhou. Whilst the agricultural scenery may not have been uniquely Chinese, the “continual propaganda messages” played through the carriage speakers left no doubt that the team were in Mao’s China.

The squad then flew to Beijing to play China at a packed but subdued Gongti.  “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 “Edgeley Park.” Walking out onto the pitch was a bittersweet moment for Tillotson. “As the most senior player, I was designated by the Chinese to carry the NZ flag and to lead out the squad for the match in Beijing. It was a proud and nerve tingling feeling to lead out the NZ team in front of 90,000 spectators, but it was tinged with regret that I wasn’t in the starting line-up for the game. At that time it was reported that this was the largest crowd ever to watch a NZ team perform in any sport.” China went 2-0 up thanks to goals from Li Zhouzhe and Rong Zhixing but Iain Ormond pulled one back as the game finished 2-1 to the Chinese.

Mao watches over the squad

The squad was well looked after off the pitch and Tillotson remembers that “we had interpreters with us most times, however occasionally we would go out individually or in small groups.” One of these times was getting back to the hotel from the post-game reception at the British Embassy. “I 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 the 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!” In contrast, the Chinese spectators made their way home from Gongti differently “with thousands of people on bicycles making their way down the wide boulevard, interspersed by hundreds of trucks, packed with people.”

The touring party then faced a ten hour train journey to Jinan – a trip that takes just two hours on a high speed train today. Whilst in Jinan, the footballers visited the city’s famous springs. In fact, sightseeing opportunities were a common feature of the tour. “Every day after training a group of us would be taken out to visit places of interest. A steel mill, schools, communes, factories, hospital, etc. were all on the agenda. We didn’t make requests, our hosts took us. I cannot remember many complaints from the players as it was all very interesting and there was little else to occupy us in our free time. Visits to the Great Wall of China, The Forbidden City and the Ming Tombs were particularly interesting.” The squad were also taken out for musical evening entertainment but their visit to a hospital gave them access to a completely unexpected performance. “At one stage we were allowed into an operating theatre to watch how acupuncture worked as an an-aesthetic during surgery. I witnessed two operations; both pretty gory, with the patients fully awake whilst the surgeons opened them up and operated.”

New Zealand were in Jinan to play Shandong, the first provincial opposition they would face on the tour. Tillotson can’t remember a marked difference in the level of play between the national and provincial sides, commenting in general that “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 Beijing, our organisation and tactical knowledge probably gave us the edge.” It certainly seemed to help against Shandong and then against Shanghai with the New Zealanders winning both games despite facing some tough opposition: “the players were pretty physical and got involved in many ‘off the ball’ incidents which the referees didn’t pick up on.”

The NZ squad pose in Shanghai.

Things weren’t always plain sailing off the pitch either. “Food was a problem; often in the way it was presented, and the smell and taste were not what we were used to. At banquets there was a good variety of food and enough courses for us to pick out what we liked and come away satisfied. The Chinese team had similar problems when they visited NZ.” With China having been a largely closed society for the recent past, the footballers attracted attention wherever they went and “were observed with incredulous pointing and gestures. Crowds of people gathered around us on the occasions when we walked in the streets, although to be fair, they were curious, not intimidating.”

New Zealand’s next stop was industrial Wuhan for two games; a draw with Hubei before a win against Hunan. The latter kicked off at 9am “in order for our party to catch a flight to Guangzhou. 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.”

Hunan v New Zealand at Wuhan’s Xinhua Road Stadium in 1975

New Zealand followed this with a drawn international against the then Portuguese colony of Macao before continuing onto Singapore and Indonesia. Looking back on the tour, Tillotson feels that Barrie Truman’s squad had every reason to be proud. “From a results perspective the tour was successful as we only lost one game. Had we played China at the end of the tour, rather than the first match, I think that we would have beaten them. Culturally it was a massive learning curve for all of us as we encountered a society vastly different from our own. The tour may well have been an early building block with China, as NZ currently has very close economic, trade and tourist ties with that country.”

The Chinese would face New Zealand – including Brian Turner and Adrian Elrick who both toured in ’75 – three times in qualifying for the 1982 World Cup. However, the All whites beat China in a play-off match to secure their place at Spain’82. When China matched this feat in 2002 both the country and its football team looked very different from those seen by Maurice Tillotson and his teammates back in 1975.

WEF would like to thank Maurice Tillotson for his contribution and for allowing the reproduction of his photographs. 

Donald Ross

Donald began following Guangzhou R&F having moved to China in the same year that R&F moved to Guangzhou. The club’s first foreign season ticket holder, Donald was able to watch three seasons at Yuexiushan before returning to the UK.