In May 1978 West Bromwich Albion made history by becoming the first English professional football team to tour China, playing in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou as well as the then British colony of Hong Kong. WEF looks back at this little known tour that was significant on both sporting and political levels.
With a sixth place finish in the English First Division and a run to the semi-finals of the FA Cup, the West Brom players had earned their summer holiday. They would, however, have five more matches to play before their season was over. The twist was that these games would take place 5,000 miles away in China.
In the years following President Nixon’s celebrated visit to China in 1972, the international community was gradually re-establishing ties with a country that had been scarred by the pain of the Cultural Revolution. The UK was a leading player in this with ex-PM Ted Heath travelling to Beijing to meet Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping in 1974 and ’75. Mao’s death and the subsequent leadership changes in China only encouraged an international outlook so plans were made for the English national team to play warm-up friendlies for the Argentina ’78 World Cup in China. England’s failure to qualify left a vacancy that West Brom Chairman and FA Councillor Bert Millichip quickly grabbed for his side. One of the more unlikely tours in footballing history was on.
Beijing 1 v 3 WBA
China 0 v 2 WBA
Shanghai 0 v 2 WBA
40,000, Jiangwan Stadium
Guangdong 0 v 6 WBA
30,500, Yuexiushan Stadium
Hong Kong 0 v 3 WBA
18,525, Happy Valley Stadium
This being 1978, West Brom’s journey was far from straightforward and their flight from Heathrow took in stops at Rome, Bahrain and Calcutta on route to Hong Kong, before a train ride to Guangzhou and another flight to Beijing. After a long season, 90 hours of travelling was not ideal match preparation for the players but they were aware that their trip was about more than football; not many squads will have received a pre-tour briefing at the Foreign Office. As Tony Brown remembers the trip “it was very much a diplomatic mission…we were going to official functions all the while, visiting embassies and then going and visiting the communes people lived on.” Indeed, the BBC’s Julian Pettifer, who accompanied the baggies to make a documentary of the trip for the World About Us (fragments of which still survive), called the trip “football diplomacy.” An idea echoed by the then Sports Minister Denis Howell who saw West Brom as “football ambassadors.”
However, the likes of Bryan Robson and ‘the three degrees’ were footballers first and ambassadors second and they didn’t let their focus slip. The baggies beat Beijing (forerunner of today’s Beijing Guoan) 3-1 in front of 80,000 at Gongti, before an even larger crowd of 89,400, including Deng Xiaoping, saw the baggies beat the Chinese national side 2-0. What most unsettled the West Brom players was not the size of the crowd but the eerie quiet. As defender and captain John Wile put it “the atmosphere was surreal – very quiet despite huge crowds.” A far cry from today’s raucous Gongti. Albion had also brought a referee with them and he remembers being equally bemused when his injury was treated by a combination of being given a massage and also some pears to eat. Unexpected food was not confined to the physio room as the players’ half time cup of tea and oranges were supplemented by ice cream. It would probably be fair to say that this gesture of friendship by their hosts was more favorably received than the sea cucumbers served at official banquets.
With the theme for the tour “Friendship First, Competition Second” there was time to indulge in some dubious entertainment, including a circus performance where a dog pulled a trumpet playing panda in a pram around the venue. More conventional trips that would be familiar to today’s visitors to Beijing included visiting Chairman Mao’s mausoleum, the Ming Tombs and the Great Wall, the latter spawning one of the great football quotes from midfielder John Trewick: “Impressive, isn’t it? But once you’ve seen one wall, you’ve seen them all.” Although this might not be the whole story as Wile insists that the comment was tongue-in-cheek with Trewick getting fed up of being asked the same question by multiple journalists.
Albion’s next stop was Shanghai where they beat the city side (now Shanghai Shenhua) 2-0 before a hastily arranged game against Guangdong at “a picturesque stadium situated on a hillside” – Yuexiushan. Despite the “appalling playing conditions” which included a “disgraceful” pitch and the “stifling heat” that today’s CSL players still have to contend with, Albion overcame their Cantonese opposition 6-0. Albion then finished the tour in style by beating Hong Kong 3-0 at Happy Valley, with none happier than manager Ron Atkinson who’d seen a pre-match 5-1 bet on the horses at the adjacent racecourse come good.
Easily the most unexpected outcome of the tour was that a 5 year old boy from Meizhou would, 38 years later, go on to buy West Brom. Guochuan Lai has publicly stated that historic links with China were one of the reasons his snappily named Yunyi Guokai (Shanghai) Sports Development Co., Ltd bought West Brom. He has since lost no time in launching a West Brom account on the Chinese football app dongqiudi and it would be no surprise if the baggies were to make a pre-season visit to Beijing over the next couple of years.
At times, especially meal times, the 1978 trip was a difficult experience with one of the touring party calling it “a nightmare.” But with the benefit of hindsight, the tour was a unique sporting experience and beyond that a chance to see a China that few Westerners were allowed to see, and a China that is now long gone. Were today’s West Brom squad to retrace their predecessors’ steps they’d still see the Great Wall and have to go to a fair few official functions but they’d also see far more gleaming high rise towers than communes and the crowds in the stadiums would all be taking photos using smart phones rather than sitting quietly. John Wile again “looking back, it was a memorable trip because it was ground-breaking. A wonderful experience.” And an experience that was to spark many more connections between the two nations on both footballing and diplomatic levels.
Sources: Quotes on Yuexiushan from “Baggies Abroad: The Complete Record of West Bromwich Albion’s Global Travels” by Tony Matthews, quotes from John Wile from the Birmingham Mail “West Brom special feature: Historic trip to the Orient for the Baggies” and quotes from Tony Brown from the West Brom website. Photos from West Brom’s Weibo account and stills from the Youtube clips referenced above.
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