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Elton John’s Watford in China in 1983, watched by Xi Jinping - Wild East Football
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Elton John’s Watford in China in 1983, watched by Xi Jinping

Watford’s last away game in the English First Division in 1982/83 was a 3-1 loss against Ipswich Town. Their next away match was in front of 80,000 in Beijing. In June 1983 Graham Taylor’s Watford played three games in China on a two week post-season tour. Owner Elton John came along for the ride too.

Watford had risen from the English Fourth Division to the First Division in just five years under Graham Taylor. Their ‘kick and rush’ playing style was not to everyone’s liking but it was certainly effective. Watford finished 2nd in the First Division in the 1982/32 season, still the club’s best ever league finish. Soon they would have the chance to showcase their style of play to a reported TV audience of 350 million.

This would have been unthinkable just over a decade before. There was no place for organised football in the chaos of China’s Cultural Revolution which began in 1966. Even if there had been, matches against teams from the capitalist West would’ve been very unlikely. Organised football restarted in the early ’70s and after Mao’s death in 1976, China’s footballing isolation began to soften.

Ironically it was the big spending New York Cosmos who were the first to visit Communist China. Pele, Carlos Alberto, Franz Beckenbauer and co all played in Beijing and Shanghai in 1977. They were followed by West Bromwich Albion, Inter Milan and Sporting Lisbon the following year.

“An enjoyable fortnight of football sport”

Why it was Watford who followed West Brom to China is lost in the mists of time. The ‘how’ is easier to explain. The London Export Corporation organised West Brom’s tour under the banner of “friendship first, competition second”. They, alongside two separate firms of travel agents, did the same for Watford. The tour couldn’t have happened without an eclectic mix of sponsors who’d spotted the potential of the Chinese market though.

The tour’s official programme – printed in both English and Chinese characters – makes clear the international appeal of the Chinese market even in the early ’80s. A British textile firm was among the sponsors and presumably hoped that their “very close working relationship” with the snappily named Tianjin Brach of the China National Animal By-Products Import and Export Corporation would give them the edge over a Brazilian textile exporter and fellow tour sponsor.  Similar sentiments were expressed by another British company who hoped that the football would be “as consistently good” as the jute, kenaf and flax which they “regularly obtain from China”. The prize for best pre-tour quote goes to the American chemicals company who wished everyone “an enjoyable fortnight of football sport”.

Arrival in China

Watford landed in what Martin Amis – covering the tour for The Observer – described as “the chaotic kiln of Peking Airport” after a 20 hour flight. In addition to the playing and coaching staff, international referee Neil Midgley was also on the plane. Among the club officials was Chairman Elton John, whilst ex-FIFA President Sir Stanley Rous also made the trip and was given the use of a Red Flag limousine normally reserved for high level Party cadres. Star players John Barnes, Luther Blissett, Gerry Armstrong and Kenny Jackett didn’t travel with the others though as they were on international duty in the penultimate British Home Championship.

Watford got their first look at their Chinese opponents during a joint training session. The Chinese national side were in a transitional phase at this point. Some players had retired after coming so close to qualifying for the 1982 World Cup others were hanging on for one final season, and some new players were introduced in preparation for the 1984 AFC Cup.

Winger Shen Xiangfu – future manager of Beijing Guoan and Shanghai Shenhua – was one of China’s more experienced players. During the training session, Amis talked to the “major star” wearing “what looked like size two boots.” Shen was apparently a “student and instructor at the Peking Sports Institute” when he wasn’t travelling with the national team or idolising Kevin Keegan. He was also shy. When Amis asked if Shen would like to play in England one day, Shen simply answered “yes.” Either Shen or his interpreter neglected to mention that Shen had in fact toured Europe, including the UK, the previous year as well as having played in the US, South America and Europe in the late 1970s. Even now there aren’t many who can say they’ve played at Giants Stadium in New York, Ibrox, the San Siro, and Rome’s Stadio Olympico. Shen Xiangfu can. China may have been a closed country to most, but top level Chinese footballers at this time were travelling to more countries than ever before.

Beijing’s urban ecology

On his drive to the game through the “half industrialised loops of urban Peking”, Amis was fascinated by the “entire ecology” he saw on the move. “Squirming busloads, open lorries from the outlying factories carrying their human freight, the furtive touts at the intersections, and 50,000 bicycles” took the crowd to the Gongti.

Those packing out Gongti’s stands were a different type of crowd to that of other countries though. Watford had been told Chinese crowds were happy when their team was winning, but also happy when they were loosing because then “the superior team is schooling you for the future”. That attitude certainly can’t be seen at today’s CSL games, and wasn’t necessarily in evidence back in 1983 either. Spotting some inharmonious behaviour at Gongti, the tannoy proclaimed “the department of public security asks the audience in section 20 to sit down…Strive to become a peaceful and civilised audience”. There were also guards at the front of each section to prevent unwanted outbursts of spontaneous behaviour.

With Watford’s internationals unavailable, 19 year old Ian Richardson made his debut in front of the reported 80,000 crowd. Not quite the same as playing at Division Four Blackpool’s Bloomfield Road where he’d been on loan that season. It didn’t faze Richardson though and he scored twice as Watford beat China 3-1. Each Watford goal sparked immediate applause from the Chinese fans but the biggest cheer was presumably reserved for when Lü Hongxiang scored for the hosts.

The game wasn’t as one sided as the scoreline suggests and Graham Taylor acknowledged that China “played impressively and well enough to have won”. This view was echoed by Club Secretary Eddie Plumley who said that “without a brilliant couple of saves from [keeper Steve] Sherwood it might have been a different story”. Amis was also impressed with the “swift and skillful Chinese”, especially Shen who “ran Watford ragged”.

At full time, the tannoy cautioned “do not molest or beat up the players or referee”. The instruction seemed silly at the time but would be needed a week later.

“The world’s greatest superstar”

Like the other touring sides before them, Watford had a full programme of off pitch activities during their short time in China. They took in opera, acrobatics and ballet as well as visiting the Forbidden City, Ming Tombs and the Great Wall. When Watford’s internationals joined the tour late they were offered the chance to visit the Great Wall too. John Barnes declined, leaving Luther Blissett to get a taxi on his own.

Watford also endured a formal dinner at the Great Hall of the People. “Their quivering chopsticks” Amis wrote “negotiated the usual menu of fish stomachs, sea-slugs and ancient eggs”. Then it was Elton John’s turn to take the stage after being introduced as “the world’s greatest superstar” by the CFA’s General Secretary. This was a step up on his billing in the official tour programme as “an international superstar following his LP Yellow Brick Road”. So it was that two years before Wham! became the first Western pop group to tour China, Elton John was singing for his supper in Beijing.

It seems that ‘the world’s greatest superstar’ was only recognised by foreign tourists in China, perhaps unsurprisingly given that China’s footballing isolation had been mirrored in other cultural spheres. With his “Billy Bunter suit, banded boater, purple sunglasses and diamond earring” he would certainly have stood out from the crowd.

An example of this came when the Hornets were in Shanghai. Elton John was recognised on a cruise down the Huangpu River and, according to club director Muir Stafford, filmed “an impromptu scene for Australian TV with a crowd of his American fans”. An unexpectedly international vision of China in 1983, even for Shanghai.

Stafford also noted that “considerable shopping was done by members of the party”. Elton John was at the fore here with some “predatory shopping” and Amis writes that the musician “spent forty times the local per capita income in a single spree”. ‘Friendship store first’ may have been a more apt slogan for the tour.

“An elegant ruin” in Shanghai

Watford’s second game was against Shanghai at the city’s Jiangwan Stadium. Amis called it an “elegant ruin” – it has since hosted AFL games – and described the journey to it “past lean-tos and go-downs, bamboo department stores…streets latticed by plane-tree fronds, tram cables and wet washing”.

By this point Watford’s four internationals had arrived to strengthen the team. Shanghai were a good side though and won the Chinese National Games later in the year. When they took the lead against Watford, fire crackers and cherry bombs went off in the stadium. Obviously the 40,000 strong crowd hadn’t listened to the pre-match announcement that “Shanghai audiences are good audiences, and this is a Shanghai audience”. Either that or the crowd and loudspeaker had different interpretations of ‘good’.

They might have bee 1-0 down but Watford hadn’t finished second in England for nothing. The Hornets came back to win 2-1 thanks to goals from Steve Terry and Nigel Callaghan. Both were “created out of nothing by the Shanghai goalkeeper” according to Amis.

The modern day CSL may be seen as a retirement home by some, but the travelling and weather conditions are anything but relaxing. Watford discovered this in 1983. The Shanghai summer heat and humidity were such that some players had icepacks on their heads at half time to cool down.

“They bored 70,000 people silly”

Watford’s final game was back at Gongti against China. This time the Hornets overwhelmed their hosts 5-1 with goals from internationals Barnes (2), Blissett (2) and Jackett. Even China changing their goalkeeper couldn’t stop Watford scoring – both the experienced Li Fusheng and Guangdong’s Yang Ning played a part in the game. Beijinger Li Hui won and scored a second half penalty for China but it was scant consolation.

After the promise China had showed in the first game, Graham Taylor was disappointed with their performance in the second. “They bored 70,000 people silly tonight. If they feel this is what they have to learn in order to be a top footballing country then I’m afraid they’re sadly mistaken” Taylor said.

Not everyone was bored though. Amis wrote of the “climbing anger” in the stadium and “selective and unmistakable” aggression towards Watford’s black players Barnes and Blissett. The hostility continued outside the ground as the Watford party were “cursed, barracked and gestured at” as they drove away. Things would be worse for the Hong Kong team in 1985 when their victory dumped China out of World Cup qualifying and sparked a riot.

One of the fans who left the stadium “angry and upset”, according to a friend, had travelled 170 miles from Zhengding in Hebei where he was deputy party secretary. Then he was one of 70,000 who “swirled sullenly round the ground”, but now Xi Jinping is the leader of China’s football revolution and able to implement policies he could previously only dream about. Xi’s reforms are not the first time that China has set ambitious footballing targets though and only time will tell whether his goals will be achieved.

“Marvellously successful 13 day pilgrimage”

Back in 1983, The Watford Observer was in no doubt about the success of the tour. Watford “left their brand of attacking football indelibly stamped on the minds of the Chinese followers” after a “marvellously successful 13 day pilgrimage”. Graham Taylor called it a “superb and prestigious tour”. Director Muir Stafford agreed, writing of a “truly fantastic tour”. Watford enjoyed the experience so much that they were back in 1987. They won the Great Wall Cup that year, the cup reputedly too big for the Vicarge Road trophy cabinet.

Both Stafford and Amis also wrote of China’s footballing ambitions in words which seem equally apt today. The latter wrote that “China seeks inclusion [in football] as feelingly as she seeks it elsewhere” whilst Stafford observed “an overwhelming desire of the Chinese to improve their status in world football.” After witnessing China’s 5-1 loss to Watford in 1983, Xi Jinping is still driving towards this in 2018.

Photos from this site

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.

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