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Visions of China '78 - Part 1

8 August 2016

East Bromwich Albion…

Ours is a football club that loves to break new ground. The Throstles created the first out of town football stadium when occupying our ancestral home, The Hawthorns, in 1900, an example followed with increasing regularity down the years.

In 1931, we became the first – still the only – team to do the double of promotion and an FA Cup win. The “Team of the Century” became the first English club side to win a game in the Soviet Union in 1957 and we were the first ever Great Escapees in 2005.

More significant yet, in 1978 we became the first club side from England to venture behind what was then termed the “bamboo curtain”, visiting China and playing a string of games there, an early impetus behind Guochuan Lai’s affection for the football club which culminated in the purchase of the Albion this week. Who said history is bunk?

Back in 1978, we were blazing a trail courtesy of the triumvirate of Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham and Brendon Batson, stars in the swashbuckling side led by Ron Atkinson, but this trip to China was something else.

It was a trip into uncharted territory in many ways following a decade of tentative east-west diplomacy that had seen some political exchange with the visits of Richard Nixon and Ted Heath, but there had been relatively little cultural interaction. 

And if it is the politicians that ultimately make the decisions, it’s through the sharing of our cultures that peoples really start to understand one another and forge the friendships that bring global communities together. A footballing visit was but a single step in that journey, but each has its own significance.

That Albion should get the call was surprising perhaps, though the influence of then chairman Bert Millichip was writ large upon the move. England had been set to tour China as part of their preparations for the Argentina World Cup that summer, but a failure to qualify ruled that out and it was Albion who stepped into the breach, Millichip wearing his FA councillor’s hat to promote our cause. 

The tour came at the end of a long season, one in which Albion had reached the FA Cup semi-final and finished sixth in the First Division, earning a place in the UEFA Cup. While most post-season tours offered players a chance to let their hair down in the likes of Bryan Robson’s beloved Alicante, this was a very different trip to a very different China, a country a long way removed from the cutting edge, high-technicolor dream that we’ve become accustomed to courtesy of their extraordinary economic growth of recent times.

In 1978, it was not a footballing tour as much as a diplomatic mission and players and officials were required to be well drilled before setting foot on the plane transporting them across the world.  

Skipper John Wile recalled, “We had a lot of meetings with the Foreign Office before we went, telling us how to behave and I remember one of the lads standing up and saying, “It’ll be alright if we take our shirts off like we do when we go to Spain won’t it?” That got a definite no! There was a lot of protocol to remember and it was very tiring in a lot of ways.

“We were well briefed over what to expect from the tour. We were told we had to do things right and we were told that the theme for the tour was “Friendship First, Competition Second.””

Just how the likes of Len Cantello and Alistair Robertson took to that particular concept, we’ll discover in the second part of this series…

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