Walls and bridges…
The West Bromwich Ambassadors to China arrived on their “Friendship First, Competition Second” mission in May 1978 and were immediately treated to a look at the domestic game on the eve of the first fixture of the tour, as John Wile recalls.
“We saw videos of games in China before we went out, where if a player was fouled, the game would stop and the player who’d committed the foul would make sure the other one was okay!
“When we got there, we went out to watch a local game in the stadium in Beijing. A guy got through on goal and missed and there were a few rumblings in the crowd and a message came over the tannoy to tell the crowd not to make so much noise because they were putting the players off!
“The following evening, May 16th, we played a Beijing XI, and were reminded of our responsibilities. I won the toss, we chose ends, they kicked off. They launched it down Derek Statham’s throat like any side does from the kick-off - hoof it out wide and press. Derek let it bounce to take it on the chest and their guy came at him, studs up, and took him in the chest. So we knew “Friendship First, Competition Second” was going to be misleading!”
The games were competitive in that sense, the home players desperate to impress against their exalted visitors but there was, of course, a gulf in class and Albion ultimately ran out comfortable 3-1 winners in front of a crowd of 80,000 – we’d only ever played in front of bigger crowds than that in three FA Cup finals.
The crowd was larger still some 48 hours later when, remaining in the capital, the Throstles played the Chinese national team in the same Workers Stadium and goals from Ally Brown and Cyrille Regis were enough to seal a 2-0 win. Some 89,400 fans were there to witness proceedings.
The competition was just as stiff when Albion pitched up in Shanghai on May 22nd to take on the city’s team, Albion edging past the home side by the same 2-0 score, though rather less comfortably as the exhausting schedule of travelling and official engagements was beginning to take its toll after a long domestic season.
Even so, even Tony Brown, a self-confessed reluctant football tourist wherever the game took him, east or west, found that there were moments to cherish from this tour, including a visit to one of the world’s wonders.
“Going to see the Great Wall of China was the highlight of the trip for me, it was a quite incredible sight. The funniest thing that I remember about it was Cliff Edwards who was with us - he was a director at the time - and he was wearing a pair of brand new shoes, so the soles were very slippy. We were walking up hill and he couldn’t get any grip and as we were walking, he’d take three steps forward and then slip half a dozen back!
“A lot of the trip was unusual to us as players because it was very much a diplomatic mission, making the right impression, which doesn’t always come naturally to footballers! We were going to official functions all the while, visiting embassies and then going and visiting the communes that the people lived on.
“Looking back on it, we had some incredible experiences that now you realise were priceless. They took us to see Chairman Mao’s mausoleum. The queues to go in there were incredible, and this was two years after he’d died. I’ve never seen anything like it, it went on right the way round the square, crammed in, eight, nine, ten deep. Fortunately, we were taken straight in, and we saw him lying in state. It was very atmospheric, that was fascinating”.
There’s more on Albion in China in the third and final part of our series tomorrow…