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Albion trip brings echoes of ‘78

26 May 2017

ALBION may be making their debut in the Premier League Asia Trophy but Baggies fans know it is far from the start of their story in the Far East.

Some 39 years ago, Albion became the first English professional club to take the great game to China in an historic trip which remains enshrined in the Club's proud history.

Great credit has always been reserved for the Baggies of '78 for the way in which they handled going across the world to spend the better part of three weeks in China, a huge nation yet one which was then among the least known.

To Westerners generally and certainly Ron Atkinson's famous squad of that era, it was perhaps one of the most alien places on earth.

But whatever the differences in race, religion, ideology and culture there is always far more that unites us than divides us – and nothing unites us more than the world's game, association football.

It was one that we exported around the globe in the 19th century even though the Chinese can legitimately claim to be its inventors some 2,000 years ago.

That the Throstles should be on a fast plane to China in May 1978 at the end of a long, arduous season in which we had reached the FA Cup semi-final and qualified for Europe was curious in itself.

Allegedly, the tour had been set up for the England team as part of their preparations for the World Cup in Argentina that summer, training and playing in the heat and humidity. But after Don Revie's team had failed to qualify, there was no longer any requirement.

In their place, Albion played the pioneering role, becoming the first English football team to set foot in China. The trip was such big news that Albion were accompanied by a BBC film crew, Julian Pettifer leading a team making a "World About Us" documentary.

Viewers in the UK had rarely had such an intimate glimpse of real life behind the "Bamboo Curtain" – as it was then dubbed - and that was fascinating. But just as ground-breaking was the fact that a real top English team were building their side around three black footballers, players who were glamorous, exciting and unutterably cool.

The party set off for China from Heathrow on May 12, 90 minutes late (no extra-time), just 10 days after winding up the season with a 2-2 draw at home to the new champions, Nottingham Forest.

The flight touched down in Rome, Bahrain and Calcutta before reaching its ultimate destination, Hong Kong, in mid-afternoon on Sunday, May 13, the party stayed in the then British colony prior to crossing the border into China the following day.

There was a further overnight stay in Canton and then a flight on to Beijing where they arrived on May 15. During their stay in Beijing, the Albion players and officials were treated to visits to some of the tourist attractions they could never have imagined seeing, including the Great Wall.

There was football to be played in the capital too and first up, the Throstles took on a Beijing XI in the People's Stadium. The Beijing XI was beaten 3-1, Alistair Brown notching two goals and Cyrille Regis starting a run of scoring in each of the five games in 11 days.

A couple of days after that opening game, Albion were to be confronted by the Chinese national side at the same stadium with almost 90,000 people in attendance.

Albion were too strong in the end, dictating the game with some ease, running out 2-0 winners, Regis and Brown on the scoresheet once more as they brought down the curtain on the Beijing part of the tour. The next port of call was Shanghai where Albion won 2-0 before beating a Canton XI 6-0 in a hastily-arranged additional game.

From there, the party wended its weary way back to Hong Kong and a final game against a Select XI which Albion won 3-0.

With that, it was back home with memories which, over time, have grown more acute and more valued.

Albion's future blossomed on the field as a result of that trip and now, a generation on, because of the impact made by those footballers on the other side of the world in a culture completely different to their own, our future off the field is undergoing its own transformation thanks to their legacy.

Those players and officials did their country and this football club a great service.


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