West Brom's 1978 China trip was the funniest tour ever
Ron Atkinson admits the tour has got better with age. 'Three weeks going on 10 years,' was how he described it at the time, managing players who were often bored, far from home and longing for the familiar jaunt to Majorca.
From the moment they returned, however, stories were polished and West Bromwich Albion basked in history as the first football club to travel inside China as it emerged from relative isolation following the death of Mao Tse-tung.
Four decades and one massive industrial revolution later and the world's most populous nation is an economic powerhouse with its own Super League paying some of the biggest salaries in world sport.
Mick Martin, Bryan Robson, manager Ron Atkinson and Alistair Brown (L-R) at Heathrow Airport in 1978 as they prepare to fly to China for West Brom's post-season tour
West Brom are among the growing band of Chinese-owned clubs and famous names from European football flock to Beijing and Shanghai for pre-season.
Arsenal and Chelsea meet there next month, flying out in their executive jets on a very different journey to the one undertaken by the Albion party in 1978.
It took them three days from Heathrow, flying via Rome, Bahrain and Calcutta to Hong Kong, where they stayed overnight and crossed the border by train to Guangzhou before an internal flight to the Chinese capital where they were smacked between the eyes by a culture shock.
Atkinson and his players still marvel at the colourlessness of life they witnessed. The buildings, the skies, the work clothes and the millions of bicycles, and the ever-present Communist Party officials all seemed to be grey. There was not a golf course in sight.
The first night in Beijing, they attended a game between the provinces of Tientsin and Hunan, bemused by an eerie silence enforced by orders over the stadium's public address system for the crowd not to disturb the players.
'We knew from the start this wasn't going to be like the usual end-of-season trip,' said captain John Wile.
Chelsea (left) and Arsenal will both fly to China this pre-season but very differently to WBA
There were pre-tour briefings from the Foreign Office and a pep-talk from former PM Ted Heath. Booklets on etiquette were handed out and the players were in blazers as often as football kit. This uneasy feeling clashed with the challenging scarcity of alcohol and nocturnal social activity.
'The lads were giving me almighty stick because they couldn't get a drink, except when we went to the British Embassy,' said Atkinson.
They served up 'firewater' for toasting. 'Really fierce stuff,' said Wile. 'If you held a match to it, it would have exploded. We touched it to our lips and then gave it to their boys, they seemed to like it.'
Banquets were thrown on the eve of each game where Albion's players were placed strategically at mixed tables among opponents and dignitaries and worked on their chopstick techniques.
Striker Ally Brown was filmed settling in for dinner, gratefully accepting a cigarette and chuckling: 'Never mind the food, get on the fags.'
Sportsmail's Ian Wooldridge relayed events back home of the Baggies tour to China in 1978
'You didn't look too closely at some of the things on your plate,' said goalkeeper Mark Grew. 'I'm sure some things were still crawling around. The chicken stew sounded all right but it was all the chicken — head, feet, the lot.
'It wasn't like the Chinese food we'd had at home. A lot of the lads lost quite a bit of weight.'
After appealing for more English breakfast food they were presented next morning with a feast of lamb chops and potatoes.
'The hospitality was generous and the hotels good,' said Atkinson. 'But it was difficult adapting to such an alien way of living.'
Big Ron lost a bet with his players that he could have the chief Chinese minder drinking champagne and smoking cigars with them before the end of the trip. 'Never got close,' he admitted.
One night, the players stayed up late, playing cards and chatting in a common space on the top floor of their hotel only to find when they tried to get back to their own rooms the lifts had been grounded and the stairways locked.
The customs in China at the time were very alien to how the Baggies lived, admitted Atkinson
When Wooldridge filed a report over the phone about the incident, he was later questioned by a Chinese official. As it had not yet appeared in print, he could only conclude his phone was tapped.
Other customs were more endearing. Players found daily bulletins on their pillow, printed in English and relaying positive news from China. If they threw it in the bin it was retrieved, flattened and replaced on their pillow.
An outing to the Great Wall of China was immortalised by a quote from young midfielder John Trewick. Mick Martin and Trewick had stood listening to superlatives being rolled out for the TV camera and when it was their turn they tried to amuse their team-mates.
'I've bent free-kicks round bigger walls,' said Martin and Trewick shrugged and added: 'When you've seen one wall you've seen 'em all.'
'It was a joke - and we all knew it was a joke,' said Brendon Batson. 'He was slaughtered by some columnists when it came out and he's never lived it down. Footballers' humour doesn't always translate well into print.'
Pettifer's 50-minute documentary was screened four months later. 'I was disappointed because it portrayed footballers as unappreciative of the opportunity they'd been given,' said Wile. 'I don't think that was the case.'
Laurie Cunningham, Brendan Batson and Cyrille Regis (L-R, pictured in 1979) were on the tour
Players visited Mao's Mausoleum and the Ming Tombs and a circus, where they saw acrobats, performing tigers and a giant panda reclining in a pram playing the trumpet as it was pulled around by a dog.
Still, boredom ate away and Irish midfielder Martin packed his favourite horror mask to keep spirits up.
'He put it on in a crowded place and people were screaming and running for their lives,' said Grew. 'He got quite a stern telling off for that. He came out of the toilet on the plane wearing it and scared the life out of an air hostess.'
Martin said: 'I brought it for fun. It was pretty convincing. We'd be on the bus and I'd put it on and wave out of the window. People were aghast. I was just trying to pick up the lads. I used it a fair bit. Julian Pettifer took exception to it. He didn't find it very funny.'
The social highlight was a game of cricket at a Shanghai hotel which drew interest from fascinated locals until Alistair Robertson ran a white towel up a flagpole, unaware that it is not a sign of surrender in China but a mark of disrespect and an omen of death.
Players also became embroiled in a series of water-fights which spanned days until Robertson drenched Albion chairman Sir Bert Millichip by mistake.
Atkinson lost a bet with his players that he could have the chief Chinese minder drinking champagne and smoking cigars with them before the end of the trip
Millichip was, according to Atkinson a 'supreme diplomat and accomplished tightrope walker' and, with an eye on FA high office, volunteered his club for the tour when England pulled out.
The itinerary of three games was extended to five and Albion won them all with Cyrille Regis scoring in each game. The pitches were poor - Wooldridge likened one to the Gobi Desert, Wile another to a field of barley.
Wolverhampton referee Jack Taylor officiated and, having refereed the World Cup final in 1974, was such a celebrity that the Chinese sent their finest acupuncturists when a sore achilles tendon threatened to rule him out.
The tour motto 'Friendship First Competition Second' lasted only a few seconds into the opening friendly when Derek Statham was tackled at chest height.
The game against China's national team drew nearly 90,000 to the Workers' Stadium, including leader Deng Xiaoping, and a TV audience estimated at 200 million. At half-time, players returned to the dressing room to find a table, set with tablecloth, dinner plates, teacups and saucers and groaning with food and drink, including ice cream and fizzy orange pop.
Albion developed a taste for adventure. Three months later they were bound for Syria on a tour memorable for the near-drowning of Willie Johnston, who dived into a pool having forgotten he could not swim, and white-knuckle flights on a rickety and overloaded ex-army aircraft.
Against the Chinese national team, West Brom returned to their dressing room at half-time to find a table, set with tablecloth, dinner plates, teacups and saucers with food and drink
Once, when accompanied by a Tunisian basketball team who were sitting on each other's laps and with skips full of kit rolling up and down the aisle, the plane overshot the runway.
No one was hurt and West Brom went on to finish third in Division One the following season, the high-water mark before Laurie Cunningham, Bryan Robson and Atkinson moved on.
The old players reflect fondly on a valuable bonding experience, even if they did run down the platform to reach Hong Kong, their gateway back to Western civilisation, at the end of it and organised a night out at the Happy Valley races.
It was an iconic venture from a golden era when West Bromwich Albion were cool.
They left an impression in China, too. Guochan Lai, the Chinese billionaire who bought the club last year, told fans he had followed the club since his early memories of that 1978 tour. That is not the sort of legacy you command from an end-of-year booze-up in Majorca.
Regis, pictured in 1980, scored in all five games in China as the Baggies won them all
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June 17, 2017
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