The EPL hits NZ

Back in 1985, who’d have thought the next time Newcastle United came to New Zealand, they’d be playing a professional club side called Wellington Phoenix?

The world was a very different place back in 1985.

In that year, Nelson Mandela was still captive on Robben Island, the wreck of the Titanic was finally found, and “Back to the Future” was the big box office smash.

It was also a troubled year for English football. The month of May in particular will go down in history as perhaps its worst ever. On May 11th, fire engulfed a wooden stand at Bradford City’s Valley Parade, killing 56. Two weeks later, 38 fans lost their lives in what became known as the Heysel Disaster.

Yet the players of Newcastle United were far away from the tumult, embarking upon a close season tour of New Zealand, just as they are about to do again, some twenty nine years later.

Newcastle played a four-game series against the All Whites in Christchurch, Wellington, Napier and Auckland, winning three and drawing one.

All Whites legend Steve Sumner scored two of New Zealand’s five goals during the tour (the other three came courtesy of Colin Walker (2) and an own goal), and he says those games left a legacy.

“We were all part-timers and amateurs. We all played here in New Zealand or in the (Australian) NSL – there was nobody playing overseas. But our game is where it is today because of playing teams like Newcastle. Down the years we’ve played Glasgow Rangers, Leicester City with Gary Lineker, and the England B team. I believe all of those teams helped us. The more games we get against them, the more football gets a foothold, and players understand what it is like to be a pro” says Sumner.

Among the Newcastle squad in 1985 were Neil McDonald – who’ll be here again in 2014 in his role as assistant manager with West Ham – England international, Peter Beardsley, and a certain precocious youngster called Paul Gascoigne.

Then just 18, “Gazza” had just made his senior debut for Newcastle, and was already driving the coaching staff mad.

Russell Gray, now media officer for Wellington Phoenix, remembers Gascoigne bursting into the team hotel to inform (then) manager, Willie McFaul, that he’d agreed to stay on after the tour, and play for Napier City Rovers in the New Zealand Soccer League. McFaul simply rolled his eyes and said “he’ll have forgotten that by the morning.”

Sumner has his own Gascoigne story.

“We were all in the same hotel as the Newcastle boys – my All Whites team-mate Kevin Hagan peeled an orange and tucked a kiwi fruit inside the rind, and then gave it to Gazza, asking him whether he’d ever seen a Kiwi orange!”

But it was Beardsley whom Sumner really revered.

“I remember him dragging the ball with the inside of his right foot, and then checking back to skip away from the defender. I started to use it in my own game. That’s the great thing about these tours – kids will try to mimic the skills they see, and improve” says Sumner.

There’ll be plenty to choose from for those wide-eyed kids over the next week.

The tricky ball skills of Hatem Ben Arfa, the rugged centre-forward play of Andy Carroll, the wing craft of Stewart Downing – and, perhaps most importantly, the appearance of Winston Reid, whose presence is a reminder to all Kiwi kids that anything is possible.

After all, back in 1985, (when we all sat down to watch “Back to the Future” and dreamt of hoverboards) who’d have thought the next time Newcastle United came to New Zealand, they’d be playing a professional club side called Wellington Phoenix?