A local pub team embark on a football tour of the Far East. But what they find when they arrive, nobody would have expected.
James: I'm James Parkinson and this is By Association, a show about football and the connection we all share with the beautiful game.
James: When we think of football tours, the world’s top clubs travelling the globe for exhibition matches might spring to mind. But it’s not just the professional teams. This is the story of Wild Westerners, a pub team from England.
Stewart: Well, we were worse than a pub team, I have to say. Because many of our players wouldn’t get into a pub team.
James: That’s Stewart Cruttenden.
Stewart: I was a travel writer for many years, which is how the football started. I’m now a writer and journalist.
Well, the whole idea of the Wild Westerners came about is one of those classic pub conversations where you have too much beer and then you say “Wouldn’t it be great if we did X,Y,Z.”
James: Like many fans of the game, Stewart played amateur football on the weekends, but gave it up as the enjoyment started to fade. He’d get kicked a lot and people just took it too seriously. But once he became a travel writer he started playing again with some old friends he met up with in the Far East. And it was fun….
Stewart: It was a nice pace because of the heat. We played at a nice pace and everyone was old and we had loads of beers afterwards and the beers were cheap. And I thought, “Yeah, I like playing football so let’s do this.”
I slotted in with a couple of expat teams from Korea and Thailand. And I thought “You know I’m gonna bring my own team out here, the guys would love it.”
So I had this conversation with an old mate of mine and it just happened that the very next day I was going to the Far East on one of my travel writing journey’s.
So I put together friends of friends, very quickly put together sixteen to eighteen people for each tour, so people were fighting to get on the tour. The first tour was just Thailand and the Philippines. We had four games in ten days, one nights sleep, a couple of meals and a lot of beer and a lot of fun.
James: Fast forward five years, it’s 1995, and the team are embarking on their third tour....
Stewart: By then we’d made a lot of friends in the Far East, I knew a lot of people so I had contacts and we just arranged the matches. That was actually a three country tour of India, Vietnam and the Philippines.
It would be very easy to do today, but in these days there was no internet, no email. We arranged these games by fax. As a writer I had a fax in my house. And I would fax Vietnam and try to get games set up via third parties. It was quite challenging.
The trick was, we always had two games at each destination so we would play a local expat team, so it would be the British club of Bangkok, Manila Nomads in the Philippines or the British High Commission Flyers in Delhi.
So, by playing that expat team in the first game, they would then help us setup a local match with a really genuine local team in the same or similar destination.
James: So, Wild Westerners had organised a match with Saigon Raiders, a team comprised of US, British and European expats….
Stewart: And they helped us arrange a match with Cantho City.
James: That’s Cantho City Football Club. Who, at the time, were one of the top clubs in Vietnam.
Stewart: And a lot got lost in the faxes to and fro about our skill level, really.
If you think about it, say twenty years ago, you’re in Vietnam, you get a fax from a guy in London. You’re going to assume these people are really good footballers, aren’t you?
You know, Vietnamese pub teams aren’t going to come to England on tour, so their thought process is, “Hey these guys have gotta be good. They’re coming from England, they’re coming on a coach. We better get the best opposition.” So they got the best opposition, in fact it was the second best team in the whole of Vietnam.
James: With the match arranged, it was a five hour journey by bus from Ho Chi Minh to Can Tho City. But what the Wild Westerners discovered when they arrived at their hotel was quite unexpected….
Stewart: There was a lot of crowds outside and I thought something had gone horribly wrong. Of course, what had gone wrong was they were there for us. They were there to see us, this great team of English-based footballers. And the police were holding them back behind barriers. So that’s when I got an inkling that this was going to be quite interesting.
James: So, what’s going through your head at this point? When there’s a crowd and all this commotion for a pub team?
Stewart: Well, I thought, “Let’s just see what happens here, let’s see what their expectations are.” It’s sort of one of those things you can’t…..there’s no going back.
The head of the local sports committee met me and we started finding out exactly what had gone wrong here. He wanted to know all the names and numbers of our players for the radio commentators. And then he started going through the etiquette of marching out, in single file with the other team, and presenting bouquets to people in the crowd. And it was that word, “the crowd” that really made me wonder what we were in for.
And I said, “A crowd?” and he said, “Yes, yes it’s been sold out for weeks”. And I said, “Sold out to how many people?”. And he said, “25,000”.
Stewart: So, I just tried to be very blase about it as if to say, “Yeah, yeah, we’ve played in front of more than that.” But it was a bit of a shock, I have to say.
James: So, I guess, was there a part of you - were you playing up to the fact that they thought you were more than what you were?
Stewart: Do you know, I have to be really honest here. I did have this fantasy that one day they’ll mistake us for someone else. And of course this is what happened. But of course once that reality happened it was very scary. Because we were hopeless. It was frightening, yes. And exciting at the same time.
Stewart: So the second evening we had dinner with the squad, the Cantho City squad. And this when we began to learn what we were in for.
James: It turns out, Cantho City FC had won the national cup competition the year before, finishing second in the league. They also also 10 Vietnamese Internationals on their books. And unlike the Wild Westerners, being the professionals they were, of course, they didn’t drink.
Stewart: They had some designated drinkers from the coaching staff, while we were just getting stuck into the Vietnamese beers.
James: Of course they were.
Stewart: But we were all excited and we met the guys and had a good two hour dinner, after which they went home for an early night and we carried on for an early morning, for the game to be held the next day….
Stewart: So the next day, it was a mid-afternoon kickoff and we got on the bus with all our stuff. We always used to travel with immaculate kit bags and t-shirts and kit. And I think that sort of fooled people a lot of the time.
But I have to say, it was real buzz where you drive to a stadium where they open the doors and your coach goes in and you're taken up to the dressing rooms and it was a real, real buzz….
James: Like a Cup Final or something….
Stewart: Yeah, and you could hear the crowd. Most of us had grown up where the only game we watched on TV was the FA Cup Final. It was an iconic moment when the coaches arrived at Wembley Stadium and drove into the ground. So it was a bit like that.
It was so exciting though, the crowd was filling up. And then we just heard this explosion and we wondered what on Earth had happened. So, it was just a massive thunderstorm and the downpour, an hour of torrential Far East Asian rain just basically covered the pitch. We couldn’t see much of the pitch at all.
Of course, we were devastated, assuming the match would be postponed. There was no way you could play a proper game of football there. So we were quite upset because we were only going to be around for another day.
And then the guy came in, the chap who had been organising everything, and wondered why we weren’t getting changed. And we said, “Well, we’re not a water polo team. This is football and there’s no pitch”. He said, “No, we’re playing. We’ll just wait for the rain to stop”. So we waited for an hour and a half.
Stewart: And out we went. Unfortunately the crowd - or fortunately maybe - the crowd had diminished. So, about twenty thousand thought there’d be no proper game and went home. But there was still five thousand in the stadium. And so the match went ahead.
James: Despite the pitch basically being underwater - but that would work in Wild Westerners favour, keeping the scoreline somewhat respectable.
Stewart: Well, I think we did really well, I was quite impressed. We managed to contain them in the first half to eight nil. I thought it could have been a lot worse. They hit the post five times and missed a lot of open goals.
Second half, I think they substituted a lot of their best players. We scored twice and they only got four more, so we lost 12-2. Which, clearly was a moral victory I felt. I mean this was Real Madrid versus the dog and duck and we only lost 12-2.
James: Perhaps the most surprising thing was the response from the local fans. They weren’t disappointed the this team from England turned out to be complete amateurs. They were just as excited as they’d been at the hotel days before….
Stewart: They still wanted to see us. They wanted autographs. A lot of guys just gave them shirts and t-shirts. We gave away almost everything and we went on the bus in our boxer shorts back to the hotel.
James: It’s important to note that during the early 90’s the Vietnam War was still firmly in people’s memories and Westerners had only just started going back to the country. But this was a perfect example of the power of football.….
Stewart: And it was just great, you sensed you were part of the world normalising again and relationships normalising again.
We had one particular incident in the second half where their captain, who was a beautiful player, what a great forward he was. I smashed into him, I was the goalkeeper and as he was running at me we collided in the wet weather. And he went right up in the air and fell down and we sort of looked at eachother and squared up.
And then we just hugged each other and shook hands. The crowd stood up and applauded. And you just sensed, “Hey this is great”, you know it made the hairs stand up on your neck. It was really something special.
And football can do that. There’s a common language so you just understand each other. And it’s when you realise that people share so many things really, around the world. It’s a bit of a dark world at times but as you go round, things like football make you realise we’re all the same.
James: By Association is produced by me, James Parkinson. Many thanks to Stewart Cruttenden and also to Andy Gianniotis from Sydney for initially bringing this story to our attention. If you have an idea you’d like to pitch, or even a story of you own, let me know on Twitter - @JamesRParkinson.
Music featured in this episode comes from Scott Holmes, Little Glass Men and Sounds Like An Earful, under Creative Commons.
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