How the legendary Wild Westerners lost matches and won friends all over the world
It was one of those pub conversations. My friend Steve Kelly and I wondered if we had enough mates to set up a Far East football tour. After serious thought and plenty of real ale, we had thought of enough half-decent players to start a pub football team to take on the world.
And on a crisp October evening in 1987, at the King William IV pub in Greenwich, the legendary Wild Westerners Football Club was born.
Nine months later, 18 blokes assembled at Gatwick Airport for a “once-in-a-lifetime” adventure to Thailand and the Philippines.
None of us could have guessed there would eventually be 11 tours to 18 cities, in 12 countries, on four continents. In 24 years, some 78 players would wear with pride and increasingly bulging waistlines the ultimate pub football team’s ten different kits.
Shirts and badges changed with each tour after talismanic striker Chris “Nobber” Crick and I mislaid the original strip during an afternoon drink on the way to the kit factory in Bangkok.
The first itinerary kicked off with an 18-hour flight via Frankfurt and Karachi, followed by four games in ten days in Bangkok. Pattaya Beach and Manila.
We appreciated palaces, temples, museums and markets. We explored the nightlife. We drank beers. Lots of beers. After all, we were young and foolish, and the ultimate pub football team.
On the pitch? Well, it could have been worse. We drew 1-1 at the British Club Bangkok thanks to an own goal by their left back. He would be our joint top scorer for eight matches.
The 5-1 defeat was marked by controversial
refereeing and threats of post-match shootings
We blamed the 2-0 loss in Pattaya on a pitch that was part sand, part rusty metal, mainly concrete, and a few tufts of grass. We excused the 5-0 reverse to expat side Manila Nomads because half of our squad had missed the team bus. An unlucky 5-1 defeat to Philippine Airlines was marked by controversial refereeing and threats of post-match shootings, a not uncommon occurrence in Marcos-era Manila.
A reunion in Amsterdam followed the pattern of social high-jinks coupled with on-the-pitch haplessness. National newspaper De Telegraaf crushed us 11-1 after organisers forgot to let anyone know they had switched our afternoon kick-off to 10.00 am. Most of us had gone to bed at 6.00 am. With a proper night’s sleep, we could have held them to 8-1.
Our 1990 trip to Egypt and Thailand began with a 5-0 thrashing by MISR Travel. It was 100°C in the shade. But there wasn’t any shade at the concrete bowl in Cairo. I declined the Egyptian skipper’s half-time offer to give us “some better players”.
We kept a defiant clean sheet in the second half. It was time to celebrate. But the barman had failed to chill the ultimate pub football team’s beers. We downed warm Egyptian lagers before jumping on a Nile cruise, complete with buffet, belly dancer and, well, warm Egyptian lagers.
Bangkok welcomed us with ice-cold beer and a mini tournament where we lost the final to the British Club by the odd goal in three. (This being Thailand, the kind hosts still gave us the trophy.) We escaped the city for jungle rafts on the River Kwai, and a match watched by several thousand youngsters. We lost 1-0, with their goal being at least five yards offside.
The abiding memory is of an excursion to the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. More than 5,000 Commonwealth and 1,800 Dutch soldiers are buried or commemorated near the Thai-Burma railway. Their gravestones testified that most had been younger than us, many in their teens when they made the ultimate sacrifice.
Later tours would include visits to the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, and to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum near Krakow, Poland. In the West, at least, ours has been a fortunate generation. We travelled to play football, have fun and share beers, not to exchange bullets.
We moved on to Pattaya and a second encounter with the Royal Cliff. Not only were they more convincing winners than three years earlier, but also they could keep up with our post-match celebrations. After the Cliff’s 3-1 victory, we pondered our record:
|Played||Won||Drew||Lost||Goals for||Goals against|
These achievements were clearly impressive for a ramshackle pub football team versus established clubs, away from home, in fierce heat and humidity, and while suffering from the occasional hangover. In any case, stats can be misleading. We’d been unlucky. Best of all, we’d refused to compromise on having a good time. A really, really good time.
Then, in 1993, something went horribly right. Thanks to a new wave of Westerners, including a few semi-professionals, we finished 1-1 with a strong Hong Kong FC. Days later, we beat the famous club’s reserves 5-3. Amid the euphoria of victory, we realised the legend would never be the same. It was, strangely, disappointing.
Chinese TV didn’t show our goals and suggested
the home team had seen off the Western imperialists
Our new self-belief saw us beat Guangzhou Garden 3-1 in the People’s Stadium. Chinese state TV didn’t show our goals and suggested the home team had seen off the Western imperialists. A 1-1 draw with French Connection in Manila left us one result short of an unbeaten tour.
In the way of unimaginable glory were old foes Manila Nomads. They hadn’t lost at home for more than 20 years and were previous winners of the Philippines FA Cup. We were a pub football team.
We had a goal disallowed before going down 2-1 to a late strike that was at least five yards offside. The pain of defeat was easier to swallow thanks to lashings of ice-cold San Miguel from our hosts. Inspired by this spirit of generosity, we awarded man of the match to the Nomads’ linesman.
Two years later came the Wild Westerners’ most ambitious tour. It would last more than two weeks, with six games in as many cities in India, Vietnam and Thailand. We gathered at Heathrow Airport to be hit by a bombshell. Half a dozen of our best players announced they would NOT touch a drop of alcohol until the final leg of the tour.
After two hours in the airport bar, the rest of the squad were still reeling from this shocking turn of events. With a handful of non-drinkers, Brazil’s yellow home and blue away kits, four different club tee shirts, and personalised WWFC kit bags, we looked like a proper football team. Even on the pitch.
After 1-1 in Delhi with British High Commission Flyers, we drubbed a hotel team in Agra 10-0. I knew that one day everything would click and we’d give someone a good hiding. I didn’t realise it was going to be a cricket team, mostly playing in bare feet.
There was no stopping the “new” Wild Westerners – until the wheels came off in Ho Chi Minh City. Six of our best players, including, curiously, five non-boozers, were stricken with upset stomachs. We played with no substitutes, and in 90°C with extreme humidity. Our duty water monitor had forgotten to do his job and expats Saigon Raiders refused to share their supplies. The heroic 6-0 defeat was one of our finest hours.
A five-hour coach ride along the Mekong Delta transported us to a surreal occasion in the city of Cantho. Some 25,000 fans had shown up to see their professional club, one of Vietnam’s finest, take on a classy English side. (Scroll down to “Mismatch of the Day” to find out what happened when we took on a team of World Cup stars.)
Routine defeats by the British Club Bangkok and the Royal Cliff in Pattaya preceded an all-day booze cruise. A promised lavish buffet turned out to be a loaf of bread and a packet of ham. Entertainment comprised eight hours of beach football and a Mekong Whisky drinking contest. The tour that started with “Lagergate” ended, ironically, with none of us being able to face another beer.
A few years later, my career took me to Singapore, and we marked the end of the Westerners with a farewell game in Holland. We shared eight goals, a few hundred beers and a sing-song with village team DSOV, just outside of Amsterdam. It was the end of an era.
We simply couldn’t find anyone old
or useless enough to play against
But if they thought it was all over, they were wrong. In 2004, WWFC re-formed with a “one-off” trip to football’s spiritual home, Brazil. It’s every amateur player’s dream to play at Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã Stadium. Maybe we could have got a fixture there at our peak, but we played on some scrubland an hour out of town.
The Rio Rebels were as generous off the pitch as our defenders had been on it. Both teams drank to the unlucky narrow 5-0 scoreline and agreed that one of their goals, at least, was offside.
This was a golden age for the Wild Westerners, a band of brothers, ambassadors of the beautiful game. We travelled to Argentina, where a bar owner lost a fortune by banning us in protest against the Falklands war. And Uruguay, where we dropped in at the Estadio Centenario, the first World Cup final venue in 1930.
A long weekend in Prague coincided with a nine-month detox, so I missed out on its smooth, cold beer. Poland became our 12th country and one of our most enjoyable. These trips featured some of our biggest trouncings and our most cordial post-match shindigs.
The best thing I ever did, some of the happiest
times I had, some of the finest friends I made
We were still world class. Off the pitch. But results of 8-2, 8-3, 3-0, 9-0 and 8-3 told a tale. We were an ageing pub football team playing on borrowed time. Besides, we simply couldn’t find any opponents who were old enough or useless enough. It was time for a farewell tour.
And so it was that 18 blokes assembled at Heathrow Airport one July morning in 2014. Our final destinations? Bangkok and Pattaya. Where else? In our last game, in the Thai capital, we were on the wrong side of a 6-1 scoreline. And none of their goals was offside.
The final reckoning was:
|Played||Won||Drew||Lost||Goals for||Goals against|
But the stats don’t tell the whole story. The scores say nothing about the friendships made around the world. About the laughter and camaraderie. About that feeling on the first morning of a tour that no one in the world was having a better time.
I sometimes wondered if I had devoted too much time, effort and money to organising world tours for a pub football team. But it WAS the ultimate pub football team.
And I now understand they were some of the best things I ever did; some of the happiest times I ever had; some of the finest friends I ever made.
Now, with most of us in our sixties or seventies, we could never revive the Wild Westerners again. Could we?