Martin Amis had rather low expectations for his visit to China with Watford FC and Elton John, their chairman, for the Observer Magazine of 10 July 1983 (‘The Long March from Vicarage Road’). ‘I expected the team’s only cultural concession to their historic tour,’ he said, ‘would be the odd racist taunt, the occasional self-destructive experiment with rice wine and one or two requests for a Chinese takeaway.’
Today we’re used to clubs exporting their ‘brand’ overseas, but the reason for this visit is never really explained. Amis, however, was clearly having fun grubbing around in his familiar novelistic milieu: ‘Wearing a Billy Bunter suit, a banded boater, purple sunglasses and a diamond earring, Chairman John gazed down fondly at his protégés.’
Amis argued that the low opinion of footballers was well-deserved: ‘The press has often been blamed for the poor image of footballers… Off the field they behave so outrageously it’s a full-time job looking the other way.’
In the end, he conceded that the players ‘emerged as creditable ambassadors’, which he put down to the manager Graham Taylor. Amis reminded us that Watford had moved from being ‘a nothing club in the dregs of the football league’, but by 1982 were runners-up to Liverpool in the First Division.
Watford played the Chinese national team twice in Peking (now Beijing) then against Shanghai, winning all three games. Amis was taken with the ‘moments of weird silence’ that punctuated the game, when ‘you could hear Taylor’s hoarse bollocking from the bench’. Then there was the ‘squawked chiding from Big Sister on the PA system’ – ‘The Department of Public Security asks the audience on platform 20 to sit down.’ At full time, the loudspeaker cautioned the crowd: ‘Do not molest or beat up the performers or referees.’ Given recent VAR controversies, these injunctions may soon be called for in England.