Just as the football world’s attention was about to focus on the World Cup and Wembley in the summer of 1966 – wonder who won that? – modest little Stirling Albion were making waves of their own on tour in Japan, the first British club and first professional side ever to do so. In Japan the sport was still amateur but interest in it was growing fast, especially after securing a quarter final place in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Keen to learn and improve the standard of their game, they looked towards Britain to send one of its top teams over on tour and in theory provide the ‘disciples’ with some ‘masterclasses’. Although the Binos were then a part-time old First Division team their trophy cabinet was hardly sagging under the weight of silverware and it is not unkind to say they were more familiar with an annual fight against relegation than cracking open bottles of champagne in end-of-season celebrations. Hence their nickname of The Yo Yo’s, due to their regular flitting between Scotland’s then two divisions.
Given that background, the question has to be: how did Stirling Albion come to fill this role? Originally the tourists were to be Sheffield Wednesday, at that time one of Britain’s top teams. Because of the effects of a long season, which included an FA Cup final appearance, they decided against dragging their players halfway across the world in the summer, opting instead to give them a well-earned break. At about that time, most of Albion’s players were enjoying themselves on a club holiday in Majorca as reward for retaining their top division status (15th of 18). By coincidence, their tour agents, Clubs Sportstours International of London, were also agents for Wednesday’s Far East tour. When the Yorkshire side withdrew the agents offered their place to Stirling, who readily accepted the guarantee of £10-12,000 on the table, big money then for a small outfit like theirs. In addition to two games in Tokyo, the trip’s schedule was to include earlier games in Athens and Teheran. Undoubtedly the agents had ‘talked up’ Albion to give the hosts the impression they were on a par with the English side and persuade them they were suitable replacements. And that was how it came about that Albion flew 20,000 miles in 17 days on a trailblazing trip to play four matches in three countries.
Some of the players had kept in reasonable trim, playing two friendlies in Palma, Majorca before news broke of the upcoming tour. During the three weeks beforehand, they continued training several times a week at their Annfield ground, received various inoculations and were measured for club blazers and flannels, the blazer badge neatly incorporating a small ‘yo yo’ in a nod to their nickname. Requests had to be made to employers for time off work, all of which were successful apart from those of two players, a centre forward and goalkeeper. This meant that Bill Taylor, the number one keeper, was the only one in the party of 15 players and seven officials. He had a good pedigree, having twice been reserve to Eddie Connachan of Dunfermline Athletic for the Scottish League side in the early 1960s when with St. Johnstone. Taylor would go on to play for Partick Thistle and Luton Town.
Now 79 and living in the Borders, he remembers: “It was all very exciting and news of the tour just came out the blue. After Majorca we expected some time off before pre-season training started again. Going to Japan was really quite something for us, particularly as some of the boys had never been on a plane before and I think one or two had never even been out of Scotland. The club was very keen for us to put on a good show to live up to the hosts’ expectations and as players we really wanted to do well and not let anyone down. Our approach was very professional and we were very conscious that not only were we representing our club but also Scotland. Our manager was Sammy Baird, an ex-Scottish international best known for his time with Rangers. Sammy was a big character and not slow to let you know your faults but a good manager. Trainer/physio was Hugh Allan, a first-class bloke who would go on to fill the same role with Scotland. Five officials also went, chairman Alex Hamilton, and directors Danny Roy, Frank Smith, Peter Gardiner and club doctor, Forrest.”
In Scotland the build-up to the tour was low key despite its exotic nature, and on 13 June outside Annfield,in the company of a couple of photographers, family and friends waved off the Albion party on their coach to Glasgow airport for the flight to London and the first leg of their trip. While waiting to board the next flight to Paris, the party were introduced to a fellow passenger, Prince Faisal of Saudi Arabia, who expressed interest in their expedition. After Paris it was on to Athens where on arrival the heat almost knocked them out. A day’s rest and a light training session followed before the game against A.E.K. Athens in the Nikos Gommas stadium. The party’s reception in Greece was less enthusiastic than those that awaited in Teheran and Tokyo. It was thought that prior to their arrival, the Scottish First Division League table had been published in local sports pages showing Stirling in 15th place, only two places above the relegation spots, much to the hosts’ disappointment.
As a result the crowd was disappointing. No attendance figure was given but Bill Taylor thought it might have reached 10,000. He continues: “There wasn’t a great atmosphere at the game. I gave away two daft goals before half time which had Sammy Baird going nuts at me! That was it and the game ended 0-2. But they were a pretty good side although we weren’t at our best.”
Versatile forward John Orr, at 19, was one of the youngest players in the party and had only signed for Albion shortly beforehand from Rutherglen Glencairn. He made his debut in Athens which surely ought to figure in a pub quiz. After Stirling he played for Stranraer before work took him to Rhodesia where he played for Salisbury Caledonians. He recalls: “A.E.K. were a good team. Mind you our cause wasn’t helped when two players were ruled out before kick off due to sunburn as they had been sunbathing on the hotel roof to the point where they looked like tomatoes. Sam Baird was certainly not pleased.”
Next stop was Teheran which then was still under the Shah’s regime. The opposition was originally billed as the Iran national team but was in fact a Teheran select. The Iranians were very welcoming and the party was accommodated at the upmarket Commodore Hotel which unfortunately did not run to air conditioning, a problem with temperatures in the 40s despite snow on the surrounding mountain peaks. The city offered a mixture of the modern and the old with camels to be seen making their way through streets where new developments were springing up. Also staying in the same hotel was a team of Polish boxers there for a tournament with whom Taylor and his teammates enjoyed good rapport. Their masseur lent welcome hands to the two Binos afflicted by sunburn and helped them back to fitness. The game on June 18, which was well publicised and attracted 35,000 fans, was played at the old run down Mazandi stadium, where players had to share toilet facilities with fans. Stirling won 1-0, thanks to a goal by young outside left Jim Symington. After a day’s rest it was on to Tokyo via Bangkok for the main part of the tour.
Taylor has fond memories of arriving. “It was a fantastic sight as you approached to land, you came in over the sea with the hills surrounding the city, it was quite special I thought. Once we landed I remember trainer Hugh Allan having to explain to Customs what the various medications were he had with him.”
Football in Japan had been developing since their first international in 1917 against China had resulted in a 5-0 defeat. The British had been responsible for the game’s introduction to the country in 1873 through Royal Navy instructors attached to The Imperial Japanese Naval Academy. Baseball was the major sport but by the time of Albion’s visit, a national league composed of company-run amateur teams was in existence, their national team had acquitted themselves well at the Tokyo Olympics and two years later in Mexico would win the bronze medal in the 1968 Olympics. In their two fixtures Albion would first play a Japanese All Stars XI on June 22 and the national team on June 26. Heat and humidity were again an issue with trainer Allan arranging training sessions in the days before at kick-off time to replicate match conditions.
The first game was played at the city’s Olympic Stadium in front of a crowd of 65,000 and a live television audience, the Binos’ visit having proved very popular. It was noteworthy that a nearby baseball game attracted a smaller crowd. The opposition players were extremely fast but not good finishers and reluctant to head the ball. The Scots played a fairly direct style capitalising on Japanese deficiencies and ran out 3-1 winners, with two goals from Kerray and one from Cunningham. Baird had instructed his players to keep going forward whenever possible and only to pass when the recipient of the pass was in a position to make better use of the ball than the player passing it.
The second game was played at the Mozawaka stadium which had a 40,000 capacity and was full. Kick off was preceded by a music and highland dancing display by a Gordon Highlanders unit followed by a Japanese military band. After the Scots walked out on to the pitch on a red carpet, they were introduced to the Emperor’s son, Prince Tekamusa, a big football fan who, according to rumour, was keen to play himself. As the game unfolded it was clear the hosts had learned from the previous match as they employed a more direct style and their aerial skills had improved. After the home team caused a fright by taking an early lead, Albion ran out comfortable 4-2 winners, their scorers being Henry Hall , Tommy Anderson and Drew Rogerson, to maintain their 100% record.
Putting that performance in some perspective, Brazilian team Palmeiras played Japan the following year in Tokyo and lost 2-1. Bill Taylor reminisced: “Japan was an unforgettable experience, they made us so welcome and showered us with hospitality. That made us even more determined to make an impression. We were put up in the plush Asaki Prince hotel and taken sightseeing to a number of places including temples, ornamental gardens, a trip on a bullet train round the city as well as to theatres and a sushi-making exhibition. Most of us had never heard of sushi! Our hosts were extremely polite and we were figures of curiosity. We were asked questions about the kilt and it was a pity that none of us brought one with us. It seemed quite a patriarchal society though as I remember teammate Les Thomson and myself being invited to the house of one of our hosts where he attracted his wife’s attention by snapping his fingers. The British Embassy held a grand reception for us including a wonderful banquet. The other thing that struck us was how far ahead of us they were in technology and a lot of us bought cameras and transistors. Some also bought sunglasses with a built in transistor, light years ahead of us they were.”
Orr remembered one of the tour sponsors was Asahi beer. “We featured in TV adverts they were running and we made a visit to their brewery. When we were there they gave us jackets with their advertising slogans which we had to wear at times when we were out, it made us look like walking billboards and people stared at us. On one occasion an elderly local approached us and pointing at our jackets repeatedly shouted “propaganda!” They also gave us a tour of the city red light district but we only observed from a distance!”
The atmosphere in the touring party was generally relaxed with players free to do as they wished outwith formal engagements which required club blazers and flannels to be worn. The only strict rule was they had to be in bed by 11 o’clock the evening before a game. To their credit, the players never abused this flexible regime and proved excellent ambassadors for the club and Scottish football. Good relations were enjoyed with the club directors present, fostered particularly by the 76-year-old Danny Roy, a larger-than-life character and practical joker. He usually wore a concealed device on his wrist which on shaking hands caused a small electric shock to be emitted. An amateur magician, he kept the party amused at times with his repertoire of tricks.
Their hosts gave them a warm send off, presenting each with a bottle of whisky and a small commemorative football decorated in Japanese lettering. On the long return journey via Alaska the players had time to reflect on their good fortune which had unexpectedly plucked them from a predictable Scottish close season to enjoy a truly memorable football trip of a lifetime. A plaque in the Tokyo Olympic stadium is a permanent reminder of their visit during which they played a part in aiding the development of the sport in Japan where a successful professional league now flourishes and the country has reached the last five World Cup finals.
Japanese players now feature in leagues throughout the world and here in Scotland we were privileged to enjoy the skills of Nakamura with Celtic a few years ago. In 2016 the Stirling Smith Museum marked the 50th anniversary of the trip with an exhibition of memorabilia and a reunion function was held for some of the touring party in the presence of Mrs. Ishigama, the Japanese deputy consul for Scotland. At about the same time some 400 miles to the south, an Early Day Motion, no. 222, was tabled in the House of Commons: “To commend the part played by Stirling Albion in the development of the beautiful game in Japan.“ It is a fitting tribute.
For the record the players were: Tom Anderson, Billy Cunningham, Billy Dickson, David Grant, Henry Hall, Jim Kerray, John McGuinness, Danny McKinnon, John Murray, John Orr, Billy Reid, Drew Rogerson, Jim Symington, Bill Taylor and captain Les Thomson.