Pool pioneers of the Orient

CHARLTON Athletic's Chinese player Zheng Zhi failed to sparkle at Bloomfield Road on Saturday but did you know that Blackpool had a player from the Far East among their ranks almost 50 years ago?

GERRY WOLSTENHOLME tells the story of the only Chinese footballer to have played for Blackpool ...

IT was in the days before every top-flight club had a host of foreign players, so Blackpool were leaders in the field when they signed Cheung Chi Doy from Tung Wah in the early 1960s.

His impressive form had brought him to the attention of the Chinese national side selectors and he made his international debut in an Olympic Games qualifying game against South Korea.

Cheung had seen Blackpool play on their visit to Hong Kong in 1958 and he had only one ambition. "My heart was set on becoming a professional in England," he said.

"I saw Blackpool play and they were wonderful. Stanley Matthews was what we call 'Number One Footballer'."

So two years later, aged 19, he approached Blackpool and was duly invited to Bloomfield Road for a trial.

It was a momentous decision for he gave up the opportunity to play for China in the Olympics, having already been chosen in the squad.

On his arrival in Blackpool he confessed to being "cold and lonely" but he dismissed such feelings once he got on the pitch.

He scored his first goal for Blackpool A in a 5-0 win at Liverpool A.

He made his Central League debut at centre forward in a 2-0 defeat by Everton reserves in September, 1960, and he "revealed some clever ball control".

He was immediately christened Mao Tse-Tung and Chiang Kai-Shek by his teammates whom he jokingly called in return "Number One Fellows".

He made a strenuous effort to learn English. "I start night school at the Technical College next week to improve my English," he said. "I can understand it and can read and write in English but I do not speak it too well."

This, however, did not hold back his footballing prowess and he scored his first goal in Central League football in only his second match, when forming part of a five nations forward line against Sheffield United reserves.

Cheung played outside right, with a Scotsman, McGuigan, an Englishman, Crawford, an Irishman, Tyrell, and a South African, Perry, making up the remainder of the forward line.

Blackpool lost 3-2 but Cheung's goal was a gem as he "lured the Sheffield goalkeeper out and, with almost impudent calculation, rolled the ball over the line".

He played six more Central League games, appearing at inside left, outside left and centre forward and was described as "Cheung, the Chinese magician" after a game against Aston Villa reserves in December when he was even seen to head the ball, an action described by the critics as "distinctly out of the common" for him.

After reading this remark, he demonstrated that his English had improved as he replied with a succinct: "Why is it called football if you have to head the ball?"

His success with the Central League side brought him seven goals in 10 games including a brace on two occasions – in a 7-3 win over Barnsley reserves and a 4-0 victory over Chesterfield reserves at the start of 1961.

After the Chesterfield game he announced "Now I want first team football," though he also admitted "I must get used to being knocked about. English football is very rough".

But his chance was not long in coming for he was selected at outside right for the first team against Wolves on January 14.

Sadly his debut lasted only nine minutes before the fog came down and the game was abandoned. But he remained in the side for the following game against Bolton, this time playing outside left.

Although he "showed some nice touches", Blackpool lost 3-1 and he returned to the Central League side for the remainder of the season, finishing as second top scorer with 14 goals from 26 games.

He opened the 1961-62 season in explosive form for the Central League side, scoring a hat-trick in the opening game – a 5-0 victory over Barnsley reserves. After nine goals in 17 Central League appearances he was given another chance in the League side.

He played at inside right against Sheffield Wednesday on November 25, 1961, and he scored his only senior goal for the club in the ninth minute.

He ran on to a pass from his right wing partner Mandy Hill, drew Sheffield keeper Ron Springett and slotted the ball into the far corner. But his goal was not enough to save Blackpool from a 3-1 defeat – or for Cheung, "who made several good passes", to retain his place in the side.

Class

He did, in fact, play only one further Central League game, a 4-3 defeat by Bolton. And then, much to everyone's surprise, he flew home just before Christmas 1961 leaving with the comment: "No play in Blackpool first team, then go home."

Sadly he had not fulfilled his potential at Blackpool, although as one observer noted: "Blackpool would find Cheung Chi Doy making considerably better progress if they found a more permanent position for him in the second team.

"At the moment they appear to be using him as a utility player and such a man, though often useful to a club, seldom becomes a class player."

There was some truth in these comments for at the start of the 1961-62 season he had played in four different positions. Notwithstanding, he was still the reserve side's leading scorer at the time of his premature departure.

At home in Hong Kong he won the Footballer of the Year award and was in the Kitchee side that won the League Championship and Senior Shield and he became a well-respected member of the football community in that country.

His short sojourn in English football did, however, give him a place in English football history in that he was only the second player of oriental descent after Frank Soo of Stoke to have graced the Football League at the highest level.