Steve Wooddin : the Merseysider who played more World Cup matches than Ian Rush

steve wooddin

The thought of a lad born in Birkenhead playing in a World Cup for New Zealand, may seem the stuff of fiction. But for Steve Wooddin it really happened.

Three matches in the 1982 World Cup in Spain gave him more appearances in World Cups than Ian Rush, George Best, Ryan Giggs, Eric Cantona, Alfredo di Stefano or Bernd Schuster.

But how did he get there? Read on, McDuff, read on.

Embed from Getty Images

Steve Wooddin was a promising striker at Tranmere Rovers in the mid-seventies when he read an advert asking for players to move to New Zealand to play football. He was 20 at the time with only a handful of first team appearances behind him, but he fancied a change/challenge.

He answered it and received a favourable reply. But New Zealand’s immigration laws were such he had to wait two years. He’d already told Tranmere he was leaving so he spent the next two years playing for a couple of non-league clubs before moving to Dunedin in September 1977.

There was no money in New Zealand football as the country was all rugby, rugby, rugby. But they paid his expenses and got him a job.

It was at Dunedin he met John Adshead. Adshead was also born in the North West, in Fleetwood. After his playing career was cut short at age 22, he moved into coaching and found his way to Western Australia. In 1976 he moved to New Zealand and after a successful period in club management, he was handed the national job in 1979.

He approached Wooddin about the opportunity to play for his chosen country. Initially, the player wasn’t convinced but once he realised he’d be playing all around the South Pacific it didn’t take him long to change his mind.

Wooddin made his debut for the national team in May 1980 against a Southern Region team in Christchurch. By August he was in the starting line-up for the visit of Mexico. In one of the greatest results the country had ever known, ‘the All-Whites’ won 4-0 with Wooddin getting the fourth.

In 1981 he moved to South Melbourne and from there the World Cup Qualifying campaign began.

AFC and OFC World Cup Qualifying

There were two qualifying places up for grabs from the Asian and Oceanian zones. 21 teams originally entered by Iran withdrew.

The First Round split the countries into four groups. New Zealand were drawn in the same group as Australia, and it was pretty obvious for any team wanting to qualify they would have to beat the Aussies.

The two met in the opening group game in Auckland. Wooddin scored his side’s second goal in a 3-3 draw. Steve Sumner, another lad from the North West (Preston), grabbed a late equaliser to earn a point.

A week later they went to Fiji and came away with a 4-0 win. Yet another English-born player, Brian Turner, scored a hat-trick.

They suffered a setback when held to a goalless draw in Taiwan, before moving to Indonesia and winning 2-0.

Embed from Getty Images

Their fifth game in 21 days was the big one. They were up against Australia at the Sydney Cricket Ground. On the same ground where Don Bradman once thrilled the crowds, Wooddin opened the scoring in the first half. New Zealand-born, Grant Turner then scored his third of the campaign and a vital 2-0 win was secured.

They now had a crucial advantage over their near neighbours having picked up three points from the two meetings. All would hinge on them not dropping points against lesser opponents.

Wooddin was again on target with the first goals in a 5-0 win at home to Indonesia, and the 2-0 win over Taiwan. They’d played seven of their qualifying matches during a four-week period and could now sit back and wait for Australia to try and catch them.

The following August Australia thumped Fiji in Melbourne as David Mitchell and Gary Cole shared 10 goals between them. Two days later it was New Zealand’s turn to take on Fiji.

Once again Wooddin scored first in the opening two minutes. They were 3-0 up by ten minutes and 7-0 up at the break. Sumner scored six goals as they ran out 13-0 winners to book their place in the next stage.

Australia’s campaign fizzled out embarrassingly as they were beaten in Indonesia and drew 0-0 in Taiwan.

The All-Whites were into the final group along with China, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Their opening game was a tough trip to Beijing. In front of 63,000, they earned a vital point in a 0-0 draw.

A week later they had the reverse fixture as the Chinese arrived in Auckland. Local boy, Ricki Herbert scored the only goal of the game.

But the following week New Zealand suffered their first defeat of the campaign when Kuwait visited and won 2-1 after Wooddin had once again opened the scoring.

China then beat Kuwait and Saudi Arabia twice. Things were getting interesting.

Saudi Arabia arrived in Auckland yet to gain a point. Kuwait took on China two days later so New Zealand needed to win to keep the pressure on. Billy McClure, another Liverpudlian, put the home side in front from the penalty spot after just five minutes. But the flood of goals never emerged and two goals from the visitors with four minutes of each other just before the break, shocked the home fans. Nerves were jangling right up until Herbert finally netted the equaliser with just three minutes left to play. It ended 2-2 and New Zealand thought they’d blown it.

Kuwait beat China and then Saudi Arabia, so by the time New Zealand travelled to Kuwait they needed a minimum of three points from their final two matches. Defeat would be the end.

They were a goal down at the break in Kuwait City but then Sumner and Wynton Rufer scored within a minute of each other and suddenly it was back on. Kuwait grabbed a last-gasp equaliser but still, a point was gained. A win would’ve been better as a win over Saudi Arabia would seal their ticket to Spain. As it was goal difference would come into play.

The final game of the group saw them travel to Riyadh. On astroturf, they needed to win 6-0. Rufer and Brian Turner had them two goals to the good inside the opening half hour. Wooddin made it three, before Rufer and Turner added to their accounts.

It was so hot and although they were 5-0 up at half-time, Wooddin said;

“We were knackered”

No further goals meant New Zealand and China were locked together on identical points and goal difference. A playoff was required. But where to play it? New Zealand wanted it held in Australia, China wanted Singapore. Eventually, Singapore was chosen.

With the prize being a debut trip to the World Cup for both teams, China and New Zealand lined up against each other in front of 60,000. Wooddin put his side in front in the first half. He called it the most important goal of his career.

Rufer then doubled their lead early in the second period. China did get a goal back but New Zealand hung on for a famous victory.

Embed from Getty Images

London-born vice-captain, Bobby Almond was referred to as a ‘colossus’ against China. He rolled his ankle on the training pitch the day before and had physio and painkilling injections to play in a match he was never going to miss.

Wooddin recalls it was only once they’d qualified for the World Cup Finals that the nation actually took any notice of football.

“Before then it was all rugby, rugby, rugby. For six months it was football, football, football”

The New Zealand rugby team, the ‘All-Blacks’, had just courted controversy with their tour of Apartheid South Africa so the ‘All-Whites’ taking their place alongside football’s hoi polloi was just the distraction they needed.

New Zealand had negotiated 15 games and over 60,000 miles travelling to make it to football’s holy grail.

New Zealand was drawn in the same group as Brazil, Scotland and the Soviet Union. With half the squad born in the British Isles they were very happy to meet Scotland in their first match.

World Cup Spain 1982

In Malaga on 15 June 1982, the three Scots in the squad, Adrian Elrick, Sam Malcolmson and Allan Boath were in the team to line up against the likes of Kenny Dalglish, Danny McGrain, Graeme Souness and Alan Hansen.

Embed from Getty Images

Almond was looking forward to facing Souness as the two had been in the same youth team at Spurs.

Dalglish put the Scots in front and when John Wark scored twice to give them a three-goal lead at half-time, many feared an avalanche. On the same night, Hungary were 3-0 up at the break against El Salvador so it wasn’t looking good for the ‘minnows’.

In an interview with Hyder Jawad in Backpass magazine, Wooddin recalled what happened at half-time

“John Adshead gave us one of his inspiring half-time team talks. Steve Sumner, our captain, pulled a goal back and we gave Scotland a real fright.”

Sumner’s goal came 10 minutes into the second half, then 10 minutes later came the moment of Wooddin’s football career.

Belfast-born right-back John Hill saw Wooddin run into space in the centre circle. Hill’s pass put Wooddin clear of the defence. With Hansen and Allan Evans struggling to catch him, he only had Alan Rough to beat.

“I was half expecting Rough to come out, but he stayed just in front of his six-yard box.

So I hit the ball from 18 yards out, hard and low, left footed and I knew as soon as I struck it that it was a goal”

Wooddin’s Dad was watching the game back in Birkenhead. He was getting more and more irate with Dennis Law’s summarising of the game being shown live on ITV. Law was well known for being incredibly biased when summarising Manchester United’s games on BBC Radio Two, so it was no surprise to many he was similar with Scotland on TV.

Wooddin senior, even called ITV to complain.

“When we pulled it back to 2-3, they started arguing with each other and the stadium fell silent. I thought we had a chance of a third. But we conceded two goals from set pieces and lost 2-5”

2-5 was by no means a drubbing given the momentum was with them just after Wooddin’s goal. When you consider El Salvador were eventually on the wrong end of a 1-10 thrashing by the Hungarians, they faired pretty well.

What they did benefit from was the experience. Four days later in Malaga they produced, what Adshead described as, their best ever performance. Cheered on by about 10,000 Scots they played really well against the Soviet Union. Wooddin felt they deserved at least a goal, especially after their first half performance, but they went down 0-3.

Embed from Getty Images

Then the big one. Ever since the draw in January the whole country’s breath was bated for the meeting with the mighty Brazil. And this indeed was a mighty Brazil, one of the best ever.

By the time they arrived at the Estadio Benito Villamarin in Seville on 23 June, Brazil had already qualified for the next phase. Despite this, manager Tele Santana named an unchanged side. So the team of semi-professionals, unknowns and ex-pats lined up against Socrates, Zico, Falcao, Cerezo and Junior.

In his interview with Jawad, Wooddin remembered the experience with fondness;

“There was a difference here because, whereas in Malaga the two teams entered the field from different parts of the stadium, in Seville the teams emerged from the same tunnel. So we lined up with all the Brazil players.

They were shaking our hands, wishing us luck, and treating us with the utmost respect. Not only were they the best team, they were the classiest too. If ever a team had the right to be arrogant, it was Brazil, but they had no arrogance.

Once the match had begun, they ripped us to pieces with a type of football I didn’t recognise. Brazil won 4-0, but I wonder what would have happened had they needed to score nine. Could we have stopped them? Probably not.

Afterwards, they were all handshakes and pleasantries, showing the same class we had experienced before the kick-off. I wanted them to win the tournament, partly because I wanted to say we had played the world champions, but also because they were genuinely nice men.”

Embed from Getty Images

Wooddin said of the aftermath there was an air of celebrity about them in the land of rugby. All of them returned to the country as heroes. But only Rufer achieved notoriety outside his homeland. He was offered a trial in England by Norwich City manager, Ken Brown. Unfortunately, he was denied a work permit so he moved to FC Zurich in Switzerland. In all, he spent seven years there, scoring over 100 goals and leading the goalscoring charts in 1988. In 1989 he moved to the Bundesliga to Werder Bremen. His partnership with Klaus Allofs helped the club win the European Cup-Winners’ Cup with both scoring in a 2-0 win over Monaco.

The celebrity status didn’t last though. Wooddin recalled when they toured England two years later they were only given a B team as opposition. Only he and Sumner remained from the ’82 squad, and Wooddin particularly remembers him saying “it’s gone hasn’t it?” and reluctantly he had to agree.

Adshead left the job eight months after the Spanish adventure, and the team had been broken up. Rufer and Sumner were still in the team for the 1986 qualifying campaign, but by now Australia were a far more formidable opponent. They were still in the running until defeats in Sydney and Israel put paid to any hopes of reaching Mexico.

Wooddin had the chance of joining Beerschot in Belgium but an ankle injury meant he failed the medical. He was back in Christchurch at the time and his playing career ended in 1989. He played his 24th, and final game for the national side back in 1984. A record of 11 goals from 24 caps is something to be proud of.

He told Jawad he didn’t regret for a moment his move to New Zealand.

“Tranmere was too early. Maybe I would have made it there eventually. I had improved by 1982. But I don’t regret how it panned out. I fulfilled a fantasy.”

Adshead returned to coach the national side in an attempt to reach the 1990 Finals but they failed again. Ricki Herbert got the national job in 2005 and lasted eight years.

Rufer was voted the Oceania player of the century, and Sumner was his country’s record goalscorer by the time his career ended. Newcastle United’s Chris Wood is one of three players who have since surpassed his figure. Sumner sadly passed away in 2017.

It would be 28 years before New Zealand made it back to FIFA’s great spectacle. The squad which acquitted themselves better in 2010 than their 1982 counterparts were a far more worldly-wise group. Five played their football in England, one in Scotland and one in Denmark. They came away unbeaten and finished above defending world champions, Italy, the country who had won the 1982 tournament.

Wooddin, Rufer, Sumner et al were pioneers. Forever etched into the history of New Zealand football. Rugby remains the national sport but they could at least bask in the glory of knocking them off their perch for six months.