Just before Christmas last year, I spoke to Steve Sumner for what turned out to be the last time. He had planned to fly to Perth for some nuclear medicine treatments, though specialists had warned the treatment wouldn't work for his situation.

The prognosis wasn't great - his prostate cancer had spread to his back, ribs, liver and lymph nodes - but Sumner remained courageously positive.

"I'm not sat here moping," said Sumner. "I need to set a plan of how I am going to attack what I've got from here on through. The one thing I want to give people is hope. I've just been told recently it's weeks to months, but you never know."

At such a difficult time, his thoughts were of others. He often said the situation was tougher on his family than him and was constantly pushing a public message for people to get checked.

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"I know of four people who have had something detected early," said Sumner. "That's the most important thing; that's what I want to get out there - get yourself checked."

Sumner enjoyed a "wonderful Christmas" with his extended family and was particularly proud of his grandchildren. Stella (10 months) was "the cheeriest little thing, she's crawling like the clappers" and Beckett (2) was a "flipping good sportsman, he kicks it properly [and] looks like a footballer."

Sumner often talked about his beloved Manchester City, who he had followed since 1969, when he hitchhiked to Blackburn (from Preston) to watch them win 4-1 at Ewood Park in an FA Cup tie. He also keenly rode the fortunes of the Wellington Phoenix.

But his favourite football topic was the 1981-82 All Whites. They were one of the greatest teams New Zealand has produced, with a togetherness, fortitude and brotherhood that has rarely been matched.

They played a staggering 30 games in 14 months from April 1981, living together in an Auckland motel for weeks at a time.

And Sumner was their leader.

"That was the best time of my career," said Sumner. "We went through a lot together and they are still like long lost brothers to this day. We don't see each other as often as we used to but it's still there when we do."

His favourite memory was the playoff win over China in Singapore.

Despite his fragile health, his recall was as lucid as ever. He talked of the scenes in the dressing room before the game, as coach John Adshead steeled the team for one last effort.

"The buzzer went but John wouldn't let us out," said Sumner. "He said, 'Sit down, I haven't finished with you yet'. And he did what he did best - got you in the mood. We didn't need much, but he wanted to make sure we were crossing that line in the right frame of mind.

"He said to us, 'I feel like you are going to let yourselves down tonight and you won't get what you deserve.'

"Then he said, 'People at home now, they'll be crowding around their televisions and they will all be watching you. This is your time.'

"That had us amping."

As the team made their way to the tunnel, the Chinese players seemed visibly intimidated.

"We were greased up, with Vaseline on our knees, elbows, foreheads and we were eyeballing their mob," said Sumner.

"They had been stood waiting in this tunnel for a few minutes and we were like flipping gladiators. They were looking at us thinking 'What the hell are we up to tonight?' It was a ferocious feeling."

The All Whites led 2-0 early in the second half, but China fought back strongly in the energy-sapping humidity, and the New Zealanders clung on desperately to win 2-1.

"We were so dehydrated at the end," remembered Sumner. "There were blokes going down with cramp and I'm looking around thinking 'We've got to shut this shop again.' I knew we didn't have a lot left in the tank."

After prolonged celebrations in the dressing room, Sumner and Bobby Almond polished off the mini bar in their hotel room as they waited for an overseas phone line. When Sumner finally got through to his parents in England, they already knew, as ITV commentator Martin Tyler had been in touch.

"He called them and said, 'Do you realise your lad has just taken New Zealand to the World Cup finals?' My dad was so proud," said Sumner.

The Sumner legend has never really faded since then. He was one of the most complete players New Zealand has seen - a hard-nosed midfielder with a huge engine, great vision and an eye for a goal - only two players have found the net on more occasions for the All Whites. He was also, alongside Ryan Nelsen, probably our greatest captain.

"My job happened when we got over that white line," said Sumner.

"I felt I could see things and feel things on a football pitch that they [the coaches] couldn't see. I had that sense. I'd say, 'Buzzer [Keith Mackay] tuck inside, Grant [Turner] get outside him'. I never looked to the bench for any help. I felt it was my job and that's where I took over."

Sumner took his last bow for the All Whites in 1988, after 105 matches. But he never lost his love for the silver fern and for a long period over the past decade was sending faxes to the national team before every match, with some advice and words of encouragement.

Sumner recently joked that the All Whites were the one team he had never retired from and he was still available "if needed" by coach Anthony Hudson.

That chapter is all over now but Steven Paul Sumner will never be forgotten. He was, as one football administrator said on Friday, the sport's version of Sir Colin Meads.

Football hasn't always recognised its heroes in this country particularly well, but that won't be an issue with Sumner.

All Whites stats

Most appearances*
Steve Sumner 105

Brian Turner 101

Ivan Vicelich 98

Duncan Cole 92

* Including matches against club teams

Most goals

Vaughan Coveny 30

Jock Newall 28

Steve Sumner 27