Steve Sumner

Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for services to football.

Steve Sumner led the All Whites on the most amazing fairytale ride in New Zealand sport.

In Hollywood movie style, a team of part-timers from a football backwater ended up playing mighty Brazil on the World Cup stage. The way the young Englishman arrived in this country is a tale in itself.

Queen's Birthday Honours list 2016


The 61-year-old Sumner, who is in a desperate fight against prostate cancer, has been made an ONZM in the Queen's Birthday honours.

And in a sometimes emotional interview with the Herald, the captain who drove the long qualification campaign from midfield recalled events which plucked him from youth football for an English second division club towards the 1982 World Cup.

With contract shenanigans going on, Sumner was looking overseas when an assistant coach at Preston North End told the 17-year-old that Christchurch United were interested.

Sumner laughs while recounting that he was unaware of time zones, calculating a 10-hour flight time. The lure which saw him land here in early 1973 was a one-way air fare, plus $15 a win and $3 a draw. His father, a crane driver, worked seven days a week for nearly two months so the teenager could leave with 40 pounds tucked into his three-piece suit.

He had been further encouraged by claims that other players sent through the same channels - Ian Park and Laurie Blyth - struck gold, Park as a bank manager and Blyth as a sports store owner. Park was a bank clerk, and Blyth a shop assistant.

"I left in a long black mac, and the Daily Mirror under my arm - I didn't really know a thing," says Sumner from Christchurch.

He could not have imagined what lay ahead. What ensued was a glittering career, brimming with national league titles and Chatham Cup triumphs, and 58 major international appearances among 105 overall.

Nothing could match the 15-game 1982 World Cup qualification campaign, involving games in nine countries, that carried a fascinated nation along with the All Whites to Spain. It was pure sporting magic, a time many will never forget. The players became household names in a rugby crazy land as New Zealand qualified for their first finals.

Sumner's career highlights are scoring against Scotland - his parents who he hadn't seen in six years were at the match in Malaga - and leading the All Whites out against Brazil in Seville.

"The whole thing was bonkers - it defied belief," says Sumner. "When we started off, three or four senior players thought [coach] John Adshead had got things wrong, so didn't want to play. Ronnie Armstrong - have we ever had a better left back? - has told me it was the worst decision he ever made, that he'll regret it for the rest of his life."

The event which determined that Sumner made New Zealand home was meeting his wife-to-be, Judith Brown, at the age of 19.

"I came here on a two year contract - I have a wife of 40 years, four children, two grandchildren ... it doesn't get any better than that. It has worked out perfect," says Sumner, who made ends meet on building sites initially and went on to run a seafood company.

Last August, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. A urologist told him it was "as bad as it gets and he could do nothing for me".

An oncologist gave him a 30/70 chance, and he has completed 39 debilitating radiation treatments.

Sumner chokes back emotions as he says: "My family quickly gathered around - I don't know how people can cope with something like this without family. It was brilliant, and I was annoyed with myself for not believing they had that in them. I saw how much fun they were having being together. It was so uplifting."

Sumner finds out on July 20 if the treatment is successful. Four days later he will speak to the national Prostate Cancer Foundation conference in Christchurch, his presentation titled: 'Stand Up and Fight Till You Hear the Bell'.

The team of 1982 are never far away. Coach Adshead, who had prostate cancer surgery over a decade ago, rings regularly.

Sumner says: "When team members get together, it's like a band of long-lost brothers. It all happened such a long time ago, and I certainly don't look for awards. A lot of football people deserve them ... but I will certainly cherish this now."