When Steve Sumner arrived in New Zealand to play national league football in 1973, I remember the impact he made.
He had just turned 18, a reject from the professional game in England, and he was hungry to start afresh
Watching him play, he was aggressive and fought for every ball. Coming second wasn’t an option. He did whatever he felt necessary for his team to win.
This endeared him to fans and team mates at Christchurch United who relished having a young firebrand to do the heavy lifting for veterans Tom Randle and Brian Hardman who played beside him in midfield.
It did not make him popular with opposing players.
I was a young football writer at the time, only a year older than Sumner, and players would complain to me about his eagerness to needle opponents. He would wind them up when the ref wasn’t looking.
In the press box, someone was always bound to ask: “Are you sure he’s only 18?”
He had thick hair, an impressive moustache and looked like he’d been shaving for years. He was phyically imposing – not overly tall but muscled and strong.
You didn’t mess with Steve Sumner.
He became key to Christchurch United’s mid-1970s successes, helping them take the national title in his debut season and the Chatham Cup a year later (the first of his six winner’s medals, earned with three clubs).
Sumner was being touted as a future international, as long as he stayed in the country and took citizenship.
They need not have worried about his eligibility. He became a Kiwi in everything but accent, settling into the New Zealand life with pride.
In 1976, Sumner was picked for New Zealand, making the first of 105 appearances for his adopted country.
In those days, his Christchurch United team had a fierce rivalry with Auckland’s Mount Wellington. Matches between the two often decided which would finish the season with trophies and titles.
Sumner’s nemesis at Mount was Brian Turner, already a full international for nine years.
Neither would pretend they were friends in those days.
They were now expected to play alongside each other for New Zealand, putting aside differences.
In 1979, John Adshead became the coach of the New Zealand team.
The All Whites began their legendary run of games that saw them go through the longest qualification campaign ever to reach the 1982 FIFA World Cup Finals in Spain.
Somehow, during that campaign, Sumner had turned from rough diamond to leader.
Adshead saw qualities in him and helped Sumner to develop into the best captain we’d ever had. Older players, including Turner, came to respect Sumner.
The nation got used to watching Sumner – still not 30 – appearing in the media and he came across as passionate and articulate.
Team mate Sam Malcolmson, another who had tangled with the stroppy version of Sumner at club level, has credited Sumner’s personal growth to the encouragement and opportunity provided by Adshead, and the love and security of his wife Jude.
After finishing his playing career, Sumner found a new role as successful businessman trading fish, and as a sort of elder statesman for football in New Zealand.
Whenever the media wanted to understand some development in the game, Sumner was the go-to person; always honest in his response but choosing his words with care and not rushing to make sweeping criticisms.
With former All Whites and Christchurch team mate Bobby Almond, they had helped form Centre Circle, a group that encouraged friendship within the football community and which was the forerunner to Friends of Football.
I lost touch with Sumner after the 1980s when our lives took different paths.
We were re-united in 2013 when sharing a table at a Friends of Football dinner to honour John Adshead.
It was hard to compare the brash Sumner of 1973 with the warm, considerate person now so comfortable in himself. He shook hands with all those who wanted to meet him, giving them time and attention that went well beyond small talk. He was genuinely interested in the lives of others.
When Steve’s prostate cancer was diagnosed in 2015, it tested his character.
He travelled to Auckland in late 2015, with a medical carer in attendance, to receive his Medal of Excellence at a Friends of Football dinner.
Fittingly, he received his medal in a joint presentation with Brian Turner, the player who held the record of most appearances for New Zealand until it was surpassed by Sumner.
Turner and Malcolmson fought tears as they spoke of Sumner, acknowledging their affection for the man who had been a fine captain but who had also become a friend, a brother for life.
In his acceptance speech, Sumner barely mentioned his own career nor referred to his achievements. It was no false modesty – he clearly took more pleasure in talking of the achievements of others.
During 2016, Sumner campaigned to increase awareness of prostate cancer, urging men to get checked by their doctor.
I helped with the promotion of #PlayItForSteve, New Zealand Football’s campaign to support Blue September.
Steve texted me with his thanks but added an extra message.
“When are you getting your check up?”
Typical Sumner – his way of keeping you honest.
Guiltily, I agreed to do it the next day (and did).
Sumner’s use of text messaging (and love of emojis) became legend among his wide group of friends in his final months. He shared his highs and lows, his ideas and always his encouragement of others.
Last month, he texted to ask if I could help Norman Moran, a former Christchurch United striker from the 1970s now in England, find some photographs playing in New Zealand. Moran had been facing his own struggle with cancer, Sumner said, and needed our help.
Between us, we shared some classic Dave Barker photographs of Sumner and Moran in Christchurch United days. Moran emailed, saying he would always be indebted to Sumner for helping him, even from the other side of the world, and knowing his own time was running out.
The week before he died, Sumner was remaining positive. He wanted to know when the Friends of Football Golf Day was to be held (late April) and he had booked flights to Auckland to support a charity raceday in mid-February.
The 90 minutes might have been up but Steve Sumner was always going to fight to the final whistle.
We all have our own particular memories of Sumner.
The image in my mind will always be of Sumner after a goal in the 1974 Chatham Cup Final at Newmarket Park.
He’s not overtly celebrating. He’s grabbed the ball and is marching back to the halfway line with it tucked under his arm, a smile on his face.
The photograph of this moment has featured in tributes to him this week.
It’s the same pose he adopted after he scored his famous goal against Scotland at the ’82 Spain World Cup.
Those images have lasted more than three decades, and I suspect the inspiration left by Sumner will last even longer.
The term “legend” can be over used these days. Not this time.
Steven Paul Sumner (1955-2017)
[Josh Easby is a long-time football writer whose current obsessions with the game are as club secretary for Cambridge FC and as a committee member for the supporter group Friends of Football.]
A grassroots football enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent club on earth - A.S. Roma. More info (including e-mail address) can be found here: https://in-the-back-of-the.net/about/