Boasting an impressive domestic and international career, there is much for Steve Sumner to be proud. However, the highlight is undoubtedly New Zealand's against-all-odds appearance in the 1982 FIFA World Cup™ in Spain.
On the road to Spain, New Zealand's group of largely amateur players achieved the seemingly impossible, overcoming much-vaunted opposition and creating numerous qualifying records in the process. The captain was inspirational midfielder Sumner, who himself achieved a number of personal milestones in the process.
A six-goal haul against Fiji was a then FIFA World Cup qualification record, but Sumner is perhaps best remembered for scoring New Zealand's opening strike at Spain 1982. With Australia having failed to open their account eight years earlier in West Germany, Sumner's strike against Scotland will forever go down as the first goal scored by an Oceanian nation at the FIFA World Cup.
Sumner had an imposing strike-rate for a midfielder, scoring 22 goals in 58 internationals to sit behind only All Whites recently-retired top scorer Vaughan Coveny, who racked up 28. Many of those goals were scored in his 24 matches across three FIFA World Cup campaigns.
Born in England in 1955, Sumner played for Preston North End and Grimsby Town before going to Christchurch United for eight seasons initially. The club career of the free-scoring midfielder makes for impressive reading and includes a record six Chatham Cup titles. Included amongst the national cup titles are those achieved as a player-coach.
New Zealand sealed a place at Spain 1982 in epic fashion, firstly seeing off Australia, then Indonesia, Chinese Taipei and Fiji in the first stage of qualifying. Sumner scored a crucial late equaliser in their first match against Australia in Auckland to earn a draw and provide the All Whites with a new-found level of confidence they would utilise throughout the campaign.
With two spots up for grabs, the Kiwis then finished behind Kuwait and ahead of Saudi Arabia thanks to a remarkable 5-0 win in Riyadh, when anything less would have resulted in elimination. That win saw the New Zealanders set up a classic play-off against China in neutral Singapore. The All Whites eventually prevailed 2-1 against the world's most populous nation in a match that Sumner describes as a highlight among many memorable en route to Spain 1982.
"We were hanging on in front of 60,000, all of whom were Chinese supporters except for about 500 New Zealanders," says Sumner. "The conditions were incredibly tough heat-wise. They scored with ten to go and we just were hanging on but it was just a fabulous feeling at full-time."
Other than young forward Wynton Rufer, the squad was comprised entirely of semi-professionals, making the Kiwis rank outsiders in a group consisting of Scotland, Brazil and the USSR. First up were a Scotland side that featured the likes of Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness and Alan Hansen.
We were heading into unchartered territory. We didn't know how hot the bath was until we dipped our toes into it!
"We were heading into unchartered territory," say Sumner of their first match in Malaga that ultimately went the way of Scotland 5-2. "We didn't know how hot the bath was until we dipped our toes into it! Looking back, perhaps with a bit more preparation we could have got a result especially with the Scottish match when got back to 3-2, and even against Russia though we lost 3-0."
Sumner's opening goal against the Scots was not only historic but tinged with emotion for the All Whites skipper whose parents had travelled to the match overland from their home in Northern England. "I gathered the ball out of the back of the net so we could get on with the game and as I made my way back to half-way, I looked in the direction of were I thought my parents would be seated and there was my father, standing arms aloft as if this was the winner."
The tournament finished up for the New Zealanders with a 4-0 loss against a star-studded Brazil side, with Zico grabbing a brace including a goal scored with a stunning overhead kick.
As has been the case for many years, Sumner now calls Christchurch home having mostly stayed in the city since moving from England as a teenager excluding brief spells with other clubs in New Zealand and Australia. Football still, unsurprisingly, plays a major role in the life of the All White great.
Despite being based on New Zealand's South Island, Sumner has for two years served on the board of New Zealand's only professional club, Wellington Phoenix, who play in the Australian A-League. Sumner is also currently the president of regional body Mainland Football.
Presently working in the seafood export business, Sumner has the opportunity to travel each year, and for the last three years has taken the opportunity to see New Zealand skipper Ryan Nelsen turn out for Blackburn Rovers. In a small way, Nelsen, New Zealand's highest-profile current player, is carrying on the legacy of the 1982 pioneers.
"I like to think that the national league set up in New Zealand 1970 helped us in 1982, said Sumner. "Since then we have hopefully left a legacy to play at the highest level overseas, and of course we have our players this year in the Confederations Cup and the World Cup play-off, so hopefully things will come full circle".
Facts and Figures - Steve Sumner
Clubs: Christchurch United (1973-80), Newcastle United, Australia (1981), West Adelaide, Australia (1982), Manurewa (1983-86), Gisborne City (1987), Christchurch United (1988-89).
National team: 58 appearances, 22 goals
New Zealand National League winner: 1973, 1975, 1978, 1983, 1988
Chatham Cup (National Cup) winner: 1974, 1975, 1976, 1984, 1987, 1989
New Zealand National League Player of the Year: 1983
New Zealand National League Golden Boot: 1983