Peeking in Peking is strictly prohibited

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The Independent Online
Her Majesty's press were on a mission - and nothing was going to deflect them, not the bar, not the swimming pool, nor, even after a gruelling 21-hour journey, a badly-needed shower.

Having arrived here yesterday, 12 hours ahead of England's footballers, the media headed straight for the Workers' Stadium to check out the most notorious sports pitch since Headingley '75. Would it be fit to play on - or had England flown half-way around the world for nothing?

There were 16 of us, including such luminaries as ITV's Gary Newbon - no doubt seeking a touchline interview with the groundsman - and BBC Radio Five's Alan Green and Mike Ingham. There were also a clutch of tabloid men eager for a back-page lead. If only a uniformed Chinese jobsworth could be photographed keeping them out they could dust down the "ring of steel" and "cloak of secrecy" headlines.

Finding the ground was no problem - it was lit up by neon lights advertising a disco by the entrance gates. It looked the part: big, round and imposing with concrete everywhere. The impression was only slightly spoiled by the presence, where the twin towers would be, of the Gong Ti Hotel, flanked by a takeaway and Susan's Hair Fashion salon.

We slowly drove around the perimeter - the only sign of life was some kids playing football. We tried to go through the hotel - no luck, there was not even a bar with a view of the pitch. Then we found a Chinese jobsworth - who pointed out that it was dark, it was half-past eight at night, and he was not about to turn on the floodlights for the English media. Surely, one thought, Wembley Stadium would do the same for the Chinese press?

Maybe not. There was nothing for it but to take the word of Ted Buxton, England's chief scout and temporary agronomist, who has been here for five days.

"The problem is that they have played two games on it since I arrived - China against Lazio and a league game at the weekend," he said. (In case you are interested, the score was Peking 1, Guangdong 0).

"They were working on it this afternoon and have promised to be at it again in the morning. There has been a little improvement and I would not have thought there was any doubt about the game going ahead."

So England, who were due to arrive at dawn this morning, will play after all. This is a great relief to all concerned, not least because a British trade delegation, headed by Michael Heseltine, is coincidentally here this week. No wonder the Mayor of Peking himself was on the telephone when Terry Venables originally threatened to cancel the game.

The FA will not, however, be excused until after England have finished the game without injury. Venables' plans have been disrupted enough, with the latest change being the last-minute inclusion of Steve Howey in the tour party.

Howey, who has not played since injuring his hamstring in the 4-3 defeat at Anfield last month, was called up to replace Mark Wright, who was injured at the weekend. It is an unexpected reprieve for the Newcastle defender, who thought his chance had gone.

"I spoke to Terry after he announced the squad for the Hungary match and he told me to go with Newcastle on our end-of-season tour to Cyprus," Howey said.

"That was a disappointment to me. I was hoping he'd ask me to join the squad and train with them for the week, because I thought that would help me recover. But he told me to get myself away and use the time well to regain my fitness, but we kept in touch by phone and that was a great lift and made sure I kept myself right."

While the other Newcastle players were relaxing, Howey was working intensively under the guidance of the club physio Derek Wright to get himself back in trim. Even so, it was a chance meeting with one of the men who deprived Newcastle of the title, Manchester United's Geordie skipper Steve Bruce, that let Howey know he might be in line for a late call-up.

"When we got back from Cyprus I decided to stay in a hotel outside Newcastle and I bumped into Steve there," he said. "I told him I was fit and he lifted my hopes when he told me that Gary [Pallister] had said Tony [Adams] was really struggling and Mark [Wright] was probably out."

Howey added: "I realised that Terry might be trying to contact me and so it wasn't a surprise when I got home and heard a message from him on my answerphone saying he would be ringing back.

"He rang again at noon yesterday and told me to pack my bags because I was on the trip." Howey sought to dispel any doubts over his fitness. "I'm a generally fit lad and I've got no worries," he said.

n China's team captain, coaches and clubs will earn mobile phones worth 13,000 yuan (pounds 1,000) each if they defeat England on Thursday. If they lose, the telephones will be offered to leading coaches of the 24 A-league teams in China.