Meet Arthur Leong, believed to be our oldest living New Zealand international

posted in: Heritage, News, Recognition

By Bruce Holloway

The “Technical Old Boys “name has pretty much disappeared from New Zealand’s football landscape these days.

But 60 years ago, in 1962, this tiny Hamilton club was the talk of the code – and certainly talk of the town — when it became the first team outside the four main centres to win the Chatham Cup.

And wrapped up in the pioneering heritage of this club — which only existed from 1949 to 1963 — is a story within a story, about a man who was its heart and soul, and is today possibly New Zealand’s oldest living All White.

Leong made his first international appearance against a Costa Rican club at Auckland’s Carlaw Park in 1959.

Arthur Leong, who became the first player of Chinese ethnicity to represent New Zealand, when selected for a 3-2 win against Deportivo Saprissa (Costa Rica) on June 6, 1959, enjoyed his 92nd birthday in March 2022.

In an era when there weren’t a lot of matches, Leong went on to earn 15 New Zealand caps up until 1964, playing as either left back or centre half in the old 2-3-5 formation, or as wing half.

Being just 5′ 5″ and 10 stone 6lb in the old money, Leong was a small unit for a defensively-minded player, but was blessed with great pace and agility, and was also powerful in the air despite his compact stature.

A match report of the Deportivo Saprissa game published in the Waikato Times said Leong played “extremely well” and he was “one of the New Zealanders who clearly wanted to play class soccer”.

“Leong was by far the quickest New Zealander to the tackle and if he sometimes played dangerously far forward he used the ball with more skill than he has in the past.”

Meanwhile, on the domestic front, Leong made an equally important contribution as Technical Old Boys’ coach and captain – and guiding his club to the 1962 Chatham Cup triumph is his enduring legacy.

Remarkably Leong, who lives barely a corner kick from Gower Park in Melville these days, can still fit into the New Zealand shirt he wore in playing Tom Finney’s English FA touring team in 1961, where it was his job to mark the great Finney.

Main photo (above): Leong can still fit into the New Zealand shirt he wore against Finney’s team in 1961.

Sadly Leong’s memory is pretty shot, and his wife Maureen remembers more of the detail about a highly significant football career than he does.

Tom Finney, later Sir Tom Finney.

But one of the few vivid recollections Leong retains is of being severely admonished by Finney about the importance of playing the game in the right spirit during the 8-0 loss to the slick English FA team at the Basin Reserve.

At the time Finney, 39, had played 76 matches for England, with his 30 goals being the equal national record then, so he was quite a handful.

“I went in elbows up in a challenge with Tom,” Leong recalled of the first match against the English FA .

“He was not impressed and gave me a real lecture on how that was not the way to play football and that always stuck with me.

“But he also gave me his shirt afterwards, so he was a real gentlemen.”

Leong’s influence was even more pronounced at club level, where he emerged as the backbone of one of the smallest clubs to ever win the Chatham Cup.

Technical Old Boys had grown out of former members of Hamilton Technical College, which was located on what is currently Wintec’s central city site. Initially, they were known as “Old Technicals” and Leong was a former head prefect at the College.

But in 1955 when they entered the Waikato first division, New Zealand Football’s honorary historian Barry Smith suspects there may have been a need for more formal structures, and as part of that, the Old Technicals name was dropped in favour of Technical Old Boys.

Regardless of their title, Technical Old Boys were thinly resourced and never managed more than two teams during the club’s entire existence. So they never had more club teams than they had club names.

There were no facilities. Training was done under street light at Hinemoa Park (adjacent to the Founder’s Theatre). There were no clubrooms and aftermatches were usually held at Hamilton pubs, commonly the (long gone) Riverina in Grey St.

They played in hand-sewn quartered shirts of claret and blue. “Somebody had been a West Ham United fan,” Leong observed.

With no clubrooms, aftermatch functions were held at the now-demolished Riverina Hotel.

To give a broader context to Technical Old Boys’ Cup triumph, Waikato football had been strong in the 1950s, with Brown Shield wins at provincial level in 1952, 1954, 1955, 1957 and 1958.

Leong was not present for the 1952 win, because he was at university in Dunedin (where he was selected for New Zealand Universities) but otherwise made 55 appearances for Waikato, the most significant of these being a 2-0 win over Auckland in a 1954 challenge for New Zealand’s most prized trophy, the Football Association Trophy.

However, Waikato’s Chatham Cup achievements prior to 1962 were more modest, with no team having previously even made the final.

Arthur Leong in his New Zealand strip.

The best efforts came from Rotowaro (known as the “Tigers” because of yellow and black stripe jerseys) who contested the North Island final of the Chatham Cup in 1945 (a year when no Auckland teams were involved) and all four of the Auckland provincial finals from 1946-1949.

So 1962 represented a major breakthrough. Technical had recorded early-round wins against Huntly Thistle, Whakatane Town and Rotorua’s Kahukura, but faced a major hurdle in having to get past Ken Armstrong’s formidable North Shore United team.

During the early 1960s North Shore were considered to be by far the strongest team in the country. North Shore contested three
consecutive finals 1959, 1960 and 1961, losing the first and third to

But Old Technicals pipped them 4-2 at Seddon Park, in front of a crowd of about 2000, in a pulsating North Island semifinal.

Tech were less troubled by New Plymouth’s Moturoa in the 1962 North Island final, held at Seddon Park on August 18, winning 4-0, with goals from Jon Dekkers, Peter Feenstra, Trevor Jones and Klaus Poelman. The Moturoa tie brought a gross gate of 200 pounds, 13 shilling s and sixpence. Significantly, that was almost twice that of the Waikato provincial team’s previous home gate.

With Technical Old Boys having no clubrooms, their aftermatch ceremony following the Moturoa victory was held at Hamilton’s Old Folks Hall.

For the final, the New Zealand Football Association offered train tickets to Wellington, but no accommodation. However, the players got together and decided they would pay for themselves to stay in a hotel.

At the Basin Reserve, they beat 1961 winners Northern (Otago) 4-1 in what was regarded as one of the best finals of all time, after an explosive start in which both teams scored in the opening five minutes.

Match programme for the 1962 Chatham Cup final.

Tech had been given little chance by most pundits and beforehand were mostly referred to as being “plucky”.

However afterwards the Waikato Times was able to headline its match report like this: “Technical Is New Zealand Soccer Club Supreme With Great Victory”.

“Well done Technical… It was a thrilling victory which will go down in New Zealand soccer history. Northern (Dunedin) was well and truly humbled to the tune of 4-1.”

The Tech team which won the 1962 Chatham Cup was: Mel Clarke, Tom Henderson, Frits Poelman, Ray McLean, Arthur Leong, Charlie Caldwell, Klaus Poelman, Peter Feenstra, Paul Nevison, Jon Dekkers, Trevor Jones.

There was a crowd of about 6,000 at the Basin Reserve and it looked ominous when Northern’s George Little opened the scoring in the fourth minute, adding to his goals in the 1959 and 1961 finals.

But from the kick-off, Paul Nevison ran through an equalised, and 19-year-old Trevor Jones and Peter Feenstra added two more before half-time, while Nevison scored again in the second half.

At the other end, Mel Clarke was brilliant in goal and was later named man of the match.

Tech were honoured with a parade and then a mayoral reception in Hamilton City Council chambers on their return, and heartily congratulated by mayor, Dr Denis Rogers.

Leong, 31 at the time, was described as “a fast intelligent footballer who would be as fit as any footballer in New Zealand”.

Of the other Tech team members, Frits Poelman had made four appearances for New Zealand in 1958. Frits, 37, was powerfully built, strong off both feet, was seldom beaten in a tackle and intercepted with precision and speed. He had previously played for the LSC (Sneek) senior team and the Dutch military team in Indonesia.

Brother Klaus, mostly an inside right, had played two matches for New Zealand in 1957.

“What Tech had most of all was great team spirit,” Leong said. “The Poelman brothers in particular were great, real team men.”

The Technical team, with Leong centre of the front row.

Tom Henderson, born in Scotland, was a long-serving Waikato representative, and was selected for the North Island Minor Associations team in 1961 (alongside Leong) as a centre half or fullback with a reputation for being calm and assured. He was 31 in 1962.

Goalkeeper Clarke (24) was in his first season with the club after shifting north from Kahukura. English-born, he was an agile acrobatic keeper with a safe pair of hands, and full of confidence. and had been selected to play for the New Zealand Minor Associations team against Tom Finney’s English XI in 1961, as a reserve for Ron Leakey.

Striker Dekkers appeared in two New Zealand trial matches, including as centre forward in the final national trial match (for Auckland v New Zealand) in May 1961.

Nevison, originally from Middlesbrough, was in just his second season with Tech while Ray McLean was a fast, hard-working wing half, and a fierce tackler.

There were no medals for reserves in those days. Later Technical asked the NZFA for a medal for their reserve, Eddie Kelly, but this was declined.

Asked who the Technical Old Boys club president was at the time, Leong said he couldn’t recall. But this detail was eventually unearthed in one of the rare match programmes from the era – turns out it was a bloke by the name of Arthur Leong.

This Leong downplayed.

“We weren’t run like clubs are today,” he said. “Because I was a school teacher, I guess it meant everyone thought I could look after the paperwork and that made me president.”

The Chatham Cup win was pretty much the footballing swansong for the Tech team. Most of the players were the wrong side of 30 – or in the case of the Poelman brothers, into their late 30s.

Two years later the Technical Old Boys name disappeared altogether in an amalgamation with the original Hamilton Wanderers club, to form Hamilton AFC in 1964.

But back to Leong, who went on to play his final match for New Zealand in a 5-2 win over San Francisco United on April 29, at the end of the team’s world tour in 1964, and then retired at the end of the 1965 season.

The fact Leong had been our first Chinese player was not something that was made a fuss of in an era when immigrants were commonplace across all football ranks.

“But boy was I popular when New Zealand played in Hong Kong (1964),” he said. “Suddenly all the press wanted to talk to me and know all about me.”

The 1964 New Zealand team. Leong is second left, back row.

His family background is also interesting from the perspective of Hamilton’s social history.

Arthur was the son of Henry Leong (Leong Hoon Kwong) who had first come to New Zealand in 1908 and was the second youngest of six children in what was to become the most well-known Chinese family in Hamilton.

Henry Leong had opened a fruit shop (H Leong & Co) at 38 Victoria St, next to the Hamilton Hotel, in 1923 and another in Commerce St.

However Henry and his wife Chan Low Foon, returned to China in December 1930, leaving relatives to look after the shops, and Arthur was born a few months later in Manchuria.

The Leongs returned to Hamilton in 1933 in a poor financial position, after the Great Depression had affected business. They sold the Victoria St shop and opened another across the road, while also opening a new shop at 42 Commerce St, which had a large shed behind it and was converted into living accommodation for the family.

Henry declared himself bankrupt in 1937 but sold his share in the Victoria St shop and concentrated on running the Frankton shop, which was by then trading as Leong Fruit Co. With all the family working in the shop they gradually built the business up again.

Henry died in 1958 but in the 1960s, by which time Arthur was working as a physical education teacher at Fairfield College, the wider Leong family opened further fruit and vege shops in Beerescourt, and Hillcrest. (All these shops closed in the 1970s).

Meanwhile, Arthur had shown signs of being a gifted player early on. He represented South Auckland (the original name of the Waikato FA) in the Junior National Cup (Under 18) in 1948 and the Flyger Rose Bowl (Under 21) in 1947-48 and 49. His club in those times was YMCA.

He really started to gain prominence outside the Waikato in 1956, when he was selected to play for the North Island versus the South Island. He also assisted Technical Old Boys to become Waikato champions (Howden Shield) every season from 1958-1962.

Leong, 92, reflects with some of his football memorabilia.

In Barry Smith’s (unpublished) New Zealand Football Annual 1956 Leong attracted the following comment: “The outstanding Waikato Player was 25-year-old Chinese Physical Training Instructor Arthur Leong chosen for the North Island as left half. A player of exceptional all-round ability, he had a fine tactical knowledge and his ball control was of the highest standard”.

All up, Leong made a well-rounded contribution to the code. In 1954 he attended the first New Zealand Football Association coaching school at Massey University as Waikato FA’s representative, receiving a coaching certificate, and in 1962 he received his full New Zealand coaching badge.

He also served on the Waikato Football Association executive committee in 1959, while an active New Zealand representative. (It’s hard to imagine any modern All White doing something similar.)

In 1961 the Waikato Football Association presented Arthur with a pewter mug in recognition of having played for New Zealand against Tom Finney’s English FA XI and in the late 1970s he was made an honorary vice-president of the association.

But oddly, Arthur was never made a life member.

As an indication as to how primal things were at the time of Leong’s original North Island selection back in 1956, in the Waikato Football Association minutes of the day recording his call up, was a resolution to inquire into the possibility of hot showers at Galloway Park the following season.

Sixty years on, they’ve at least managed to fix the showers at Galloway Park, but Leong has still to be properly honoured.

Postscript 1

Tessa Leong. Photo: Shane Wenzlick / Phototek.

The Leong name continues to feature in New Zealand’s international football story.

Arthur’s granddaughter, Tessa Leong (25), has represented New Zealand in the Futsal Ferns and has played in the women’s national league (for WaiBOP) and Lotto NRFL Women’s Premier League (for Auckland United).

She currently plays futsal in the UK for London-based Bloombury Football.

Postscript 2

Arthur Leong died on August 31, 2023, after a long illness.

READ MORE: Vale: Waikato football loses Arthur Leong, pioneering coach and All White >>>>

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