Football flashback: How the game was faring in New Zealand 50 years ago

In early 1973, one of New Zealand’s leading sports commentators, Geoff Sinclair, provided a ‘state of the nation’ review of football, or ‘soccer’ as the sport was widely known at the time.

Sinclair, the sports editor of Sunday News, and the co-host of Sportsline, the biggest sports show on radio, wrote a special feature for a publication produced for the 1973 Oceania Soccer Tournament that featured New Zealand, Fiji, Tahiti, New Caledonia, New Hebrides (now called Vanuatu) and Tahiti.

Main photo: Takapuna’s Ken Saunders sees his shot turned past the post by Dunedin Suburbs’ ‘keeper Neil McKenzie in a 1971 Chatham Cup quarter-final at Newmarket Park. Photo: Dave Barker.

Here’s how Sinclair saw the status of New Zealand soccer fifty years ago …

By Geoff Sinclair

All of a sudden, soccer — the game that was ignored as belonging to British and Continental immigrants and certainly not for red-blooded Kiwis — has come alive.

Geoff Sinclair, who died in 2011. One of the leading sports writers and broadcasters of the 1970s.

We find the Chatham Cup in its 50th year of competition, an English club as famous as Wolverhampton Wanderers can visit us for a short stay, and a National Soccer League can claim almost as much attention in the press as rugby itself.

How did it get there so suddenly?

And where is soccer heading from its current position?

The inception of the National League was without doubt the great leap forward. Here was the miracle soccer clubs needed so badly.

Before that day, clubs were lucky if they knew what team they were playing the following week, so bad was administration and so careless the approach to the game. It was amateurism at its worst.

For there’s one thing soccer thrives on throughout the world, and that’s professionalism.

The first club to seize its opportunity was Blockhouse Bay in Auckland. Right from the start, they created a limited company to run the affairs of their National League team.

Everything was put on a professional basis. It wasn’t in the paying of the players, because no player gets more than the odd expenses from his efforts. It was in their total approach — their pre-match arrangements at home and when travelling, and in the coaching.

National League action at Newmarket Park in the early 1970s. Photo: Dave Barker.

The result was Blockhouse Bay won the National League in its first year and took the Chatham Cup as well. Perhaps no other club will ever match this record.

But in 1970, when so many other clubs looked on and wondered at the risks, Blockhouse also pressed for Sunday games when they knew the soccer follower would be free to come and watch.

Other clubs followed. Sunday is now the accepted day for big fixtures. And the professional approach among top clubs is here to stay.

It’s also creeping down the line through Northern, Central and Southern League clubs.

Clubs have moved into the public relations business to sell their games to the public. National League clubs now will receive their rewards through gate-takings which previously went to local associations.

Auckland’s Newmarket Park could hold up to 15,000 spectators and national league games drew crowds of up to 10,000, especially for derby games, in the 1970s. Photo: Dave Barker.

READ MORE: Memories of Newmarket Park, Auckland’s former ‘Home of Football’ >>>>

‘The backbone of any soccer nation is the clubs’

Overseas, apart from internationals and the four-yearly World Cup, the backbone of any soccer nation is the clubs.

Huge crowds there take care of the financial problems of most leading clubs. In New Zealand, the crowds are growing but are nowhere near big enough yet to cover costs.

Yet a National League team, for all its publicity and “favoured nation” treatment, must face annual costs of $10,000 or more.

In New Zealand. where so many fundraising ideas are illegal and clubs can’t have a liquor licence, it would almost seem that only housie evenings keep clubs solvent.

It’s another problem to be faced.

The number of clubs eager to get into National League proves how much the envy is felt for the elite. The success of the National League is easily measured by the reawakening of so many clubs right through the country who want to be counted among the

At present, there are four teams from Auckland, one from Gisborne, one from Wellington, one from Hutt Valley, two from Christchurch and one from Dunedin making up the top ten.

In 1970, there were eight, next year there could well be 12. Perhaps the perfect league will have 16 teams in the future.

Soccer had enormous support in many parts of New Zealand between the two world wars. Support fell as rugby grew in strength and only in these past two years has soccer grown again.

Can it keep up this impetus?

Bert Ormond … ‘too much red tape’. Photo: Shane Wenzlick / Phototek.

Blockhouse Bay coach Bert Ormond came to New Zealand from Scotland in 1961. He captained New Zealand on a world tour, and for a record number of times, before retiring and taking up coaching. He believes firmly that only if the clubs themselves can be stronger and more independent in every way can soccer continue to forge ahead.

“There’s too much red tape,” he says. “Clubs in the National League need a direct line to the boss — the New Zealand Council — if they’re to progress.

“We as coaches will work to develop the players into professional footballers. The talent is abundant here. What we need is administration which can lead us and develop the game in a New Zealand way.

“Let’s learn from overseas, good and bad points, and apply the lessons to New Zealand conditions.

“There are so many good points in New Zealand soccer so many great things happen in the game here, that it would be a pity to see it falter because of a wrong attitude.

“Professional soccer failed dismally in the United States only because they tried the wrong ways to foster it. What had worked in other countries certainly didn’t work there. We must make sure what we try in this predominantly rugby country works here.”

The big disappointment for most New Zealand soccer followers has been the poor results and lack of games for the national team.

Many fans wouldn’t be able to tell you the last couple of games played by national soccer team.

‘Why football needs a successful national team’

Unlike in rugby, there are many players who don’t care if they play or don’t play for New Zealand.

The future of the game and its appeal to the public lies in its ability to produce a successful national team. The National League can do so much, but a successful New Zealand team would really capture a large following for the sport.

In their glow of success, many soccer fans forget the place that sponsorship holds in the present growth of the sport.

Future progress also depends heavily on sponsorship. At present, Rothmans sponsor the National League and the Gillette and Chatham Cup.

A syndicate of big business is financing Australia’s World Cup preparation and the tournament it will hold next year.

Soccer will depend more and more on this sort of help from the business community.

What will the Chatham Cup be like in 50 years?

So the days of slaphappy organisation are gone. The dynamic seventies of soccer are here.

Big overseas games on TV have caught the imagination of a whole new audience for soccer. Will the sport here ever match that standard we see today only on film?

It depends entirely on what standards the clubs aim for. They’re the vital heart of New Zealand soccer.

How they face the challenge will decide whether the centennial of the Chatham Cup in 50 years’ time is watched by 100,000 or is just a battered relic in a forgotten corner.

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