For New Zealand football fans, any victory against arch-rivals Australia has brought widespread celebrations.
But one of New Zealand’s greatest wins against the old foe often remains buried in the history of the sport — the winning of a three-match test series between the countries a hundred years ago.
Main photo: The New Zealand team on their 1923 tour of Australia.
Football historian Barry Smith tells the story of …
The Forgotten Series
June 30 is an historic day in the annals of New Zealand football, the day in 1923 when New Zealand won a test series against Australia on Australian soil for the first and only time.
The three-match test series took place during an eight-week tour embracing New South Wales and Queensland; a return visit for a fourteen-match tour of New Zealand made by Australia in 1922.
During that tour, three “test matches” took place, with New Zealand victorious in the second and third games, giving them a 2-1 series win.
Unlike modern-day football, where the national team travels with 22 players for just a couple of games and has support staff almost matching the number of a playing XI, the 1923 touring party for a 16-match tour involved just 15 players, a manager and an assistant manager with coaching being a responsibility of the team captain.
An eclectic mix of farewell gifts
And, as amateurs, the players received no remuneration from the national body.
Some were lucky in receiving departure gifts from teammates — an eclectic mixture, these were.
Braithwaite and Claxton from Auckland’s Ponsonby club each received a suitcase, as did Thomas from the Marist club in Wellington.
The four Dunedin players were each given a greenstone tiki, while Flood from Canterbury received a case of pipes.
After five nights on board ship, the team arrived in Sydney from Wellington on May 22, playing the opening match of the tour two days later against a side representing the Granville District Association.
Somewhat surprisingly, New Zealand lost this game. However, the result was reversed in a return game later on the tour.
While New Zealand took its midweek commitments seriously, the goal all along was to win the test series so it wasn’t really surprising that in games other than tests the “Maorilanders”, as the visitors were often described in newspapers, had less than a 50% record of success.
The first test (Brisbane)
Game played on June 9, 1923
Brisbane Cricket Ground, Brisbane
Australia 2 (Percy Lennard 7′, Wiliam Maunder 90′)
New Zealand 1 (Ces Dacre 57′)
George Cartwright, Sid Robinson, Cliff Gedge, James Love, Jack White, Alex Gibb (c), William Mitchell, Percy Lennard, William Maunder, Moses Burton, Tom Thompson.
Reg Craxton, Rewi Braithwaite, Robert McAuley, Neil McArthur, Joe Kissock, William Brownlee, Robert Innes, Ces Dacre, Charles Ballard, George Campbell (c), Harold Balk.
The first “test” match, played on the Woolloongabba cricket ground in Brisbane, attracted a crowd of 7,000 and, according to the Brisbane Courier, was productive of a brilliant exhibition of football.
A. Jackson (Australia)
Australia scored first, early in in the game, maintaining the lead until the 57th minute when Ces Dacre, a New Zealand international cricketer, was the first to respond when a goal shot rebounded off an Australian defender, driving the ball well out of reach of the Australian goalkeeper.
The winning goal, a reward for the continuing efforts of the Australian forwards, came with just a minute to play, much to the delight of the home crowd.
That evening the Queensland Football Association gave a dinner in honour of the New Zealand team.
The introduction of the ANZAC ashes
At this function, in response to toasts, the New Zealand manager Mr H.G. Mayer, asked the captains of the two teams to deposit the ash of their cigars in a small metal box which he would have suitably mounted and engraved so future international matches between the two countries might be contested for an “Ashes” trophy, akin to the cricket “Ashes” contested by Australia and England.
(The Ashes mysteriously went missing in 1954 but the trophy was rediscovered in 2022 during the clean-out of a family’s garage during the COVID pandemic.)
The second test (Sydney)
Game played on June 16, 1923
Sydney Cricket Ground, Moore Park, Sydney
Australia 2 (Percy Lennard, Jack Gilmour)
New Zealand 3 (George Campbell, 3)
George Cartwright, Sid Robinson, Cliff Gedge, Johnny Peebles, Jack White, Alex Gibb (c), William Mitchell, Percy Lennard, William Maunder, Jack Gilmour, Tom Thompson.
Reg Craxton, Rewi Braithwaite, Robert McAuley, William Thomas, Joe Kissock, William Brownlee, Robert Innes, Ces Dacre, Charles Ballard, George Campbell (c), Harold Balk.
For the second “test”, a week later at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Australia made two changes to its line-up; one was a forced change when Queenslander James Love could not make the trip to Sydney due to business calls.
New Zealand made just one change, Brownlee replacing McArthur in the half-line.
A pre-game forecast that there should not be much more in the game than a goal either way proved to be correct but this time, New Zealand came out on top with a 3-2 scoreline in front of an estimated 12,000 spectators.
The scores alternated, New Zealand going ahead, Australia equalising; then George Campbell scored his third goal of the match.
The third test (Newcastle)
Game played on June 30, 1923
Newcastle Showground, Newcastle
Australia 1 (William Maunder)
New Zealand 4 (George Campbell 46′, 51′, 53′, Charles Ballard 89′)
Rob Austin, William Owen, Cliff Gedge, Peter Doyle, Gilbert Storey, Alex Gibb (c), William Mitchell, Percy Lennard, William Maunder, James Masters, Tom Thompson.
Reg Craxton, Rewi Braithwaite, Robert McAuley, William Thomas, Joseph Kissock, John Dryden, Robert Innes, Ces Dacre, Charles Ballard, George Campbell (c), Harold Balk.
L.B. Tamlyn (Australia)
The third and final test, played at the Showground in Newcastle before a crowd estimated to be as much as 15,000.
Australia had made five changes to its line-up, New Zealand just the one, Dryden replacing Brownlee at left half.
New Zealand began with a great burst, but Gibb (the Australian captain) rallied his men, who, reportedly, had the best of matters until the interval when they left the field up one-nil.
The goal came just before the break when inside right Maunder took a centre by the winger Masters and shot hard for goal, the ball glancing off an upright and into the New Zealand net.
As the story goes, Campbell measured up Australia’s weaknesses during the interval, deciding that by playing to Ballard and Balk, on his left, they would outpace Doyle, right half, and Owen, the right back.
Whether or not this is true, the second half certainly went New Zealand’s way.
The game had no sooner recommenced when the tourists secured the ball and moved it quickly upfield to centre forward George Campbell to take a pass and despatch the ball past the Australian goalkeeper.
Two minutes later, New Zealand went ahead, Campbell scoring again.
‘By then, New Zealand had charge of the game’
During the remaining time, the superiority of the New Zealand combination asserted itself; and ten minutes before time Campbell completed his second hat trick of the test series.
By then, New Zealand had charge of the game, and Campbell’s fourth goal just before the final whistle, brought the score to 4-1, giving New Zealand first possession of the soccer “ashes”.
At the conclusion of the match, Campbell, who had scored a hat-trick in the second test as well as all four in the third was seized by his team-mates and carried aloft to the dressing room.
Interestingly the tourists had not seen a football since the previous Monday.
They had relied entirely on gymnastic work and massage training methods.
Australia could not live with them in the last 20 minutes. But perhaps the difference was in the entirely different methods the teams adopted. Australia got rid of the ball as quickly as possible. New Zealand did not.
On the team’s return home, the New Zealand Football Association honorary secretary telegraphed members stating there was a strong feeling that Campbell’s sterling play in the test matches should be recognised in some way and asking for donations.
Apparently, nothing came of this, the feeling being that recognition should go to the whole team, a sentiment that Campbell himself would have expressed.
Sadly, neither Campbell nor the team has ever been given lasting recognition of the likes of that accorded the 1982 All Whites or the unbeaten national team at the 2010 World Cup.
Indeed, there would be few aware of the deeds of the 1923 team and its inspirational captain George Campbell.
Born in 1889 in Scotland, George Mackie Campbell was a younger brother of Robert Campbell a long-serving captain and celebrity with Glasgow Rangers (246 games over nine seasons) who later became a director of the club.
While Robert remained in Scotland, George came to New Zealand, settling in Dunedin where he found employment with the Government as an engineer.
There he joined the Mornington club gaining selection for Otago in 1913 and 1914.
After the outbreak of World War I, he enlisted as a sapper with the New Zealand Engineers and went abroad to serve in Egypt and the Western Front in France with the Expeditionary Force. His service earned him a Military Medal for Gallantry in the field.
Success in rep teams, the national side and in the Chatham Cup
Back home, he did not stay long in Dunedin, moving north in 1920 to Wellington, where he joined the Thistle club.
He was later to sign with the YMCA club, leading it in the inaugural Chatham Cup final in 1923 and success in 1925 — Seacliff from Otago were the opposition on both occasions.
Over a six-year period, George represented Wellington on 14 occasions, also playing for the North Island in 1920 and 1921.
During that time, he also wore the New Zealand black jersey on 20 occasions from 1922-24, all as team captain.
However, playing statistics are not the only indicator of the worth of a footballer.
Contribution to a team is a better measure, and George certainly shone in that sphere, being quite outstanding in leadership and tactical appreciation, understanding perfectly where best to place himself to receive the ball and to despatch it goal-bound.
Australians regarded him as one of the best of his era, but sadly, that same recognition has faded from memory here in New Zealand.
If there is ever a Hall of Fame for New Zealand football, the name of George Campbell should be there, along with already-decorated players of the likes of Steve Sumner and others honoured previously in awards such as those accorded by the now-defunct NZ Soccer Media Association.
A Tribute to George Campbell
Written by A.J. Boyd in “The Referee” July 4, 1923
If ever a man won a match off his own boot, George Campbell did so on Saturday. Australia were leading by a goal when the second half of the final test began. The N.Z. skipper then scored four goals. At the close he was carried off the ground by players and spectators.
At the interval, Australia were leading and they were considered to have the game in safekeeping.
Although New Zealand were favourites when the game began, they had slipped considerably in public estimation, and any admirers they had left when the teams lined up after the interval had no difficulty in supporting their team.
But football is an uncertain game. The visiting team scored four goals and Australia could not reply. His wonderful opportunism in the second test in Sydney, when he did the hat-trick, was repeated in Newcastle. Australia had no Campbells in blue shirts.
”I did not like the look of things at all at half-time,” George Campbell told me after the match.
“It was the thirteenth match of our tour, Australia had a goal lead, and with the least bit of luck it should have been two or even three. Their men were very quick on the ball, and Maunder was shooting with accuracy, but no luck.
“However, our superior condition told a tale as soon as we turned round and we finished too fast for Gibb [Australian’s captain] and his colleague. It was a great game, and I hope the big Newcastle crowd was pleased with the football.”
After describing play in the first half, A.J. Boyd’s account continues …
The New Zealand party seemed very serious at the interval. Kissock (New Zealand’s centre half) was a cheerful optimist and said N.Z. would win.
Less than a minute had elapsed (in the second half) when Kissock slung the ball to Ballard.
The Wellington jeweller gave it to Campbell and from a 30 yards’ range, he scored a delightful goal.
The ball appeared to be going over the bar, but it zoomed like an aeroplane or dipped like a howitzer shell and entered the top right-hand corner of the net high above the raised left hand of Austin, the goalkeeper.
New Zealand were on terms and now thoroughly unwound. No sooner was the ball in motion than it was pushed forward towards Australia’s goal.
Owen (right back) could not divine whether Austin was going to run out as usual. He stood and waited for Austin to move; Campbell hopped in and helped himself. He threw himself at the moving ball and pushed it onto the net by doing the splits. His colleagues nearly rung his hand off.
The third goal came when Ballard, (who was playing a clever game) gave Campbell the ball when he was standing unmarked 20 yards from goal.
‘They slung the ball from wing to wing’
The N.Z. captain let drive, and did not give Austin a chance with a terrific grounder.
A quarter of an hour after this, the tourists made it a welter.
They slung the ball from wing to wing, and followed out to the letter the old saying “the best defence is a sound attack”.
Several of the Australian players cracked up slightly under the strain.
Australia’s forwards did not sight the ball during the closing stages. Just as the final whistle was about to sound, Innes (the N.Z. outside right) ran through in brilliant style. He left the defence standing and centred perfectly off the goal-line. Campbell swept the ball past Austin into the net.
Then the final whistle sounded.
An extraordinary scene followed.
Campbell was seized by his colleagues, reserve players in mufti and by members of the crowd. He was hoisted above their heads and carried in triumph to the dressing room. Campbell was the hero of the hour.
Campbell received a beautiful gold medal from Mrs M. Lynch of Newcastle as a record for his day’s work.
He, Kissock and Braithwaite were the giants of the winning team but there was not a weak spot. Ballard played a great forward game.
Barry Smith, QSM
Auckland-based Barry Smith has been recording New Zealand’s football history for almost seven decades. He is widely accepted as the sport’s pre-eminent historian in New Zealand, and has been NZ Football’s honorary historian. In 2018, Smith was recognised for his work by Friends of Football who awarded him their Medal of Excellence. In 2020, he was awarded a Queen’s Service Medal for his services to football.