Book review: Boots and Bombs ‘a bloody good yarn’

posted in: All Whites, News, Publications

A newly-published book explores the state of football in rugby-mad New Zealand in the 1960s and 1970s.

Boots and Bombs: How New Zealand football grew up in the 1960s and 70s, by Craig Stephen (2023, ISBN 978-0-473-67266-9).

Reviewed by Michael Hollywood

1967… the year of Sgt Pepper and the original summer of love.

The year of decimalisation and the introduction of our dollar. The year we mercifully stopped dishing out free milk in New Zealand schools.

The year our feted All Blacks became the first team to complete a grand slam-winning tour of Britain since the great invincible side achieved the same feat way back in 1924.

And it was the year, somewhat incredibly, when a group of largely amateur footballers from New Zealand were sent into the heart of war-torn Vietnam to represent their country in a football tournament.

Life was clearly very different in 1967.

You could say it was another world, and it’s a world revisited in some detail in Boots and Bombs, a new book by first-time author Craig Stephen.

A book that has that Vietnam trip at its core, and it’s quite some tale.

The notion of playing international football in war-ravaged Saigon while battles raged all around the South Vietnamese capital is worthy of analysis in itself, but that part is merely an otherwise scarcely-documented centerpiece for the book, or one part of a much bigger story; the story of how New Zealand football finally came of age.

1967 is simply the focal point of that wider story, not just for the drama surrounding the Vietnam excursion, but because it represents the year the national team played its first full international fixtures in five long years.

It was a kick-start, if you will. It was also the year of other tours of interest to these shores — by soon-to-be European champions Manchester United and the visit of a Scottish FA selection.

Plus there’s some coverage of that year’s trip to New Caledonia, which rather curiously coincided with the Saigon tournament, and featured a second national team made up of an entirely different squad.

You wait years for a municipal transport bus, and then two arrive simultaneously.

The New Zealand squad that undertook a world tour in 1964.

Highlights include the chapter on the disastrous and questionable 1964 World tour (no full internationals played).

Coverage of the various British clubs who toured here during the period, especially across the 1970s. Coverage and comment around the evolution of club football in New Zealand. Critique and analysis of our three pre-1982 World Cup qualifying campaigns, a forlorn process which commenced in 1969 with New Zealand’s first attempt to qualify for the world game’s global showcase.

And, of course, for an unrepentant anorak like myself, Stephen’s potted history of the code here, across the early chapters, is invaluable.

We tend to view history through rose-tinted glasses, and it can often be difficult for younger generations to really comprehend how different things used to be.

Small things like leading footballers being forced to work in their day jobs on the day of a big game so as not to lose income.

Footballers paying their own way, absorbing their own travel costs, and buying their own kit.

National coach Juan Schwanner.

Anecdotes around coaching, and coaches — there’s a tidbit or two around the eccentricities of national coaches like Juan Schwanner and Lou Brozic — that illustrate both the extreme gulf, and at times, the fine line, between amateurism and professionalism.

We already know all about 1982, and about 2010; those stories don’t need to be told again.

And no book can possibly cover the same amount of ground or level of detail that mainstream media and indeed, social media, offer to today’s All Whites.

So it’s perhaps no surprise that Boots and Bombs wraps things up around 1982 or at the very least the early 1980s.

Stephen’s book is all about how we got there, not to Spain specifically, but the journey to credibility itself through the 1960s, through the formation of the sport’s first-ever National League, and right through the 1970s.

It provides a snapshot of history, and as ever, the really good oil is in the grassroots, the local, and the peripheral.

Local football luminaries such as Earle Thomas (who writes the foreword), Brian Turner, Dave Taylor, Owen Nuttridge, John Legg, Ray Mears, Alan Sefton, Paul Rennell, and coaching guru Barrie Truman all contribute extensively to Boots and Bombs.

Along with many others — too many to mention in a single review. Offering reflection and tales from those who were there is priceless, more so given their advancing years and the inevitable decline in access we’ll have to their words of wisdom in the future.

Bombs and Bombs offers both context and perspective around all of those things. It is a compelling resource for history obsessives, every bit as much as being a bloody good yarn.

Stephen employs an easy, almost conversational writing style, and at just short of 250 pages, Boots and Bombs is a very digestible read.

There’s a decent photo section with a few gems relevant to the stories, and the era overall, and this book will appeal not only to local football fans but to football fans of all tribal colour and creed, whatever their poison.


Read an excerpt

An excerpt from Boots and Bombs has been made available to Friends of Football.

It tells the story of how 16-year-old Aucklander Dave Taylor was picked to play for the New Zealand team in war-torn Vietnam.

After making his debut, he was taken seriously ill and taken to a Saigon hospital where bomb victims were being treated.

Told he had little chance of surviving, the New Zealand touring party left Vietnam, leaving Taylor behind.

Special feature: The teenage All White left to die in a war-zone hospital >>>>

Boots and Bombs

How New Zealand football grew up in the 1960s and 70s

Author: Craig Stephen

Cover: Dave Taylor playing for New Zealand against Indonesia at Auckland’s Newmarket Park, 1973.

Before Spain 1982 came a series of (mis)adventures that helped shape the national team. Incredibly, a squad was sent to Vietnam in 1967 as the war raged and this ludicrous foray forms the centrepiece of Boots and Bombs.

This extensively researched work includes tales from a disastrous world tour, the riotous visit of George Best and his feted Manchester United team, a ground-breaking tour of China, and the time Alex Ferguson came with a Scottish national team.

With photographs and exclusive interviews, this is the story about an extraordinary period in New Zealand football history.

Boots and Bombs costs $30 plus postage per copy and is available from the author by emailing here >>>>

Alternatively, message the author at the Boots and Bombs Facebook page or buy it on TradeMe here >>>>

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