Of the 636 players to play for New Zealand, George York’s name isn’t usually among the first to be recalled when national teams of the past are discussed.
He played only one game for his adopted country, on the losing side when New Zealand were thrashed 11-0 by English champions Manchester United in Christchurch.
For York, who has died in Auckland aged 85, his one game for New Zealand in the pouring rain at English Park on May 31, 1967, provided a lifetime of memories, and gave him a special place in the history of our game.
In an interview in 2017, York said he was “a £10 Pom” (a state-assisted immigrant) who left Scotland for Australia but decided to move on to New Zealand in early 1967.
He signed for the Ponsonby club, and the national coach, Juan Schwanner, saw him play.
‘We ran around the park a few times … that was about it’
After only a couple of months in New Zealand, York was in the Auckland and New Zealand teams due to play Manchester United on their upcoming world tour.
“I was working as a plumber, and in those days, I walked everywhere. To work, to and from training … that helped me keep fit,” he recalled.
He was surprised at the unsophisticated training sessions for the Auckland team at Newmarket Park.
“We ran around the park a few times, and did some stretching and a few exercises. That was about it in those days.”
The match programme (above) for the Auckland game described George York as “the find of the season for Ponsonby” and “a great goal snatcher.”
Before the Auckland game — which drew 26,000 to Carlaw Park and proved that football could become popular in rugby-mad New Zealand — York and his Auckland teammates attended a welcome function.
They wore their best suits and name tags.
York looked at the Manchester United players … Bobby Charlton, George Best, Denis Law, Nobby Stiles and the rest.
None of them wore name tags.
“I was on the sub’s bench for the Auckland game and never got on the pitch,” York said. “I don’t know why — Schwanner never told me.
United won that game 8-1, and York was told he would be on a flight the next day to Christchurch to make his international debut. As he had only been in the country a short time, he was surprised to be called up, assuming it was possible because the national side were playing a club team, not another nation.
At the age of 28, and still barely known in New Zealand, York took his chance to share a pitch with World Cup winners and players who went on to win the European Cup the next year.
York, who was slight in stature, said his favourite memory from the match was provided by a newspaper report.
“In the Manchester paper, Matt Busby said he liked the New Zealand centre forward who I took to be me. He reckoned I was the only guy Nobby Stiles could look down on!”
Eight days after the Manchester United match, Edinburgh-born York played for an Auckland XI against a touring Scotland XI.
Auckland lost 4-0 before 15,000 at Newmarket Park, as a young Alex Ferguson scored a hat-trick for the visitors.
York settled down to life in New Zealand, enjoying football and golf and becoming firm friends with those he had played with.
For 10 years, well into his thirties, he was a nimble forward with a goalscoring touch.
He played Northern League and National League, turning out for Ponsonby, Eastern Suburbs, Auckland City*, Sparta Newmarket, Mt Albert-Ponsonby and Sparta United.
*A club that closed in the early 1970s, not the current club of the same name.
In 1971, he was a member of the Eastern Suburbs team that won the National League, making 13 starts and one sub’s appearance, scoring six goals in the run to the title.
Overall, he made 127 starts in the Northern and National Leagues, and six appearances off the bench, for a tally of 27 goals.
But of all his games in New Zealand, there’s one that is remembered today as a milestone event, and provided the stage for a young plumber to show what he could do against some of the game’s greatest …
In 2022, Friends of Football reunited players who turned out against Manchester United in 1967. Unfortunately, poor health prevented York from attending the reunion.
George Robertson York (October 9, 1938 — November 12, 2023)
The following notice appeared in the NZ Herald:
YORK, George Robertson. Born 9 October 1938 in Edinburgh. Passed away peacefully 12 November 2023. Much loved husband of Deryl and family members Ann, Dawn, Mike, Dale, Thomas, Melissa, Daniel, Iris, Samantha, Courtney, Brian, and Murphy dog. A celebration of George’s life will be held at All Saints Chapel, Purewa, 100 St John’s Road, Meadowbank on Monday 20 November at 2pm, followed by refreshments at the Remuera Golf Club. A special thanks to the staff at Edmund Hillary Dementia Unit and hospital for their kindness and care of George. Aroha Funerals 095270266
Through the publication of obituaries, Friends of Football tries to recognise the loss of those who have significantly contributed to our game.