By Craig Stephen
When Brian Turner tells someone his international debut for New Zealand was a tournament in South Vietnam in 1967 as the war intensified and the Tet Offensive loomed, they tend to disbelieve him.
This is the same response I generally received when I told people I was writing a book in which the centrepiece was that tournament in Saigon.
Boots and Bombs: How New Zealand football grew up in the 1960s and 70s was inspired by those contradictory concepts: football and war.
It’s a magnificent construct: on the one hand are mine sweepers, sorties, a militarised country, choppers in the skies, gun-toting soldiers on every street corner, night-time curfews and pillboxes; and on the other are players who just want to represent their country and to play against some of the best nations in Asia and Australia.
The squad of 18 was raw, and not one of them had played for New Zealand.
Three were teenagers, most of the others were not long into their 20s. They were mainly working-class lads with a love of the game, some of whom had learned the basics overseas.
After writing an article for Radio New Zealand in 2020 that could only encapsulate a small amount of the goings-on at the Vietnam National Day Cup, I considered the tour in the context of football in the pre-1982 period.
For most people in this country, football didn’t really begin until the All Whites kicked off their campaign to qualify for the World Cup for the first time.
Most sports fans are aware of the names — Rufer, Herbert, Sumner, Woodin and the Turners, the coaches Adshead and Fallon, the play-off drama in Singapore, and the games against Scotland, the Soviet Union and Brazil in Spain.
Yes, the history of the game prior to that successful marathon campaign is largely unknown. But what a history it is: Manchester United and Scotland visiting in 1967, bringing along Charlton, Best and Ferguson; Bobby Moore being bullied by the Kiwi midfielder Paul Rennell; of the first national league of any sport in New Zealand (yes, even rugby); a ground-breaking tour of then isolated China; contesting the World Cup qualifiers for the very first time in post Six Day war Israel; and a world tour so disastrous it set back the game by several years.
Special feature: The world tour that turned up the heat on and off the pitch >>>>
In June 2021, I told a football-loving friend of my plan to write about this period in a book. We both knew there was a goldmine of stories out there.
My mate was willing to help with the research and writing but time proved his enemy; however, we brainstormed regularly and he had a pivotal role in the editing. I mainly worked early morning shifts at the time so was free in the afternoon to research and write.
The project began in the Wellington City library and my first task was to delve deep into hefty tomes about New Zealand’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
This proved to be the most difficult part of the research as I attempted to condense more than a decade of war and hundreds of thousands of words on the subject from a Kiwi perspective alone into a single chapter. It was a complex subject but I was aided by an expert on the subject, Ian McGibbon, who led me in the right direction.
After researching a chapter on the history of football in this country with historian Barry Smith’s input, I set about interviewing former players from the era. In this, White Pages proved incredibly useful, as some of those ex-players still relied on landlines. I spent an entire weekend making cold calls.
I was searching for ex-international Arthur Inglis. I couldn’t find Arthur but I did find Alex Inglis. Bizarrely, he also played football at the same time, he came from the same part of Scotland as I did, and we ended up chatting enthusiastically about the game for some time. He makes a cameo appearance in the book.
The cold calls paid off, however, and I located nine players who went to Vietnam in 1967. Some, such as Colin Shaw and Steve Nemet, have passed on, and one or two more may have been alive at the time of my research but I couldn’t get hold of them. I tracked two down to Australia.
I talked to the two youngest players of the touring party that visited Asia, Europe and North American on the ill-fated world tour of 1964 which garnered one win from 15 matches. Alan Sefton and Derek Torkington told me of a tour of disorganisation and chaos, done on the hoof and with almost no money.
The tales I heard were incredible.
On hearing Dave Taylor’s tale of how he got so sick he was left behind to die by the team in Vietnam, it was impossible not to wonder why he was standing right in front of me in an Auckland bar.
Standing next to him was his long-time mate Brian Turner who was equally perplexed at his survival. Both were teenagers at the time of the tour, as was Earle Thomas, who I also interviewed in Auckland and who kindly provided the foreword.
All three of those young turks made their national debuts on that tour, and all three would make dozens of appearances in the national colours over the next decade plus. Turner, of course, had a decent career in England and was an integral part of the team right through to the World Cup in 1982.
A special thanks must go also to Paul Rennell, who I interviewed twice and emailed regularly, and was enormously helpful. He provided more than just quotes; he put me in touch with others, gave me background information and the inspiration to carry the project through. Barrie Truman was also immensely helpful as were several others, all acknowledged in the book.
After conducting dozens of interviews, making countless trips to the National Library, ordering books via inter-library loans, purchasing books, magazines, and match programmes online, trawling websites and blogs, and all the other mundane research tasks required, I had a book.
After extensive editing I reduced the word count from 85,000 words to 73,000. The pictures came later and the cover shot was the last thing I obtained before the designer worked her magic.
As expected, no mainstream publisher was interested. It’s football, of course, and I daresay that if it was about a relatively unknown All Black I might have managed some attention. But it is what it is and I self-published with a print and design company which did an excellent job.
It has been a labour of love. I’m not going to sell thousands, and I won’t win any elitist book awards, but I am immensely proud of it.
It is a collection of stories from a period that, apart from Friends of Football and some mainstream media writers, has been sadly neglected.
Read two extracts
Friends of Football have published two extracts from the book.
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.
How to buy your copy
Boots and Bombs costs $30 plus postage per copy and is available from the author by emailing here >>>>