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The day NZ football (almost) died

The untimely demise of NZ football in the 1970’s was predicted but what happened?

(This is part of an article I did for a Wanderers ISPS Handa Premiership programme recently. I was was spurred to blog post it here after reading the recent ITBOTN article penned by Dave Newdick referring to the serious issue of head-knocks in football).

The editor of a club programme in 1977 was adamant. “Football could end in this country”.

As we hit 2019, (Happy New Year everyone!), I thought I’d take the chance to travel back along the non-digital highway, ok not a highway, more of a dusty rutted old track, as we head to the 1970’s to take a gander at what National League Soccer (as it was called) was all about.

As a callow teenager I went to a couple of Rothmans (tobacco funded, gasp) league games at North Shore stadium in July 1977 and for some reason I still have the programmes. Fascinating reading, they are. Stop Out (from Wellington) were atop the league with (my later club), Hamilton AFC close behind. My favourite team, North Shore United, were in hot pursuit, in third place.


The league looked way different to today’s. There were 12 teams and some of them (Hamilton, New Brighton or Wellington Diamond for example) have long departed the top level. As have Shore of course, although they have recently showed signs of life. Central (Auckland City) languished in the depths of Northern league and teams like Phoenix and Waitakere weren’t even twinkles in NZFA’s eye. However, there were two Dunedin teams in the league Dunedin City and Caversham and a Nelson one. And with Hamilton it was a truly national competition.

I resided a long way south but spent many holidays at my grandmother’s in Milford and had developed an affinity to the Devonport maroons. I can’t recall but must have been on a school break (or had I been expelled?) as I arrived to watch the game at Shore stadium against Blockhouse Bay (now Bay Olympic) with keen anticipation.

It was a local Auckland derby and some of my favourite Shore players Duncan Cole, Adrian Elrick and Keith Hobbs were playing. Blockhouse featured goalie John Morris, who went on to become lauded headmaster of Auckland Grammar and a young fella, Ian Chicken who was a mate of my cousin’s mate, so I felt I knew him personally.

If you visit North Shore nowadays one can get a feel for the 1970’s glory days as the ground has not actually changed that much. It is just rustier and slightly decrepit, like me. Three or so years ago when I was last there, I was entranced by a tree that had grown through the old stand.

In the Blockhouse programme is a grandiose sketch of the future “North Shore Recreation Centre” stadium with curvy stands and stuff. They were seeking investment in bonds to get this off the ground. It never happened obviously. What a shame.


The vision! Sadly never realised.

I can’t recall too much of the game in 1977 apart from the pleasure at seeing New Zealand’s oldest club (the venerable Shore were formed in 1886) win the game 1-0 with a Kerry Hales goal (now he was a decent player!) after leading 1-0 at half time.

Interestingly that day there was a pre-match game between Auckland University AFC and a German University side. Dunno the score but the Auckland side featured one Alan Graves who must have remained loyal to the student club, as many years later I met him when I joined his Auckland Uni over 30’s team.

A week after the Blockhouse game I waltzed up again to watch the home game against Trans Tours United. Who, I hear you ask? This was a version of Christchurch United who at the time were sponsored by a travel company. I remember it rousing much discussion: a team being allowed to use their sponsors name as the team name. A year or so later North Shore themselves became recipients of a sponsor’s name when they were rebranded Hanimex United for a year or two.

This is an interesting program. The editorial has an alarmist theme of “soccer is going through a critical stage” which has probably been a go-to editorial theme since time immemorial. It tries to compare our national league with the English, Scottish and American competitions, suggesting that the USA League with cheerleaders et al might be the one to emulate.

The editor also direly predicted “if it (football) doesn’t sort itself out, it will be the end of the sport in this country.”

The END of FOOTBALL? Really? The reason for the fearfulness of the writer was poor attendance at games. However, at the time Shore were attracting about 700 people to each game (and selling programmes – 20c, we give ‘em away nowadays). 700 paying punters? That compares favorably with today’s attendances.


The tome of doom! In 1970s type font.

The game has certainly not died, although one could argue that it may not have moved on as much as one may have wished for. Rugby, with a move to professionalism and attendant success of the Allblacks has staved off any chance that the round ball in New Zealand would usurp the oval one. So far.

The other point of interest about this game related to the winning goal. Shore won it 2-1 after trailing 1-0 at halftime. Duncan Cole scored the equaliser and Keith Hobbs netted the winner in injury time. I kept a clipping of the newspaper report and the headline reads. “Clinching header, a welcome headache.” In it, it states “Hobbs could be paying the price for his efforts.”

Coach Don Jones made comment that Hobbs suffered severe migraine headaches brought on by heading a football. “I’ll bet he is in bed today suffering because he rammed that one in” Jones said.


 Match report. Hobbs header hits the headline

However the good news is that Hobbs went on to become the first player to appear in 300 games in the National Soccer League (a feat he achieved in 1988), so those headers can’t have affected him too badly.

But there are many instances of players coming off second best after knocks on the noggin and deaths attributable to football head injuries.

Sobering thought. A 1970’s leather football was heavy, especially when wet, modern ones are lighter: but it is still a contentious issue and an area that deserves investigating. Would it be a good idea to make football a feet-only game?

On a happier note. How did the 1977 season end? There may not be many that remember it, but my team, North Shore went on to win the league that year. Yesss!

Categories: NZ Men's National League

Rod de Lisle

Waikato based Kiwi living the good life that this wonderful country affords. I like to paint, travel, follow sport and do stuff with our large family. Writing song lyrics is a creative release that came about after (somehow) dreaming a complete song. Not being a muso has lead me to seek out creative musicians who might enjoy linking music to my words. Is that you?

4 replies

  1. John Morris – lauded headmaster of Auckland Grammar. Less of the lauded please. Nowhere near the DJ Graham, Henry Cooper or even Tim O’Connor standing

  2. I’m the person that was responsible for putting together the North Shore Utd programmes. Starting in 1975 and up until 1978. That was my editorial as well. Further to your article information I used to gather all the advertising and put the ads together using letraset (rubbing pre printed letters and characters onto paper), and had an ancient clunky old electric typewriter which is how everything was typed up (no computers then). I then took everything to the printers and most weeks we sold out of the programme for home matches. Everything was done for free as a work or art and lovingly because when you volunteer for something you love and enjoy you just do it. If I remember correctly the 1978 North Shore Utd programme was voted 2nd best in the country behind the Gisborne City “Skyblues” prog by the NZ Soccer Writers Association.

    1. Love it! Really nice to hear from the guy who put the programmes together that I’ve kept for 40 years. They are a classic slice of NZ football.

      1. Thank you Rod. I now follow New Zealand football from the Philippines where I live. I dream of the Philippines (Azkals) and the All Whites meeting one day in an international.

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