Gisborne City (part 1).

 Gisborne City FC, New Zealand, Jan 1971.

 Lesley, Sharon and Russell on our arrival in Gisborne.

It was late January 1971 when I arrived in Gisborne, New Zealand, accompanied by my wife Lesley, and our two pre-school children Sharon and Russell.   In the early nineteen seventies New Zealand was still considered, by many people, as a remote destination situated in some far flung corner of the globe.   In terms of a football country, it was regarded very much as a backwater.

After a four year stint with Royal Antwerp FC in Belgium, I had returned to England but had difficulties in finding a suitable club to employ me, therefore, when an opportunity to build a new life in New Zealand presented itself I was prepared to give it a go.

The New Zealand National Soccer League was in its infancy and one of the clubs, Gisborne City, were busily recruiting players to bolster their ranks.   I answered their call and they quickly arranged a visa and airfares for me and my family to travel to the southern hemisphere.

The city of Gisborne is located on the far eastern coast of New Zealand’s North Island.  By European standards it would be difficult to classify it as a city, as it contained a population of less than thirty thousand people.  Historically, Gisborne could claim the distinction of its sandy beaches being the first landing place, in New Zealand, of Captain Cook.  This occurred during his first voyage of discovery to the South Pacific, back in 1769.

Captain Cook overlooks the picturesque Poverty Bay.

Although professional football was out of the question in such a remote and under-populated country, the prospect of travelling by air to away games in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin, every second weekend, somehow gave a glamorous slant to the overall picture of football in New Zealand.

Officials from the Gisborne City Football Club housed our family of four in a dated, but spacious villa, situated in Rutene Road and I looked forward to what would become a highly eventful three years in the picturesque and friendly Poverty Bay…..

After an inauspicious start to the season, losing away in Dunedin against Caversham, followed by a 1 -2 defeat in our first game at home, against Western Suburbs from Wellington, we gained an unexpected victory against Bert Ormond’s strong Blockhouse Bay outfit.    Our main problem at the time lay in the fact that we hadn’t a Coach to organise us effectively; however, this was soon to be rectified when, ex Barnsley and Rugby Town FC player-coach; Alan Vest joined us from England.

Alan was just the tonic we needed in order to get our season going, his bubbly outgoing personality was infectious, and combined with an in-depth knowledge of the game, he was able to pick things up for us, both on and off the pitch.

However, even with Alan’s expertise my first season (1971) at Gisborne was memorable only for its mediocrity as we struggled through to finish in a mid-table position on the Rothmans Soccer League ladder.   At that time National League games were mainly played on Sunday afternoons, which allowed many Kiwis who followed the national sport of Rugby Union to take time out to watch a game of ‘Soccer’.   With weekend shopping in the distant future, the crowds in Gisborne turned up in numbers to Childers Road to support their local team.

I climb all over a Eastern Suberbs player as Jim Mc Millan, Len Cudd and Iain Gillies ‘triple up’.

Mick Locker, Bob Dunn, Ian Sim, Ian Gillies, Cliff Poole, Alan Paley, Danny Birnie, Dave Carrick, Bill Donaldson, Finn McDonald, Len Cudd, Les Todd, Jim Nicholls, Jim McMillan, Alan Vest and myself made up the majority of the squad during that 1971 season.

Gisborne City in the old colours which were soon to be converted to Sky Blue.

The two veteran Scotsmen, Ian Gillies and Ian Sim, served us well at the back of the defence, particularly with their prowess in the air and uncompromising attitude to any strikers who encroached in their territory.   Alan Vest, Les Todd and Dave Carrick were the pick of the midfield with local boy Len Cudd and the affable cockney Jim Nicholls striving manfully up front.   However, the player to catch the imagination of the Gisborne soccer public was Hastings born striker Danny Birnie.   Birnie, still a teenager, was an ‘all out action’ player who couldn’t be restricted to any particular role, the wily Alan Vest recognised this, and allowed him the freedom to create havoc to opposing defences.   At times Danny seemed to take on opposing teams all on his own with the rest of us purely in a supporting role.  Inexplicably, he was never able to produce the mercurial performances of that 1971 season in future years, and he never made the impact on the New Zealand football scene which I felt he was capable of.

Gisborne Danny Birnie

The mercurial Danny Birnie causing problems for opposing defences. (Gisborne Photo News).

At the conclusion of the season there was a feeling amongst the team that we had underachieved, but that under Alan Vest’s leadership things would definitely get better.   To our satisfaction the general impression amongst the locals around the town was very positive; our supporters maintained that we had given good entertainment and value for money.

Goalmouth action at Childers Rd in a National League fixture.

Although the standard of football in NZ at this time was below what I had been exposed to in England, Canada and Belgium there were some excellent individual players sprinkled around the country providing the unsophisticated New Zealand football supporters with some first-rate entertainment.   Opponents who stay in my memory from that 1971 season include Keith Barton, Bruce Baker, Alan Jeffries at Western Suburbs.  Earl Thomas, the Armstrong brothers, John Houghton,Tony Sibley at Mt Wellington.   John Morris, Ian Ormond, Mick Seed, John Batty, Gary Lake at Blockhouse Bay.   Praven Jaram, Malcolm Bland, Ray Mears, John Staines, Colin Latimer, Bill de Graaf at Eastern Suburbs.   Tom Randles, Brian Hardman, Frank Maddrussen, Vic Pollard at Christchurch United.   Derrick Danials, Dennis Tindall, Neil McKenzie, Bill Fleming at Caversham, Paul Cameron, Lotsy Polyanski, Grahame Bilby, Julius Beck at Wellington City, and Geoff Brand, Steve Boyland at Stop Out.

Colin Latimer.    Tony Sibley.    Geoff Brand.

Even though my initial season in Gisborne had its disappointments, a personal bonus for me was my selection to represent Central Districts against the touring Welsh National team in Napier.   This honour was the precursor to greater honours, and awards, which were to come my way in the eventful three years in which I spent on the East Coast…