The day New Zealand faced Manchester United

ONE OF A 'HOLY TRINITY': Manchester United's George Best playing against an Auckland selection in 1967.
ONE OF A 'HOLY TRINITY': Manchester United's George Best playing against an Auckland selection in 1967.

In May 1967 two men played their sole international football match for New Zealand - against Manchester United, one of the world's great football clubs. Gavin Bertram reports.

Outside Clive Rennie's office are some remarkable New Zealand sporting artefacts - Russell Coutts' 1984 Olympic gold medal, and one of Richie McCaw's All Black jerseys.

But it's another object that the Otago Boys' High School rector views among his most prized - the red striped Manchester United tie he acquired when the most storied of football clubs visited New Zealand for two matches in 1967.

'A BIG ADVENTURE': The programme for Manchester United’s 1967 tour of New Zealand.
'A BIG ADVENTURE': The programme for Manchester United’s 1967 tour of New Zealand.

It's no ordinary collector's item. The tie is a souvenir of the single match Rennie played in a New Zealand shirt, against the team he'd supported his whole life.

"For me it was a childhood dream to play against them," he says.

"I'm a devout Manchester United fan, and it started when I was reading Eagle and Tiger comics back in the 1950s."

That miserable night in Christchurch on May 31, 1967, was the highlight in the football careers of both Rennie and Mark Burgess.

Despite the auspiciousness of the occasion, New Zealand's preparation for the unofficial international against Manchester United was inadequate.

Burgess remembers that coach Juan Schwanner trained most of the players on a substandard ground the day before.

"That didn't do our confidence any good," he says.

"We had to go out the next night against a team of absolute world beaters. Some of us were still introducing ourselves."

Manchester United had just been crowned English First Division champions. They boasted goalscoring maestros George Best and Denis Law, as well as 1966 World Cup winners Bobby Charlton and Nobby Stiles.

That side, managed by Matt Busby, is remembered as among the greatest ever assembled by the most successful football club on the planet.

Rennie remembers being so overawed that he couldn't speak to his heroes at a reception the evening before the match.

Walking on to English Park in front of thousands of Christchurch football fans was more daunting.

"We knew we were going to have to work pretty hard," Rennie says. "As it turned out we were chasing shadows all night. It became very clear in the game the difference between professional football and the level that most of us were playing at."

CHARLIE DEMPSEY was director of tours for both the New Zealand Football Association and the Auckland Football Association in 1967.

A wily operator who later helmed the NZFA, Dempsey embraced the opportunity to host Manchester United for two games in 1967.

"Dempsey said Auckland would take both games," Peter Devlin wrote in his book, The Dempsey Years. "When the council asked Dempsey how he could commit Auckland, he replied that if the AFA didn't want Manchester United he would promote the venture himself."

Ultimately the AFA paid £2500 for one match against an Auckland selection, and the NZFA funded the international in Christchurch.

Manchester United departed on their post-season tour straight after playing their final match in the English First Division. First they visited the United States, where they lost exhibition matches against Benfica in Los Angeles and Dundee in San Francisco.

The players were excited to be travelling the world and expanding football's reach - and the Manchester United brand.

"Even in 1967, going on tour was all about promoting the club," goalkeeper Alex Stepney told ManUtd.com. "The world seemed much bigger then. None of us had ever been to Australia or New Zealand. In our eyes it was a big adventure. We felt like explorers."

The late George Best noted that the reception for Manchester United in Auckland was overwhelming, with the various obligations allowing them little rest.

That didn't show in front of more than 26,000 people at Carlaw Park on May 28, where they beat Auckland 8-1. Mt Wellington striker George Lamont scored the local team's solitary goal.

Schwanner also coached Auckland, and Burgess says he wanted the team to play positive, attacking football. He remembers Busby generously praising the approach.

Dempsey's punt returned dividends, with the AFA making a £14,000 profit from the event.

Seven of the Auckland players were included in the New Zealand team for the match in Christchurch three days later.

At the cramped English Park in St Albans a crowd of 12,000 braved the icy conditions with little shelter. But Rennie, an accomplished forward with Christchurch's Western club, recalls a great atmosphere for the showcase match.

HE believes it was the first night football match to be televised in New Zealand, which led to New Zealand not wearing their black strip as it would be difficult to see on TV. Instead, an old white strip was found.

In spite of this ignominy, Rennie says playing against Manchester United was an "absolutely incredible" experience.

"They were able to read the game at a different level to us," he reflects. "It was all happening so fast. They used quick pass triangle stuff, and we were running around trying to get the ball. It was a great experience, and I certainly used up a lot of my energy chasing them."

Of Manchester United's "holy trinity" of players from that era, Charlton scored a hat-trick, and Best a brace, while Denis Law didn't play as he was injured.

Although New Zealand was perpetually on the back foot against such football deities, Burgess says Schwanner again implored them to attack. He deployed the now outmoded 4-2-4 formation.

"We tried to play," Burgess insists. "It was a really wet night and the ball moved quickly, which helped them with the pace they played at. But I know for sure we did our best to attack. George York and I both hit the post."

New Zealand's best efforts went unrewarded, as Manchester United swept to an 11-0 thrashing. Among the goals was a gift when New Zealand goalkeeper Arthur Stroud's head was stuck in a shirt he was attempting to remove. This light-hearted moment is remembered fondly by Stepney and Charlton decades later.

After the match the New Zealanders were able to socialise with their idols. Burgess was struck by the Manchester United players' humility, and that some of them smoked.

Rennie regrets that because New Zealand weren't wearing their official strip, they were too embarrassed to swap with the opposition.

"Most of us didn't," he says. "But I had the opportunity to have a drink with Tony Dunne, who was marking me, in the pub afterwards. And I did a tie swap with him, which is a treasured possession."

Manchester United played eight matches in Australia on the way home. They capitalised on their 1967 successes when they became the first English team to win the European Cup, in 1968.

Meanwhile, Rennie and Burgess never played football for their country again. Rennie gave the game away to pursue his calling in education and to raise his young family, while Burgess forged a fine international cricket career.

"I don't have regrets," Burgess says. "But football was always the game that I preferred most."

Manchester United play the A League All Stars in Sydney on July 20.

D Scene