Just over 50 years ago, Manchester United brought a team packed with some of the best players in the world to New Zealand to face an amateur Auckland club team. Among them was George Best, perhaps the world's most entertaining footballer - on and off the pitch. This is the story of the Kiwis who experienced the glory of Man United.

Mark Burgess was so nervous he could barely speak, let alone contemplate "operating as a footballer".

It was May 28, 1967 and Burgess was part of an amateur Auckland side who were about to face Manchester United, one of the best teams in the world, with the likes of George Best and Bobby Charlton in their ranks.

And the match would take place at rugby league stronghold Carlaw Park, where 26,000 had gathered to see the legendary Red Devils.

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United's trip, initially prompted by an invitation from the Australian Football Association, included two matches in California, fixtures in Australia and two matches in New Zealand.

And they toured as champions. The 1966-67 Premier League title, United's seventh, was sealed with a 6-1 victory at West Ham (including goals from Best and Charlton), and confirmed after a 0-0 draw with Stoke.

Just four days later Matt Busby's squad were on their way.

"When they told us about the trip it sounded like the other end of the earth," recalls midfielder Paddy Crerand, saying the players were more accustomed to post-season trips to Europe. "Quite a few of us were surprised … but it was an adventure."

While the Auckland team — whose preparation had consisted of a few training sessions at Newmarket Park — included an electrician, engineer, plumber and a teacher, the English outfit were almost all internationals, with some of the most famous players on the planet.

The Manchester United team of the late sixties are still idolised to this day. At a time when the top flight of English football was much more competitive, compared with the unbalanced nature of today's Premier League, United won two league titles and an FA Cup, with the "holy trinity" of Charlton, Best and Denis Law, three individuals who remarkably all won the European footballer of the year award.

Manchester United V Auckland Played at Carlaw Park on 28 May 1967 Manchester team included George Best (pictured). Photo / NZ Herald Archive.
Manchester United V Auckland Played at Carlaw Park on 28 May 1967 Manchester team included George Best (pictured). Photo / NZ Herald Archive.

Best was a footballing immortal and, before the days of the internet and Instagram, a global icon. He thrived on the playboy, celebrity life off the field — with a popularity and swagger comparable to a rock star — but was also untouchable on it.

Despite his later battles with alcohol and the sad end to his life at 59, his sporting legend has never faded. He could do it all, and is often ranked alongside Pele, Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff and Alfredo di Stefano as the greatest to play the game.

Of that famed quintet, only Best took the field in New Zealand.

Manchester United V Auckland Played at Carlaw Park on 28 May 1967. The United team included George Best. Photo / NZ Herald Archive.
Manchester United V Auckland Played at Carlaw Park on 28 May 1967. The United team included George Best. Photo / NZ Herald Archive.

Auckland defender Bill Hunter was the one charged with trying to stop him.

"I thought if I could get close enough to him, I could mark him," says Hunter. "But no one could really get close enough.

Adds Burgess: "Of course we were in awe of him. We were in awe of all of them."

Auckland defender Paul Rennell's chance encounter with the United team just after their arrival evolved into one of the most memorable episodes of his career.

Rennell was dropping his girlfriend at work when he noticed the United team bus pull up outside the Royal International Hotel on Victoria St, the same establishment where Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had reputedly composed "Paint It, Black" a few years earlier. He wandered into the hotel, recognising several New Zealand Football Association board members.

"I was talking to them then was introduced to Matt Busby, [chairman] Lou Edwards and some players," says Rennell. "It was pretty surreal … guys I had only seen on news reels at the cinema right there in front of me."

The Auckland team - whose preparation has consisted of a few training sessions at Newmarket Park - included an electrician, engineer, plumber and a teacher. Photo / NZ Herald Archive.
The Auckland team - whose preparation has consisted of a few training sessions at Newmarket Park - included an electrician, engineer, plumber and a teacher. Photo / NZ Herald Archive.

Rennell also witnessed Busby's strong sense of discipline and duty. The manager had spotted Law and Best heading upstairs for a nap after the long journey from Hawaii, despite a group of photographers waiting in the lobby.

"He saw them and said, 'You'll put your number ones on and be back down in 10 minutes for some photos',' " recalls Rennell. "After that you can sleep."

That evening the United squad headed out for a stroll and a pint, only to be caught out by New Zealand's licensing laws, where the "six o'clock swill" was embedded in the culture.

"It was just past 6pm and the pubs were closed," says Crerand. "People were all walking out and we thought something was wrong. Only later did we realise what was happening. Other things on that trip were hard to get used to; phone calls from home would come at 4am, which didn't thrill your roommate.

"But it reminded me of England ... England with sun. And we spent time in people's houses, and everyone was so friendly."

United's tour came at an ideal time. The national team hadn't played in three years, after the wildly ambitious 15-match world tour in 1964, which was a financial disaster.

"New Zealand football was in dire straits," says Burgess, "So the United tour was a bit of a godsend. There was great media interest and such a buzz around. Especially for us; as soon as we heard about them coming, everybody wanted to make the team."

Manchester United were almost all internationals, with some of the most famous players on the planet. Photo / NZ Herald Archive.
Manchester United were almost all internationals, with some of the most famous players on the planet. Photo / NZ Herald Archive.

But they were also different times, allowing the United players a degree of anonymity that would be impossible now. A group of players grabbed some drinks at the old Leopard Tavern one evening, and on another night some of the squad ended up in a lock-in at another Auckland pub.

Rennell — who acted as an unofficial liaison for the United team — also received an unusual request.

"Some of them wanted to go gambling and asked if I knew a bank manager to cash some cheques," says Rennell. "I passed on a contact at the National Bank and something must have worked out, because they went out to play darts and cards."

The night before the match the entire Auckland squad — which included a painter, an insurance broker, a university student and two sales reps — met their revered counterparts at a function in the 246 building on Queen St.

As they mixed with officials and sponsors the home side, some of whom were still getting to know each other, all wore name badges, but that wasn't necessary for the famed English outfit.

Manchester United V Auckland played at Carlaw Park on 28 May 1967. The United team included George Best (pictured). Photo / NZ Herald Archive.
Manchester United V Auckland played at Carlaw Park on 28 May 1967. The United team included George Best (pictured). Photo / NZ Herald Archive.

Future Prime Minister Rob Muldoon thanked the United team for making the long journey, while triple Olympic gold medallist Peter Snell also spoke, as a representative of local tour sponsor Rothmans.

"They were quite down to earth, considering their status and the difference in ability," says Burgess.

"They were all decent blokes, friendly guys," recalls Hunter, who ran a fledgling trucking business. "I remember one of them asked me how much we got paid. I told him it was costing me money to be there. He was shocked."

The Sunday afternoon game drew 26,000 people (tickets were six shillings, two shillings for kids), nearly 5 per cent of Auckland's population at the time. It was the biggest crowd Carlaw Park ever hosted, and a figure that wasn't bettered for a football match in this country until 1981.

Manchester United were almost all internationals, with some of the most famous players on the planet. Photo / NZ Herald Archive.
Manchester United were almost all internationals, with some of the most famous players on the planet. Photo / NZ Herald Archive.

The match programme featured an ad for Auckland goalkeeper Arthur Stroud's insurance business, and another promoting the upcoming visit of a Scotland under-23 team, featuring future United manager Alex Ferguson.

The crowd rushes the field at the conclusion of the Manchester United V Auckland match played at Carlaw Park on 28 May 1967. Photo / NZ Herald Archive.
The crowd rushes the field at the conclusion of the Manchester United V Auckland match played at Carlaw Park on 28 May 1967. Photo / NZ Herald Archive.

Auckland's buildup had been less than optimal, but coach Juan Schwanner encouraged them to take the game to their highly vaunted opponents.

"He wanted us to be positive, to attack. It was a lot to ask," says striker George York.

Burgess, who had struggled with the team's pre-match meal of steak and potatoes, wasn't coping well.

"At the start I was so nervous I could hardly breathe, let alone operate as a footballer," says Burgess.

United started well, with Best causing havoc on the right flank.

"Our left fullback Gary Lake had been beaten three or four times but the next time I looked up he had walked off," says Rennell. "We had to bring on a student to replace him.

It later emerged that Lake was injured.

The Auckland players were amazed by the speed and ball movement.

"I remember making a comment about John Aston, saying, 'Wow, he's quick'," says Hunter. "One of his teammates piped up and said 'Yes, he's the fastest guy in English football'."

Aston opened the scoring after 15 minutes and United led 4-0 at halftime, as the home side tried to process what had happened.

"The speed of their players surprised me," says Burgess. "They were another yard or two quicker. And their ability to look up and sense play one or two movements ahead."

It was a unique scene, with United, for surely the only time in their history, playing on a league pitch, with the goals, which had been transferred from Newmarket Park, plonked in front of the league posts.

"The whole crowd wanted Bobby Charlton to score," recalls Auckland wing Ray Mears. "He had six or seven shots, one hitting the rugby posts behind the goal. But the biggest cheer of the day was when George Lamont scored for us. He hit it from the edge of the box and it went into the top corner."

The match ended 8-1, with Aston scoring a hat trick and Best netting two.

The un-bylined Herald correspondent was one of many wowed by the Irishman's impact.

"Starting in the right-wing position Best roamed the pitch as he liked and popped up in the most unpredictable places, usually at the right time," he wrote. "He had a hand in six of the goals, each of them started and finished in a strictly professional way."

Rugby writer T.P. McLean was also at hand, and thrilled by Best and his teammates.

"The exhibition of speed, sustained speed by the team was enthralling," wrote McLean, in possibly his only visit to Carlaw Park. "The miraculous Best, the lanky [Brian] Kidd, the zippy [Nobby] Stiles [and] the incomparable Charlton — what would Mr Freddie Allen give to have a man of such acceleration at first five-eighths in his All Black team!"

The vanquished locals were stunned, but philosophical.

"I didn't enjoy the score but what a wonderful occasion, the memory of a lifetime," says Burgess. "Matt Busby was generous with his time after the match and the team were friendly guys. We swapped ties and club badges, though I remember being surprised that quite a few of them smoked."

The match ended 8-1, with Aston scoring a hat trick and George Best (pictured) netting two. Photo / NZ Herald Archive.
The match ended 8-1, with Aston scoring a hat trick and George Best (pictured) netting two. Photo / NZ Herald Archive.

Both teams were hosted at an after-match function, then Rennell held a party at his Glen Innes house.

"I knew a couple of publicans so they organised some booze," he recalls. "Some friends also rang around to invite some people. The word must have got around; I walked in and have never seen so many birds in one place."

Best, who had been restricted to two pints and fish and chips during muted birthday celebrations a week earlier in the United States, wanted to cut loose.

"He was the life of the party," says Rennell. "Telling stories, playing the piano, singing songs. Though I remember at one point [captain] Noel Cantwell picked him up by his collar and said 'George, make sure you behave yourself lad'."

The United squad travelled to Christchurch the next day, welcomed by a large crowd at the airport.

The New Zealand side, about to play their first match in three years, assembled on the same day.

"Some of the [South Island] players I'd never met before," says Burgess, "So it wasn't ideal."

The match took place at league stronghold Carlaw Park, where 26,000 had gathered to see the legendary Red Devils. Photo / NZ Herald Archive.
The match took place at league stronghold Carlaw Park, where 26,000 had gathered to see the legendary Red Devils. Photo / NZ Herald Archive.

There was some unexpected late drama for the local side, after the referee decided they couldn't wear their traditional black uniform under the patchy floodlights at English Park.

"Someone dug out the white t-shirts we had worn at training earlier that day," says York. "They were still wet and paper thin and some players were almost too embarrassed to swap them after the match."

They became the first New Zealand side to wear white, though it didn't help their cause, as United thrived on the slick surface.

"The ball was zipping around and it was hard to get near them," says Burgess, who was one of three international cricketers, alongside teammate Grahame Bilby and Cantwell to feature in that match.

"But they were gentleman throughout. I remember catching Paddy Crerand on the knee and I was apologising like hell. He said, 'Shit, don't worry about it … it wasn't your fault."

Towards the end, Charlton grabbed his hat trick in the 11-0 victory, though his third goal was surely one of the most bizarre of the hundreds he struck in his career. The 1966 World Cup winner chipped the ball past the prone goalkeeper Stroud, who had got one of his under-shirts stuck over his head as he tried to take it off.

"It was a bit embarrassing," says Burgess. "But I talked with Bobby years later and he seemed to remember it very fondly."

After the match, the New Zealand players went back to the Prince of Wales Hotel - with some of the United team, perhaps keen to avoid the media at their own inner-city accommodation.

"When we got there, there was a queue of about 10 girls all waiting for George Best," recalled New Zealand midfielder Brian Smith in a 2014 interview.

In the bar Best, who was known as the "fifth Beatle", downed a pint and a whiskey chaser before approaching Smith.

"Can I borrow your room key?" asked Best. Smith complied and watched the Irishman disappear upstairs with a female companion.

"Later Best came back into the bar," recalled Smith. "[He] had a few more drinks … then he came over again and said 'Can I have that key again?'".

The following day — as the Beatles released their Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album in England — United flew out of New Zealand.

They blazed a trail through Australia, scoring 29 goals in eight games, before returning home — 42 days after they had set off.

Manchester United were almost all internationals, with some of the most famous players on the planet. Photo / NZ Herald Archive. Photo / NZ Herald Archive.
Manchester United were almost all internationals, with some of the most famous players on the planet. Photo / NZ Herald Archive. Photo / NZ Herald Archive.

A year later they were champions of Europe, with Charlton and Best among the scorers as they beat Benfica at Wembley.

The only other time the English league champions have visited New Zealand was Everton's two-match visit in 1987, though that Merseyside team didn't have the same household names.

The 1967 tour signified the beginning of United's rise as a global brand, with a crowd of Indian fans, decked out in United kit, waiting for them at 2am as their plane stopped to refuel in New Delhi on the journey home.

The trip was also pivotal for the game in New Zealand.

"It put the sport back on the map and revived interest in football," says Burgess. "There was a buzz around and it created an appetite for more."

NZ football historian Josh Easby said: "It was a landmark moment in some ways.

"Financially it was a big success, and the catalyst for the start of regular visits from British and European club sides for the rest of the 1960s and 1970s. It showed there was an audience for the sport, and within three years, the National League was up and running."

By early 1974 Best had left the club that made him a global icon, departing Old Trafford after a series of disputes with management.

He was only 27, but the Irishman would never recapture the same wondrous form, at a succession of different clubs in England, Ireland, Scotland and the US, as he was increasingly affected by his off-field lifestyle.

But for those lucky enough to play against him and his United colleagues in New Zealand, he'll never be forgotten.