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‘There was no money so we had to do it all’: Aberdeen legend Bobby Clark on life as an international coach with New Zealand

Former Dons goalkeeper recalls his time as an international manager - and working with new Don James McGarry's father Mike.

Former Aberdeen goalkeeper Bobby Clark.
Former Aberdeen goalkeeper Bobby Clark spent two years as New Zealand boss. Image: Kenny Clark / DC Thomson

Did you hear the one about the coach who effectively had to start a football team from scratch?

It may sound like the set-up to a joke but that dilemma is precisely the one which faced former Aberdeen goalkeeper Bobby Clark in 1994.

Clark, who played for the Dons from 1965 to 1982, had coached in Bulawayo and was working in the United States at Dartmouth College when the chance to manage New Zealand came his way in 1994.

His two-year stint as an international manager certainly proved memorable.

Bobby Clark during his playing days with Aberdeen FC.
Bobby Clark during his playing days with the Dons before his stint as an international coach with New Zealand.

He said: “Tommy, my oldest son, was out playing in New Zealand at that time and had seen the advert for a coach.

“Calling home to his mum he told her New Zealand was a great place. My wife had always wanted to go to New Zealand.

“I can remember giving her a book on New Zealand the Christmas before this all happened.

“I was working with the Olympic development squad over the summer. That was how you picked national teams in America at the time.

“I was up at Penn State University where all these trial games were being hosted when my wife called.

“She said: ‘There’s a job in New Zealand, are you interested in going?’ I wasn’t particularly interested at the time as I was busy working but I sent in a CV and they came back to me.

“It came down to three. There was a Danish guy, me, and one other in the frame and they asked me if I would go out and visit New Zealand.

“It wasn’t a job I was chasing, it was more something which came up and when I visited I saw how lovely a place it was and I knew I would enjoy spending a few years there.

“It ended up being a fabulous experience.”

Starting from scratch

Having decided to take up the chance of managing at international level, Clark found the job he had taken on was an all-encompassing role.

He would not just be the coach of the national team. He was also tasked with leading the Olympic team as well as the under-17 and under-20 squads.

Such responsibility may seem outlandish by modern standards but taking overall charge was the least of Clark’s problems on his first day in the job.

Clark said: “You did everything.

“When I went I didn’t realise all the ins and outs. They hadn’t had an international game for a year or a coach and there wasn’t even a national league in New Zealand.

“You had three leagues – the north, central, and the south. There were roughly 10 teams in each of the divisions and it was equivalent to the Highland League.

“The first thing I did when I got there was visit all 30 teams.

“We held trials in each of the leagues and brought them all together for a weekend and played who we felt were the best players from each of the regions.

“The north, south, and central teams all played each other and from there we picked a national team.

“Once we did that we played the south, central, and north selects just to be sure we hadn’t missed anyone. There was no money, so we had to do it all internally.”

Clark relished testing his side on the international stage

The All-Whites may have been starting afresh but that did not stop them from taking on some internationally renowned names on the world stage.

Some would have baulked at such a task. Clark saw it all as wonderful opportunities for his players.

He said: “These guys were part-time. It literally was the butcher, baker and candlestick maker.

“We’d been invited to Chile’s centenary tournament to play them, Turkey and Paraguay.

“We then had another two games against Uruguay who were preparing for the South American championship.

“It was amazing to think we took all these guys but it was fabulous. There was a full house including the President of Chile when we played them. We lost 3-1 but it was incredible.

“We were 1-0 up before losing 2-1 to Turkey which would have been quite the shock.

“Uruguay were hosts of the South American championship and had the likes of Gus Poyet, Ruben Sosa and Daniel Fonseca in their ranks.

“We lost the first game 7-0 before drawing the second game 2-2. It was a great learning lesson for the players.

“The players had been punished for trying to play out from the back in the first game but in the second match, we hit everything long and gave away no cheap goals.

“It was a quick learning curve for us.”

The Aberdeen-McGarry connection

It was while coaching in New Zealand that Clark crossed paths with a midfielder by the name of Mike McGarry.

McGarry’s meeting with Clark can now be recognised as the first association between his family and the Granite City following his son James’ arrival at Pittodrie from Australian side Central Coast Mariners on August 13.

Clark said: “Mike would have been in every squad. He was coming towards the end of his career at the time we met. Mike was playing for a team in Dunedin and was a PE teacher.

“He was a great guy and one of my main guys. In fact all the players were tremendous, I really enjoyed how dedicated they were.

“When you played for the team in that era there was no money. You got something like five dollars a day, pocket money really. They were practically amateurs.

“Mike was a good player. He could play midfield or striker and I played him in both positions in my time in charge.”

McGarry link with Aberdeen re-established in 2023

Clark was awarded the Jim McCullen Trophy, an accolade handed out by the New Zealand media in recognition of an individual who did the most for football in the country for his efforts in 1995.

He spent another year with the national team before returning to the States to join Stanford University.

But thoughts of his time in Auckland have come full circle following McGarry junior’s arrival at Pittodrie.

New Aberdeen signing James McGarry.
New Dons signing James McGarry could make his debut on Thursday. Image: SNS

The New Zealand international wing-back made his debut in the 2-2 draw in Hacken.

Clark, who is based in Lossiemouth since returning to Scotland from the United States five years ago, is eager to see how McGarry and Barry Robson’s Dons perform in the Europa Conference League.

He said: “Barry has done a superb job. I like the way the team plays, they are always pressing and on the front foot and I think the future’s bright.

“The new lad Slobodan Rubezic has settled quickly and they look as if they will be pretty robust.

“I don’t know what James McGarry is like as a player but I’ll be looking out for him as he settles in.”