Billy Garton only played 51 first team games for Manchester United between '83 and '89, but he was a local boy whose life story is is a match for many a Premier League ace.
Billy Garton only played 51 first team games for Manchester United between ’83 and ’89, but he was a local boy whose life story is is a match for many a Premier League ace. “I was born in Salford in 1965 and had a real working class upbringing,” explains Garton, whose Salford accent, a harsher, more nasal blend of Mancunian, remains strong despite his current life being a world away from where he grew up in Ordsall, a hard estate close to the old docks, a mile from Old Trafford. When Garton was five, a lecturer at nearby Salford University made a film of the living conditions in Ordsall. In two parts, it was entitled Life in the slums and Bloody Slums.
Salford, one of the reddest areas of Greater Manchester, is the subject of the Ewan MacColl’s song Dirty Old Town. Yet Salford is a city in its own right, something its residents are proud of. Vast areas of the city were re-developed in the 1960s and 1970s, with the traditional terraced housing replaced by forboding tower blocks and austere architecture. Yet Ordsall had redeeming features, like Salford Lads’ Club, famous for its appearance on the cover of The Smiths The Queen is Dead album. Several Busby Babes would stop at the Lads’ Club after games, usually with local boy Eddie Colman. Colman lived on Archie Street, across from where Arbuckle’s restaurant now stands in the gentrified Salford Quays. It was the street that used to be shown at the start of Coronation Street, but successive attempts to regenerate Ordsall mean that only a sign remains.
Salford Lads’ club still stands. The club opened its doors on the night of 6th Feb 1958 for locals to mourn, especially for former member Eddie Colman, who died aged 21. He is buried in nearby Weaste cemetery, his grave marked by a black headstone. The statue of a footballer which stood on the grave was vandalised and removed, but his name lives on, not just in the memories of older Reds, but on a Salford tower block, now used as student accommodation by the University of Salford. “Ordsall was a huge United area and I’m proud to come from there,” says Garton, “Eddie Colman went to a school 100 yards from my house. It was great to grow up living so close to Old Trafford and the culture of United was a big part of my upbringing.”
From his bedroom in a two-up two down terrace, Garton could see the glare of the floodlights and hear the United crowd. “Fans used to park their cars in our street and I’d mind them with my mates. Now, people would say ‘Mind your car mate or we’ll brick it’ but there was a more integrity to it in my day. We’d get 20p or 50p, and if someone gave you a pound you’d run around and tell everyone. That was how we got our pocket money. I didn’t get to the match a lot because the deal with the cars was that the guys wanted to see you back at their cars after the game. Some of them would only pay then. I would stand by my row of cars with my hands behind my back and say, ‘Everything was alright, Mister.’ I’d pretend that I’d stayed by their cars, yet I would have played football for hours.”
“When I was at United I’d finish training with the first team at the Cliff and go to see him in this shitty house he bought in Broughton. The house was full of villains and likeable rogues”
“Ordsall was impoverished and the people were underprivileged. Dad was a painter but he was in and out of work and we often lived by the week on dole cheques. There were four kids and times were hard. Sometimes we didn’t have electricity because we didn’t have money. We always seemed to be without electricity when there was a game on the telly, so I’d knock on mates’ doors and watch the match at theirs.
“Mum and Dad were very family orientated. They taught us good manners and to be respectful, like a lot of working class people in Salford. We were never scruffy bastards and took pride in our appearances, although I remember taking the studs out of my football boots and using them as trainers. They looked like trainers when you stood on a carpet, but I didn’t appreciate that the bottoms were made of plastic and was like Bambi on ice when I tried to run outside. I can’t ever remember having a new pair of football boots.”
Despite the poverty, Garton is convinced that the bonds and values forged growing up Ordsall were vital in later life.
“A lot of great people went onto better things from Ordsall because they had good values,” he says. “Take my best mate Les. He is two years older than me and when he was 16 he used to pay for me because I had no money and he had a job. He’d die for me – you get a bond like that when you come from a place like Ordsall. Where I live now is like paradise on earth, but there’s little loyalty. People want to be an acquaintance but it’d tough to get close to people. Where I grew up my mates stuck together through and thin. We’d die for each other if we needed to. If you were ever on your arse mates would help you out, either financially or morally. That did and still means a lot to me. Mates were like family and any scallies who just looked after themselves ended up with no mates.”
There was a flip side.
“Les would get up to all the rogue stuff,” admits Garton. “When I was at United I’d finish training with the first team at the Cliff and go to see him in this shitty house he bought in Broughton. The house was full of villains and likeable rogues, but I never removed myself from that because I didn’t want to. Those people were my heritage.”
People looked down their noses and still do, yet it continues to shed its Lowreyesque image, the shackles left by years of industrial decline and is benefitting from government investment. The docks, once the site of Britain’s third largest port, have been redeveloped with modern apartments and glass office towers, the iconic Lowry Centre, a superb art gallery and theatre and the Imperial War Museum North on the other side of the Manchester Ship Canal. The BBC plan to build and staff a vast media city in the area which will be the home of Five Live, among many other departments.
The redevelopment doesn’t paint the full picture. A mile away, life is still tough on the estates. In 2005, representatives of the Latvian capital Riga appealed to the EU to advise people against travelling to Salford after a Latvian man was stabbed in the head in Broughton. Parts of the city are some of the most deprived communities in the UK and in August 2005 a survey by Channel 4 rated Salford as the 9th worst place to live in the UK, based on criteria of crime, education, environment, lifestyle and employment.
Yet Garton was too busy obsessing about football in his childhood to be concerned with the wider social problems that blighted his estate.
“I was really into football,” he says. “I knew every player from every team and read loads of books about football. I would buy the books from jumble sales for about 3p. My mates would look at toys, but I was into books. Mates liked United and knew that you had to follow them, but they weren’t really into the memorabilia and the statistics like I was. I would read about football every night, soaking up facts. I had a book about the history of the World Cup which was like my bible. I loved that. I would learn the teams in the competition going back to 1930. I could still name the Uruguay team from 1930. I saw the World Cup as the pinnacle, that was the highest that you could go as a footballer.”
He also has a confession to make.
“Ordsall was so red that everyone knew the only blue family in the area were the Murphys. Yet there was a period in the late 70s when City had a great team and for a while I toyed with the idea of supporting them,” Garton says. “I wasn’t the type of person to follow a team because everyone else did. I loved Colin Bell and the way he played football. He was elegant and always looked like he was in control – I wanted to be like him. Eventually I saw the light and my support for United never wavered. City? I can’t stand them now!”
Garton played football too, yet a loyalty to his friends meant he rejected offers to play for the best junior teams in the Salford district like Bar Hill, or Deans – the Swinton based club Ryan Giggs would play for.
“I wanted to stick with my mates at Salford Lads’ Club,” he says. “We didn’t have a good team and I was the best player, but I didn’t want to leave them. The Lads’ club was an escape from the mundane, underprivileged and upsetting lifestyle for most of us. For me it was an escape from the problems at home, where Mum and Dad were not getting on. The club was a community where you could play indoor football and table tennis. I would pay my subs and go every night. The idea was to get the kids of the street and keep them on the straight and narrow. That was a pipe dream to some degree because kids still got in trouble away from there. We had some rough families, but if you weren’t prepared to conform and behave yourself then you wouldn’t be let in the club.”
There were unwritten rules too. “Nobody vandalised the Lads’ Club,” he says. “We protected what we loved. And if anyone robbed from their own in Salford then the handy lads would fill them in or they would have to move out. I thought that was right.
“I probably played at Salford Lads longer than I should and eventually my focus switched to playing for Salford Schoolboys. The scouts from United were watching and I was quickly signed up and began training at The Cliff in the school holidays.
Garton realised that he had a serious chance of being a footballer and his emphasis switched from football statistics to winning an apprenticeship with Manchester United.
“I was worried that I wasn’t going to get offered an apprenticeship, but I was and I signed it in 1981, the year I left school. I was on £16 a week and my mum got a brown envelope every week from United with another £25 in for my keep. United were good like that and I thought it was very respectful that they gave my mum the money. Mum was by now living alone next door to one of the real heavy families called the Dansons* – Is this spelt right Billy?). It was great for me because I played football and they were fine with me, but they used to say, ‘Don’t worry about your Mum she’ll be fine. Nobody will rob your mum’s house.’ That gave me comfort knowing that someone was watching out for my mum. It wasn’t a case of only the strong surviving in Ordsall, because the old and infirm were protected. They were hard people in Ordsall who were ruthless at times, but there were unwritten rules that were not broken.”
Ordsall was in effect a self-governing estate. It even had a ‘Grasswatch’ van which contained messages to deter potential informers to the police and social services.
“I knew the bloke who did that,” says Garton. “The police had no authority in Ordsall. Rightly or wrongly they were perceived as the enemy. The people policed the estate themselves and the police were aware of that. They knew that the gangsters would rule with an iron fist and sort the troublemakers out.”
One advantage of living in Salford was that he didn’t have to move away from home like the majority of youngsters who sign for United.
“I would get the bus to the Cliff every morning. Norman Whiteside and Clayton Blackmore were the same age as me,” he recalls. The trio, along with Mark Hughes and Graeme Hogg, played in the 1982 youth team which reached the Youth Cup final, losing out to Watford 7-6 over two legs.
“Clayton is a great guy and we had a tight relationship. He wasn’t really streetwise when he arrived from Neath. You needed to be streetwise when you came to Manchester and he had the piss taken a bit at first.”
Blackmore could take a nod from Garton, a young casual who wore the right clothes and listened to the right music. “I would wear Fred Perry t-shirts and black Slazenger jumpers,” he says. “I had a big fringe which I used to flick across. And I was into The Jam big time. I still listen to their music, but you have to be in the right mood. It was moody music and very political because Paul Weller was political. Weller was writing about the things I was going through and I could relate to his criticism of government and poverty – songs like That’s Entertainment.
Politically, Garton never wavered.
“I voted Labour because my dad voted Labour and his dad did too. Even when I was getting well paid as a footballer, I voted Labour. People couldn’t believe it because I was in the high tax bracket, but I wasn’t voting for myself but for the people. Voting Conservative would have been a betrayal to my people.”
Yet Garton would still have to overcome substantial obstacles before he could become a well paid footballer.
“We protected what we loved. And if anyone robbed from their own in Salford then the handy lads would fill them in or they would have to move out.”
“Everyone was scared of Eric Harrison,” he remembers. “He was a great coach but he ruled with an iron fist and that was his style, but I couldn’t see a method in his madness at the time. I went head to head a few times with Eric. He was fighting material and he wanted you to be like that too. He later said that he did things on purpose because he felt it was character building; that he was teaching you about life as well as football. Eric would make you feel so small sometimes that I’d go home and cry. There were times when I thought that he didn’t rate me as a player or a person. He was talking to all the young lads at the Cliff one day and he caught me looking across to where the first team were training. He slaughtered and ridiculed me, saying, ‘You’re a fucking millions miles from that. You keep your eyes on me you fucking wanker.’
But Garton did progress, at a very young age.
“I got in the reserves for one game when I was 16, without having played a single game in the ‘A’ or the ‘B’ teams. It was a neat experience, playing at Old Trafford. I was a snotty nosed kid from Salford playing with internationals like Jimmy Nicholl, Nicola Jovanovic and Paddy Roche. United must have thought something of me to play me in the reserves at 16. And because I had this knowledge of all the players, I knew that I was marking John Richards for Wolves in that game and knew all about him. Maybe some of the other guys wouldn’t have known who he was, but I knew how many goals he’d scored in his career and what his weight was.”
Garton puts his progress down to his ability to listen.
“I was a good listener,” he says. “I was quite a smart kid academically and digesting information came easy to me. I always tried to be more knowledgeable about how to play the game and whenever I was asked to step up a level, I was usually able to do it. I had good positioning and was pretty quick, but what really helped was that I listened to every word that Eric said and tried to absorb everything he was teaching us. I was able to implement information easily.”
At 17, Garton travelled to Hong Kong and Australia with the first team on a post season tour. “The older guys looked after us,” he remembers. “United wanted to short change the younger lads with the spending money and gave all the senior pros £1,000 but tried to give us £200. Gordon McQueen and Robbo made sure that we got the same as them – and then wouldn’t let us buy a drink.”
Garton signed professional terms in 1983, aged 18. “I’d striven to be a pro and again I was very nervous about getting it. I think I knew I was going to get it because I was playing in the reserves quite regularly. Big Ron had intimated to me a few times that I was doing alright and told me that if I kept doing what I was doing then I’d be in the first team soon. I travelled to a few games with the first team just to get used to the experience so I knew I was doing pretty well. When I was called into the office and told that I was going to get a pro contract that was the high point of my career so far.
Garton admits that the money, about £220 a week, wasn’t fantastic. “But that didn’t matter as it was almost all spending money. I didn’t have a mortgage and I bought a car off a kid on Ordsall, a mark two Escort 1600 Mexico. It was red with sports wheels. I painted the inside of the wheels red and black so that they would go with the car. Gordon Strachan used to rip the piss out of me for that and called me ‘the devil’. It was a bit boy-racerish and I had it for two years until the club gave me a car.
He made his first team debut against Burnley in the Milk Cup in 1984. “I didn’t find out that I was playing by having a long sit down with Big Ron where he explained that I had a chance which I couldn’t waste it. I found out I was playing with Ron at his flippant best. I was walking to the canteen at the Cliff and he was walking into his office. He walked past and said,
“Fancy playing tomorrow night?”
“Fancy playing where?” I asked.
“We’ve got a game tomorrow night, the first team.”
“Right, I fancy playing.”
Ron told me that way before putting the team sheet up so I could start getting my head round the idea.”
Fans expect players to list trophy winning moments or great goals as their career highlight, yet many, be they Steve Coppell or Billy Garton, list it as their first team debut.
“It was the greatest day of my life,” Garton remembered. “You dream and work towards becoming a pro and when you play one game, just one game, you’ve proved that you can do it. I’ll always thank Big Ron for giving me my debut. There were certain parts of his personality that were not to everyone’s liking, yet for me he was very knowledgeable about the game.”
Garton’s mode of transport to make his debut game was like a Roy of the Rovers’ script. “I got the 58 bus from Ordsall Lane to Trafford Bar and walked to the ground from there. It was three thirty in the afternoon when I got on the bus and there was a guy in front of me reading the back page of the Evening News. The headline was ‘Billy the Kid to make debut’. I was sitting behind him with my boots in a bag.
“I walked the final twenty minutes to the ground in my suit. Nobody knew who I was. After playing for the first team, it was tough to go unrecognised from then on.
His debut was on occasion for the family to enjoy.
“My nana, my mum’s mum, had watched me in every youth and reserve game so I was delighted that she got to see me play for the first team a year before she died. We won 4-0 and Sparky scored a hat-trick. We didn’t concede a goal and I did pretty well. The game was a blur, but the feeling and emotion was so special. Afterwards, I went in The Jubilee (an Ordsall pub) for a pint. Everyone was congratulating me, but with that came a level of expectation. People were thinking that I’d become a first team regular so there was an added pressure.”
Garton’s mode of transport to make his debut game was like a Roy of the Rovers’ script. “I got the 58 bus from Ordsall Lane to Trafford Bar and walked to the ground from there.
He also saw another side of having a high profile, of being a local boy who’d done well. Anthony H. Wilson once commented that Mancunians always like to piss on their own. And Noel Gallagher, when defending his decision to leave Manchester for north London after making it with Oasis, said: “If I go into my local in Manchester and buy everyone a drink then I’m a flash bastard. If I don’t I’m a tight bastard.”
“I’d try not to be big time,” explains Garton, “try just to be one of the lads and yet you’d still get the odd knob head saying, ‘What are you doing coming in here, Flash Harry?’ I think it is a lot worse now for footballers. People don’t have the same respect and it’s not cool to have a hero who’s a footballer, to be seen to kiss arse.
And I used to get one or two jealous bastards saying things like, ‘Our Peter was better than you and he could have been a pro’ or ‘Our Joey was on United’s books but he walked away from it.’ They were from the type of people who sit at a bar slating players on the box. To this day, I hate it when I’m in a pub and someone says that so and so is a crap player and that they could do better than them. If I know them, I am not scared of saying, ‘No, you couldn’t do better; he’s playing at the highest level.’
Garton’s connections meant he didn’t have too many problems.
“I grew up with a lot of lads who became villains. I’d get the hero status and the lads were fine with me because I was the local boy made good, the working class hero. Most of them were proud that I played for United, but there were one or two arseholes who made playing for United a double edged sword. My dad was the proudest man around when I played for United and for me nothing changed. I’d still go down to the Jubilee pub on Ordsall with him after playing at Old Trafford. I didn’t have pretensions of going to Worsley to sit in The Bridgewater (a canal side pub frequented by footballers and perma-tanned babes).
Garton’s roots were something that Ron Atkinson put to good use in the dressing room.
“United were getting criticised in the mid-80s by people who said that the players did not appreciate what it meant to play for Manchester United,” he explains. “So Big Ron used me as an example and got me to tell the players what United meant to the people of Manchester and Salford. It was dead easy. I told them that there were people who would go without food and spend their last penny to watch United. They’d travel to Newcastle on a Wednesday night when it was freezing, take the following day off and risk getting the sack. It was that message and I believed strongly what I was talking about. I told the others players from my perspective what it was like to be a United fan from Salford and what the club means to the people. Further down the line, when we got our arses kicked 5-1 by City in September ’89, that was the only reason why we lost. There was no-one in that team who really knew what the Manchester derby meant. We lay down and got what we deserved that day. If you had a Keano or a Robbo in your team and you were getting your arse kicked, they would break someone’s fucking legs.”
“I wasn’t a hard player or a hard person,” he says. “I was very streetwise; you can’t help that where you come from where I’m from. I could have a fight, but I didn’t go looking for trouble. I boxed when I was at school so if I had a fight I’d get a few good early punches in and try and win that way. As a player I was quite fast, smart, I read the game well and I could play.”
“I went to a lot of games and watched United away at Liverpool, City at Everton,” he says. “I had a couple of situations where my mates were involved in hooliganism and there were skirmishes. When I was an apprentice I would go to games in my jeans and regular clothes. I would hang out at the top of Warwick Road with my mates who were looking out for away fans, but I had to be careful not to get involved in any trouble. Then I would use my players’ pass and go and watch the game from my seat. It was a mad existence. I had to stop that when I was in the first team.”
He didn’t drop his mates though.
“I’d meet my mates in town after the game and they would be looking for Scousers or whatever. That was the culture. It was a buzz, being with your mates as they talked about the events of the day. I had to be so careful because I knew the dire consequences if I was involved in trouble.”
He avoided it, but once dropped his brother in it, badly.
“I got my brother seats for Everton away,” he explains, pronouncing Everton as … ‘Everton’ in the most Salfordian of accents. “They were in the main stand and he went with his hoolie mates. They were clocked for being Mancs straight away and started fighting before being chased outside. Our Dave was like, ‘You could have told us that the tickets were with the Everton fans.’
Following the 1985 FA Cup final win, Garton travelled to the Caribbean with the first team for a post-season holiday, which he remembers for Gordon McQueen’s antics.
“Gordon McQueen was so funny. We went on a glass bottomed boat and it was fair to say that that (assistant manager) Mick Brown was never going to be a male model. We stared at the fish through the glass and Gordon said, ‘The fish are paying to come and see Mick.’ Gordon was ruthless. We were hanging off a raft in the ocean off Trinidad. There were a few birds around. Gordon dropped his trunks and had a shit in the water. The shit was floating around the raft near people’s feet and that that. He was such a fucking lad with a real unique sense of humour.”
There were problems with the accommodation on the trip. “We stayed in the shittiest hotel to start with in Jamaica,” he says. “And Gordon wasn’t having it. He said: ‘We’re the famous Man United and we’re not staying here.’ We had a team meeting in this crappy hotel with Les Olive (United’s club secretary for thirty years and later a director, Olive died in May 2006), who held the purse strings. All the senior pros said: ‘We’ve just won the FA Cup, we’re not staying here.’ Big Ron was already staying in the five star Royal Caribbean so he was sorted. Les agreed with us and we moved out. As we sneaked out of the hotel, the hotel owner was just putting the finishing touches to his ‘Welcome Man United – FA Cup Winners’ banner by the front entrance. The poor guy was devastated.”
Garton liked the camaraderie in the team.
“You lived and breathed your team mates. It was more like a family than work because you spent so much time with them. You really became close and there were never any secrets. If anything had something on then everyone in the dressing room knew.”
Yet injuries blighted Garton’s early United career and he featured infrequently for United in Ron Atkinson’s final two seasons at the club. “I had problems with my hamstring and that’s one reason why my early career floundered,” he says. “I think United had big expectations for me, but I kept pulling hamstrings. Later on, I found out it was because I had a protruding disc which was pressing against my sciatic nerve. I had this pain down the back of my legs. I had a back operation to sort this out and that kept me out for six months. The injuries got me seriously down. Every footballer will tell you that. I wasn’t a good watcher; I wanted to be out there playing and not sat on my arse.”
In March 1986, he was fit enough to go on loan to Birmingham for three months. “Birmingham was the perfect escape because I wasn’t getting in the first team at United and I needed to be playing a high level. Birmingham made me a better player. I went from being young Billy Garton in a team of internationals at Old Trafford to someone who they looked up to at Birmingham. I was a bigger fish in a smaller pond and it made me grow up really quickly. They were fighting relegation and I played five games there in which we won three. We beat Villa 3-0 which made the fans very happy. John Bond was manager. I had heard loads of bad things about him but he was great with me.”
Birmingham wanted to make the move permanent but Brian Whitehouse, United’s reserve manager, watched Garton’s five games for the Brummies. “I played really well and went straight back into the first team when I went back to Old Trafford,” he says. “Birmingham ended up getting relegated which was sad.”
Garton’s face seemed to fit when Alex Ferguson arrived at the club in November 1986 and he played in Ferguson’s first FA Cup team, a 1-0 victory over Manchester City in January 1987.
“We were confident of beating Coventry at home in the fourth round and I really fancied us to get to Wembley that year, but that was the year they won it,” he remembers. “I played against Cyrille Regis and bounced off him four or five times. It was if I was a fly and he was squatting me. If I have one regret as a player it was that I wasn’t physically strong enough. I didn’t do the weights to build myself up until much later in my career.”
United’s defensive muscle came from elsewhere.
“We had Kevin Moran, Gordon (McQueen) and Paul McGrath. My make up was different to those players because I was more of a footballing centre-half. I loved playing there because there was always action and a kudos from playing in that position. If you play well against a great forward – and more often than not the forward is the other team’s best player – then you get the plaudits. I played against Andy Gray a few times and played him really well.
“Yet I loved the freedom of playing full-back because you could get forward and get crosses in. If I’m honest, I don’t think I had the speed to be a great full-back. It was tough for me when I came up against a fast winger. Newcastle had a Brazilian player called Mirandinha – he had blazing speed. Mickey Adams was very quick for Coventry too. I would have rather marked someone like Trevor Stephen who was a jinker rather than quick players.”
Garton’s highs and lows on the field were mirrored off it. “My private situation wasn’t ideal,” he says. “I was living with a girl and we had a baby, my daughter Lauren. But I wasn’t happy there. In some respects being a young professional footballer was really exciting. The social scene was good and there was a great attraction. I was playing for Man United, had a nice car, wore the right clobber and went out with my superstar mates. I had a great time, but I have some regrets. It all came too soon. I settled down too soon and wasn’t faithful. It became really obvious that I was fucking around with other girls. I regret that.
“You have to be careful that you take the right path,” he adds. “The social scene has slowed a lot of players down and yet some of my happiest memories were being with the lads on tours and in the pub.
Garton’s best spell for United came at the start of the 1988-89 season. “I finally got over my back problems and I was in the team every week. Credit to Fergie, he said, ‘Don’t train all the time; get plenty of rest to make sure that you are fine for the matches.’
Despite Ferguson’s patience, a sporadically fit Garton was not going to offer a long term solution for a manager who was under increasing pressure to win trophies. In October 1988, Ferguson did a deal for another defender, the veteran Ulsterman Mal Donaghy from Luton Town. In 1989, he bought five new £1 million-plus players, paying a record £2.3 million for defender Gary Pallister from Middlesbrough. It was clear that Garton’s future was not at Old Trafford and he began to look at his options.
“I wasn’t sure that Fergie was going to keep me. Arthur Albiston knew Mel Machin (Manchester City manager) well and said that he wanted to speak to me,” he explains. “United agree to sell me and I signed for City in 1989.” The fee was to be decided by a tribunal with United asking £390,000 and City offering £150,000.
“You always sign subject to medical,” Garton states. “My photo was on the back of the Evening News with Mel Machin and Wayne Biggins, another new City signing.”
The contract, which he still has, was a good one.
“It would have been a great deal for me with a £60,000 signing on fee. I was on to get a huge bonus if City were promoted, plus a contract of £700 a week for the first year. Leaving United and moving to City was a major decision for me, but I’d grown up by then. It was my livelihood, my profession. I’ll always love United, but this was a great deal that would have meant that I could have stayed in Manchester.
Garton failed the medical, however. His voice trails off as he starts to explain why.
“By the time I signed for City, an illness had kicked in. I had started to suffer symptoms on a pre-season tour of Malta. I had the shits for about five days and didn’t really feel myself. I was light-headed and always tired, but I thought it was a stomach bug. The symptoms stayed with me though. I had blood tests and they diagnosed me with having glandular fever and said it would be over it in a couple of months.
“I had already started having blood tests to see what was wrong with me when I signed for City. City, understandably, said that they were not prepared to sign me until I had the all clear medically.”
However, the doctors struggled to find out what was wrong with him. “I felt the same for three years,” he says. “It was later called M.E or ‘chronic fatigue syndrome’ in the States. It’s when there has been a virus in your system and your body reacts like it is still there, with your cells acting like they are being attacked. I did not have a clue what it was. The worse thing was that I always felt light-headed and dizzy. I think I could have got away with working in an office, but I had to play football. I felt shattered all the time. I got bad advice too. United’s club doctor, who wasn’t the most popular man in the world, basically dismissed my symptoms and said ‘get on with it.’ He told me to train and push myself through it. When I later spoke to specialists they told me that that was the worse advice that could have been given and that I should have rested. I had 18 months on my contract when I was first diagnosed and even though Fergie was very supportive, I was devastated. I was embarrassed driving to the Cliff every day. Alex was making me report in as I was under contract and I had to explain to people that I wasn’t getting any better. I would waste away the morning, read the paper or walk around the field. It was embarrassing just being there. Nobody believed what I was saying. I felt like I was going nowhere, that nobody was listening to me and that I wasn’t making sense. I went in to see Alex one day and broke down in his office. I demanded a second opinion and he agreed. It brought some relief when my condition was then diagnosed.
I settled down too soon and wasn’t faithful. It became really obvious that I was fucking around with other girls. I regret that.
“I felt like a lot of people thought I was on the blag, that I was imagining things and people questioned my mental state. The problem was that I didn’t look ill. If you have a broken leg people can see the evidence. I heard rumours about myself, based on ignorance rather than malice. The other players were great and I don’t ever remember anything me said, but lads in Ordsall would say, ‘What the fuck’s up with yer? Just get out there and run.’ I knew that a consequence of not recovering was that I was going to be released when my contract ended, and that’s ultimately what happened.
“I had a mixed bag with Alex. I got into trouble a couple of times for coming in late. He wanted people to report players if they were out pissed up misbehaving. He nurtured a grass mentality which put everyone on guard. I can understand why he did it because a lot of players were going off the rails drinking in the afternoon. People reported me a couple of times. I came home one night drunk as a lord to my little apartment in Worsley. For some reason I needed to get a music tape out of the car, but I was that drunk that I walked out with nothing on except one big monster slipper. I walked into the car park and in my mind I was gone for five minutes. My mate came out and said: ‘you’ve been gone about half an hour, what are you doing?’
“I was called into Alex’s office after training the following morning. He said: ‘Where’s your other slipper?’ I pretended to act daft but then he gave me a dressing down and fined me two weeks wages for embarrassing the club. One of the neighbours had called in.
“I played for three years under Alex and he gave me the chance to play and to prove myself after injuries. I fully respect him for that. He’s a fantastic manager because he’s so good at man management. He turned that club on its head when he arrived and completely changed the mentality of the place. To do that at an organisation as big as United was a massive achievement. He did little things like trimming down the excesses on away game. We would be used to a-la-carte menus in five star hotels. He would say that the set meal was good enough for us and banned room service. It felt more professional and better organised. I felt that I had to be more responsible. Players would load the club up with expenses and Alex just stopped all that.
“Alex sorted the training out too. We had to play by his rules and if you turned up for training smelling of beer you would get fined. If you carried on then you would be out of the club. Nobody could believe it when he got rid of Norman Whiteside and Paul McGrath – who was one of the best players in the country at the time. Alex took a brave decision, but he realised the damage that a drinking culture could have.”
In May 1990, as Ferguson won his first trophy with FA Cup success over Crystal Palace, Billy Garton retired from professional football.
“I was depressed and seriously sad that my time at United was up,” he says. “My first thought was ‘How am I going to survive?’ I had a mortgage and a daughter. I needed to run a car, yet I was still sick and unable to do a proper day’s work. Did suicide cross my mind? Yes. There were a couple of times when I was driving when I thought about it. I thought of my options and suicide was one of them. Then I started to think of how I would do it. I was so desperately sad, yet I’m not the type of person who would take his own life and that’s why I didn’t do anything. I felt that suicide was the selfish way out. I know that some people do it because they are not thinking rationally, but you leave everybody else with the hurt, pain and financial worry. It might have been the selfish answer for me, but it wasn’t the answer for my daughter, mum, dad or other people close to me.”
Manchester United didn’t help his predicament by refusing Garton a testimonial game. “The chairman at the time was making it difficult and I don’t know to this day if Alex had anything to do with the decision or not. I would have loved a testimonial, at Old Trafford but I wasn’t fussed about the money. It was the same year as Robbo’s testimonial so maybe they didn’t want to grant another. I think that testimonials should be for players who have had their careers curtails through injury or illness and I think United got it wrong. Robbo was a millionaire and United gave me 20 grand to walk away.”
A group of Garton’s friends were determined that he should have a benefit game. “The testimonial committee approached United about using Old Trafford and the request was turned down, saying that the game might only attract 15,000. So my mates decided to organise one without United’s help. It really annoyed me that it came to that. I wanted my final send off to be at Old Trafford; instead I was embarrassed because it was at the Willows in Salford. Salford (the Rugby League club) were very helpful, but I shouldn’t have done my final walk out at a rugby ground. It rained all day, it was freezing and I was seriously down. The players showed up and Alex did too, but I was angry that day at the circumstances.
Four thousand United fans attended. “I was pleased with that,” says Garton. “It rained so hard that I don’t think I would have bothered if I was a fan.”
Garton’s next move was to enrol on an FA coaching course to do his ‘A’ badge, which was ironically held at the Cliff. He could cope with the theory, just not the playing. The course would benefit him long-term. “No matter how much you know, if you’ve not got that piece of paper saying that you are qualified then it means nothing,” he attests.
Garton researched his illness. “I’d spend hours in Central Library reading medical articles. I needed to know how long it was going to go on for. I wrote a couple of articles about my condition in the medical journals. The bottom line was that the only cure was time. People reacted differently to different treatments and for me it just gradually went away over time. I did a few articles in the papers about my illness and a lot of people wrote letters to me. There was an organisation who had literature and meetings so I attended those. There was a big article about my illness in The People. It was a double spread about what I was going through. Pallister and Bruce had just become a defensive partnership and they weren’t quite doing it, with Pallister looking a bit rocky. There was an article about this right under mine. At first glance, it looked as if I was questioning whether Pallister and Bruce were good enough for Man United. The press can stitch you up like that sometimes.”
Garton would find out what Alex Ferguson thought of the article on his next visit to the Old Trafford. “I had just left the club and I had to get to Old Trafford to pick something up,” he explains. “The first team were training at Old Trafford. I was walking down the tunnel to the dressing rooms and Fergie came flying at me. He was really angry and saying, ‘You fucking coward, tell them (Bruce and Pallister) to their face what you think about them you fucking back stabber.’ I was in no mood for him at the time because I was angry with all the testimonial shit. So we ended up going head-to-head in the tunnel under the main stand. I grabbed him and he backed off. I said: ‘I’ll punch your fucking lights out.’ Keith Kent, the groundsman, split it up. I went straight into the dressing room and said to Pally and Bruce. ‘He thinks that I wrote that article and you have to tell me now that you don’t think I wrote it.’ They said: ‘We read the article and knew quite well that it wasn’t you, that it was by the reporter.’ Fergie came in and he had calmed down. I said: ‘these two don’t think that I’ve written the article.’ He said: ‘I’ve not even read the article, somebody told me about it. I’m sorry. I apologise.’ He called me later that afternoon to apologise properly.”
By 1992, Garton’s health had started to improve to the extent that he was able to take the manager’s job at Salford City in the North West Counties League. “I loved it there,” he remembers. “I was never big time and didn’t have ideas that I was going to manage a pro club, I just wanted to be involved in football again. I knew a lot of the lads who played and loved the craic in the dressing room. The camaraderie and togetherness of the team was what I had really missed after leaving United.
“It was a challenge being a manager but I loved it. I was playing too. I was sent off in my first game for fighting! A big crowd had come to watch as it had been over the papers that I would be manager. Things weren’t going well on the field and I got frustrated. A lad tackled me and half threw a punch as we fell. I smacked him in the face and was sent off.
“Mike McKenzie, a great local semi-pro manager, called me and asked me to play for Witton Albion, who were in the Unibond Premier division. I loved it there too and was earning really good money. I was at university doing a degree and getting £250 a week to play football. Being a mature student, a high percentage of my mortgage was being paid too. I was doing better financially than when I played for United.”
McKenzie went to Hyde United, whose Ewen Fields ground currently stages United’s reserve team games, and asked Garton to go with him as player coach.
Fergie came flying at me. He was really angry and saying, ‘You fucking coward, tell them (Bruce and Pallister) to their face what you think about them you fucking back stabber.’
“I had some of the best years of my football life at Hyde and we twice got to the semi final of the FA trophy. I was playing against tough nuts that had just come off the building site so I needed to do the weights. I should have done them earlier in my career. We were beating good teams like Stevenage who had Barry Hayles, who later played in the Premiership with Fulham, playing for them. We played in the FA Cup 1st round against Darlington, a great highlight for the club.”
After completing his degree, Garton did some voluntary work in local schools to see if I would take to a new vocation – a school teacher. He liked it and got a job teaching at a primary school in Altrincham in 1994. He met Francine, a Liverpool girl, too in Bojangles, a Manchester bar that wasn’t named after Ron Atkinson. Francine was a dancer at ballet college in Manchester. They dated and later married. Life was definitely on the up.
“I got promoted really quickly at school and was soon Deputy Head,” recalls Garton “The head teacher was fantastic and taught me a lot about man-management and how to deal with people, which has come in very useful.”
Arthur Albiston tells a story about Garton from that time. “I was on the Metrolink back from Manchester when I overheard two posh ladies talking about the new Deputy Head at their kids’ school,” recalls Albiston. “They were all excited, saying that he was really good looking (Garton was known as Brylcream by some team mates) and that he used to play for Manchester United in the 1980s.” Albiston leaned forward to listen into their conversation, but no name was mentioned. Vexed, he spent the rest of the journey back to Altrincham thinking of who it could be before concluding that someone must be telling a few lies. “I couldn’t think of anyone who played in the 80s who was capable of being a Deputy Headmaster and was good looking too,” says Albiston. Yet the story was true. “A month later my wife told me that Billy Garton had been made Deputy Head of a primary school in Altrincham. Then the penny dropped.”
In 2001, his life took another twist, thanks to Jeff Illingworth, Garton’s former P.E teacher from Ordsall High School. Illingworth had lived in San Diego for 20 years, coaching football. Garton had stayed close to him and had been out to California on holiday a few times to help out coaching.
“The last time I went out, he told me that he was thinking of starting a soccer club and asked if I was interested in moving out there and being a part of a new club called ‘Carmel Valley Manchester Soccer,’ explains Garton, who uses the word ‘soccer’ throughout the interview – and apologises each time for not saying ‘football’.
“We moved in 2001 and it has gone well ever since. We have two kids, Billy and Bobbie Leigh, and my daughter Lauren comes to visit. I have a programme with 600 kids and 27 teams. My wife has a dance studio with 700 kids. Things are going really well financially, and the way of life here is great for a family. The weather is fantastic and we live by the ocean on a golf course. We had worked hard to get where we are – I’m a believer that you get out of this life what you put in. We are never complacent and we are honourable with the staff that we employ and we get on alright with them. The values I was taught as a kid are still the values I have now.
“I’d love to get to the stage when I can semi-retire and enjoy life without worrying about the financial implications. Too many people I know have got to retirement age and have never had the chance to enjoy it because they’ve died a year later. I want to enjoy my kids and do a bit of travelling.
He still keeps in touch with friends in Manchester too. “I still see the likes of Robbo, Big Norman and Arthur when I am back in Manchester. Kevin Moran’s son came out here last year and stayed with us. Most footballers tend to move on, it’s the nature of the beast that you are nomadic and are always moving on and building new relationships with people. You are friends, but at the back of your mind you know that you are colleagues too.
And life by the ocean gives him time to reflect on his time at United. “I still look back at every moment in my time at United. I have some good memories and some not so good ones. Because I was a Salford lad, it was so much more for me to play for United. It was a worldly experience where I went from playing on the streets to travelling the world. It brought me fame in my own little world where I signed autographs and posed for photos on the streets. It was a great life and the most significant thing for was that without my time at Man United, my reputation here would just be the same as everybody else’s. The knock-on effect of being a former United player is always there. I want my kids to know that their dad played for the biggest club in the world as they get older. I’ve tried to get my eldest son into football and I’ve bought him some factual books on football hoping that he’ll get the same pleasure out of it that I did. My books are still at my dad’s in Ordsall. My room is almost untouched from when I left the house when I was 15. It’s like a little shrine to Manchester United.”
And when Billy Garton used to sit in his shrine, reading his books, how could he have possibly foreseen what lay ahead? It was never easy for Billy, but then nobody said it would be.
This is an extract from ‘We’re The Famous Man United. Old Trafford in the 80s – the Players’ Stories’ written by Andy Mitten and published by VSP.