The Crazy Life And Times of Aston Villa And Manchester United's John Gidman

Drummed out of his beloved Liverpool as a youngster and blinded in one eye John Gidman went on to forge a successful career with Aston Villa, Everton and Manchester United, making over four hundred appearances at the highest level.
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Drummed out of his beloved Liverpool as a youngster and blinded in one eye John Gidman went on to forge a successful career with Aston Villa, Everton and Manchester United, making over four hundred appearances at the highest level.

Early March and the weather is glorious in Torremolinos, the most incongruous of the Costa Del Sol resorts. John Gidman, the Scouse full-back who played 118 times for Manchester United between 1981 and 1986, sits at the beachside restaurant table, hidden behind black Ray Bans. Gidman is on good form. “Fancy a bevvy?” he asks. It's ten am. Gidman has agreed to meet here because it’s close to Calahonda, his home of nine years, but it’s not an area he’s keen on or familiar with. “I couldn’t live in Torremolinos,” he gestures at the high rise buildings which mark the seafront, speaking in a Liverpudlian accent softened by years living away from Merseyside. “Not really my scene, all this.”

Gidman’s decision to move to Spain was made on holiday in Cuba, where, he admits, his “head was everywhere”. After leaving Manchester United in 1986, his life underwent more twists and turns than he ever had to encounter marking players like Kevin Sheedy and Glenn Hoddle. Divorce, phone bugs, guns, golf and gangsters, Gidman had been through a lot and he’d had enough.

“Cuba turned out to be the best holiday of my life,” he says. “I went with a mate for six weeks and it allowed me to get my head together because I got away from everybody. I’d fallen in with the wrong crowd and I needed to make a break. With two days of the holiday left I sat alone having a beer looking out to sea, just thinking. I thought, ‘This is where it started for me, by the docks in Garston, by the sea. I wanted to get back to the sea. I decided that I didn’t need anybody in my life and that I was going to live in Spain. I planned to live Estepona, which I knew because we’d trained there on pre-season camps when I was in Aston Villa. My mate thought I was mad.”

Gidman was adamant, however. The memory of Garston took him back to a time when life was simpler and he needed that again. A Liverpool gangster acquaintance offered to help out. “He knew a lad in the Costa del Sol who knew the area so I ended up near Malaga and I’ve been here ever since. I met my girlfriend eight months after arriving. She caught my eye on the beach and while I didn’t speak Spanish, I just took a couple of beers over and said: ‘for you, for me.’ She told me she was married, but that relationship was breaking down and we got together soon after. She’s an air stewardess and we get on. I’m happy after years of madness.”

Gidman grew up in one of Liverpool’s poorest neighbourhoods by the docks. His dad, a draughtsman for the Post Office had a season ticket at Anfield and he used to take John to the boys’ pen on theKop.

She came home crying one Friday because her false teeth had fallen into the ice cream conveyor belt.

“My dad was the strongest influence in my life, the man I should be most thankful to. He pushed me and pushed me, although I didn’t always like it,” Gidman says. “The Beatles came home to Liverpool in ’68 and everyone I knew was going down to Lime Street to meet them, but my dad wouldn’t let me go. I never forgave him for that because I wanted to be a pop star, not a footballer, and I loved the Beatles and had my hair like theirs. At least I did until my dad got me in the bathroom one day and said, ‘Enough is enough’. Then he cut my hair. He felt that by having long hair he didn’t have control of me.”

“Mum worked hard, selling ice cream in the picture house. I used to get free ice cream watching Cliff Richard and the Shadows down there on a Saturday. Then she got a job at the ice cream factory. She came home crying one Friday because her false teeth had fallen into the ice cream conveyor belt. It took her two weeks to get a new set of dentures.”

By 14, Gidman was a regular for Liverpool Schoolboys, until he was dropped for a semi-final against Plymouth. “I saw the coach of that team last year and called him a twat,” he recalls. When he wasn’t playing, Gidman watched Ian St. John and Ronnie Yates from the Kop. Six months later he was cleaning their boots. Liverpool had offered him an apprenticeship, which included attending a mechanic’s course one day a week.

“I’ve never been academic and never got into the course. All the other lads were doing practical stuff with engines when I was training, while I didn’t even know where the petrol cap was on a car and was nervous when my exams approached. A few of the lads asked me if I could get them tickets for Liverpool so I did a deal with them. I got them tickets and one lad allowed me to copy his multiple choice answers in the exam. Liverpool were delighted when I passed; my dad was just confused.”

Life at Melwood, Liverpool’s training ground, went well for the first seven months until Tony Waiters was appointed head of youth development. “He didn’t like me,” explains Gidman. “My face didn’t fit.” Yet Gidman still had faith in his own ability, so much so that when he was called into manager Bill Shankly’s office as a 16-year-old, he was expecting good news.

“I naively thought that Shanks was going to tell me that I’d been called up to the first team,” he offers. “I wasn’t. Shanks got straight to the point, saying, ‘I’ve been told that yer s*ite. We’re releasing yer. ‘Son, yer s***’ – I’ll always remember how he said it.

“Waiters had told him that I didn’t have the ability nor dedication to succeed. Shanks added that I wasn’t skilful enough and wasn’t the right build. I cried all the way home on the bus because I thought I’d never be a footballer. My contract was to be ripped up, and a letter was sent to my dad which basically said: ‘Dear Mr Gidman. Your son issh**!

My life had changed from walking round Liverpool with holes in my shoes to driving round Birmingham in a Morris 1300.

But Gidman’s father was no pushover. By then he’d taken it upon himself to go to night school, gaining qualifications which meant a better job and a house in the less impoverished Allerton.

“He realised that a contract couldn’t just be torn up, it was simple as that.” Gidman returned to Liverpool, where he was put in the lowly c-team, an outcast at 16. But then Waiters accepted a job in Canada and Ronnie Moran replaced him. “Ronnie took me from the ‘c’ to the ‘b’ to the ‘a’ teams. Then he moved me from outside right, where I’d always played, to full-back. Within a month I was in the reserves. Moran told Shankly to keep me, but Shanks didn’t want to go back on his decision and I was released.”

Others had monitored Gidman’s progress and in the summer of 1970 he happily accepted a one year apprenticeship with Aston Villa, whose first team had been relegated to the third division. The move was a success and within a year he was in the England youth team with Trevor Francis and Phil Thompson.

“Villa then gave me a two year professional contract worth £40 a week, my first taste of money,” Gidman explains. “My life had changed from walking round Liverpool with holes in my shoes to driving round Birmingham in a Morris 1300.”

In 1972 Gidman was an FA Youth Cup winner. He made his first team debut in August of the same year, aged 18. However, there were distractions which came with his new found profile.

“Discovering birds was a problem,” he admits. “I was moved around several digs and I ended up living with this woman and her kid. She was 31. I ended up in bed with her. She’d lost her husband and just climbed in with me one night. I was going into training with my eyes down at my knee caps. I was in and out of the first team but I couldn’t train. It was taking effect psychologically, like being married at 18. I came clean with the club and told them that I had to get out. They put me in with an old couple in Lichfield.” The kind of discipline his father had imposed was back. “Les and Barbara kept an eye on me and told my manager Vic Crowe if I came in late.”

Gidman settled on less fleshly pursuits, learning to play the guitar. A regular in the first team, his contract was consistently improved and with bonuses he was able to buy a house at 19.

He was content until rookie chairman Doug Ellis replaced manager Crowe with Ron Saunders. “I didn’t get on with him, he was a disciplinarian with a sergeant major outlook who used to belittle popular players,” he offers. “The first thing he said to me was: ‘Who are you?’ I said, ‘Who the f*** are you?’ He said: ‘Oh, we’ve got a smart Scouser have we?’ So we didn’t get off to the best start. I felt that Saunders would knock me all the time, even if I had a good game. He didn’t help my confidence.

Saunders rang me and said: ‘I’m buying a kid from Dundee. He’s going to be good, he’s called Andy Gray, can he live with you?’

Gidman was largely happy at Villa though. “Brian Little was my best pal; he had long hair and was well into music like me. I used to think he was on pills, given the way he’d dance. Look at him now, a sensible manager with a sensible haircut. We still keep in touch.”

Another player became a long-term friend. “Saunders rang me and said: ‘I’m buying a kid from Dundee. He’s going to be good, he’s called Andy Gray, can he live with you?’ Andy lived with me for a year and we became great mates. Still are. See each other all the time. He’s done really well for himself, he’s really professional and I’m proud of him. We have completely different lives but we just get on really well. He didn’t drink when he arrived at Villa. He did after I’d introduced him to the country pub in his first week.”

Villa’s centenary season in 1974-75 started well, yet Gidman would miss the majority of it after an accident on November 5th 1974.

“One of the players had a bonfire party. There had been problems in Birmingham with the IRA and I was talking to a QC about it. The next thing, someone accidentally launched a rocket. It hit me in the right eye at 70 miles an hour; putting me through a patio window. Luckily, the club doctor was there. I was haemorrhaging and losing blood, which was squirting out from the centre of the eye. An ambulance came straight away. I was pissed and didn’t really give a f***. They wanted to take my eye out to stop the bleeding, but the club doctor stopped them, saying, ‘He’s a footballer, you can’t’.”

Gidman woke in hospital three days later with his head covered in bandages. “I s*** myself because I thought I was blind,” he says. “I couldn’t see through my right eye at all. The surgeon said it would take about six weeks to see the extent of the damage. All I wanted to know was if my football career was over. He told me he didn't know. The other eye would adjust, but my central vision was gone. I just had to wait and see.

Six weeks later Gidman was diagnosed as being blind in one eye as the doctor had predicted - but his peripheral vision was unaffected. His career wasn’t over.

Gidman left hospital and convalesced in a nursing home for two months. He started walking again after four months after the accident, training after five. “I had to teach myself to judge the speed of the ball again, with my left eye over compensating.” The dark glasses he wears in the sun now are not an affectation, but necessary protection.  To complete a remarkable recovery, Saunders made him substitute for the final game of the season when Villa were promoted behind second division champions Manchester United.

“I got the best reception I’ve ever had,” he recalls. “It was very emotional. I realised that people cared. I played up front with the instruction to enjoy myself as we’d won promotion. I was like Billy Liddle on the wing. Everything I touched went well. I knew after the game that I wasn’t finished, that I could be a footballer again.”

“All the Villa lads knew I had a dicky eye, and years later at United Frank Stapleton would say: ‘Always put the ball to Giddy at the back post because he can’t f***ing head it. He doesn’t know how far away it is.

I hope you are watching this Bill Shankly, I really f***ing do because you let me go for nothing and now I’m playing for England.

Gidman’s career ran relatively smoothly at Villa for the next two seasons. He won a League Cup Winners’ medal in 1977 after Villa beat Everton on the third attempt at Old Trafford. The same year, he was capped by England.

“I’d been in the squad a couple of times and the QPR right back Dave Clements, who later poisoned himself to death, was injured so Don Revie told me that I was in. He wanted me to mark some f***er from Luxembourg that I’d never heard of.

Hearing the national anthem did it for me and I became very emotional. Then I just thought: ‘I hope you are watching this Bill Shankly, I really f***ing do because you let me go for nothing and now I’m playing for England.’

Gidman never did play for England again, which he puts down his behaviour on a trip for England U23s to the Soviet Union.

“Alan Ball got me on Jack Daniels on the way home from Moscow,” he confesses. “I’d never had it before and I fell off the plane at Luton airport. If you are a rebel the England people didn’t like it. I wasn’t a yes man, but my own man. If I see something for a laugh then I’ll do it.”

In 1977, Villa destroyed his old club. “I always felt like I had a point to prove when Villa played Liverpool, although I thought it would be difficult that year as they were about to win the league again. Yet by half time, we led 5-0 and Ron Saunders, showing a rare flash of humour, said, ‘Get yourself a cup of tea and have a piss.’ We were astonished, but he added, ‘How can I give a talk when I’ve just seen you play like that?’ The game finished 5-1 and Shankly later questioned why he had let Gidman ever leave Liverpool.

Villa reached the quarter-final of the UEFA Cup in 1977-78, before being knocked out by Barcelona. It’s a night Gidman remembers well. “I was paid to wear Puma boots. But before the game in Barcelona some guy approached me in the team hotel and offered us money to wear these new boots from a Spanish company. I told him that we couldn’t wear them, that the lads would never all wear new boots, but that we could paint our normal boots to look like his brand. Saunders wasn’t bothered, so I took the money and shared it among the lads. We had a photo before the game and everyone wanted to be at the back because they didn’t want to be seen in these boots.

“Cruyff and Neeskens were playing and the tackles were flying in. I had my nose broken and the ref wasn’t controlling the game. My nose was bleeding when I got an elbow in the eye - not my right eye fortunately. I lost it and hit the guy. I got sent off, was blamed for us going out of the competition and received a good dig off the police in the tunnel. I left the ground at half time and went to a bar nearby. I wasn't thinking straight and I was disappointed because I’d paid for my dad to come and watch the game and he’d never been abroad before. The game was on the television in the bar and I was recognised because of my nose. I had to get off back to the stadium quickly.

I failed my medical because Everton realised that my retina was smashed.

More problems lay ahead.

“There was a picture of me in the papers the next day fighting – and wearing boots which did not look like they were made by Puma. I got a phone call off the Puma representative, who wasn’t happy. He came to the training ground to check our match boots, which had been cleaned by that time. I lied to him that I had worn Puma and it became my word against his. I kept the contract.”

Like any dressing room, Villa's had its divisions and cliques. “We knew that there was a snitch,” recalls Gidman. “Things which should have remained in the dressing room were getting back to the manager. We’d have a bevvy and he’d find out. If someone was going to throw a transfer request in then the manager knew before the letter arrived on his desk.”

To find out, a then married Gidman took the Villa secretary out for a meal, where they cut a deal. “She left me the players’ contracts on the desk and I walked in the office and saw them. I saw that Dennis Mortimer was on a lot more money than me. I was on £300 a week and was gutted to find out how much some of the other players were on because I was one of the better players. Andy Gray and I got bladdered and agreed to put transfer requests in the following day. We were livid and went to see the board with a list of complaints about the manager. It was him or us, we said. The board said that nobody was bigger than the club and that they would sell us. Aside from that incident, Doug Ellis was always fine with me. In fact, I actually liked him. He’s probably a t*** to do business with, but he always saw me right.”

Everton manager Gordon Lee was soon on the phone, with a substantial signing on fee to supplement the proposed weekly wage of £700. Gidman was interested in moving back to his home city too. “I had no qualms about playing for Everton as I saw it as a job, simple as that. Yet I failed my medical because Everton realised that my retina was smashed. So they sent me to hospital for a second check. I got friendly with the girl who was doing the test. I explained that my life was in her hands, that I couldn’t face going back to Villa because I had pushed things too far.”

The specialist was professional, yet sympathetic. “She asked me to put a toy plane in a little plastic hangar with my good eye covered. I didn’t have a chance of doing that and said, ‘Can’t you turn your head away and when you look back the plane will be in the hangar?’ She laughed and said: ‘I’m getting paid to give you a medical’.”

“She let me practise doing it a few times, by feeling my way. When I had perfected it she passed me, but I should never have passed that medical. She came to the hotel that night and I bought her dinner to say thanks.”

This is an exclusive extract from the John Gidman chapter of 'We're The Famous Man United. Old Trafford in the Eighties - The Players' Stories' by Andy Mitten. The hardback edition of the book was a best seller when it came out in 2006. It's now out in paperback.

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