Born: Salford, 15th March 1965
Height: 5ft. 11ins., Weight: 11st. 8lbs.
Role: Central defender
Career: Trafford Road Junior School (Ordsall)/ Ordsall High School/ Salford Boys/ Lancashire Boys/ UNITED: Ass. Schoolboy April 1980 App. May 1981 Pro. March 1983 to May 1990/ Birmingham City (L) March and April 1986/ Salford City June 1992/ Witton Albion November 1993 to May 1994/ Hyde United October 1994 to May 1998/ Salford City November 2000 to May 2001
Of all those who have made the grade at Manchester United, Billy Garton’s story is unique. Not because of what he did or didn’t achieve in the game, but where he came from allied to the era in which he played. While there have been a few Salford lads who have developed through the ranks at Old Trafford in the post-war period, the likes of Eddie Colman, Harold Bratt, Peter Jones and Phil Bardsley were all present during eras of success, whereas he suffered through a time of domination by Liverpool.
‘I can’t remember the first game I went to as a kid, but I remember matchdays vividly,’ he claimed. ‘Because I lived in Ordsall, people would park their cars in our street. I used to ask ‘Can I mind your car, mister?’ in an effort to scrape together enough money to get into the game. Sometimes I could and sometimes I couldn’t, but I could see the lights of the stadium from our house and I knew what the score was by just listening to the crowd. Then I would walk over and sneak in with twenty minutes to go when they opened the gates.’
Now able to look out over the beach and Pacific Ocean from his home in San Diego instead, he went on to say, ‘I was born in Hope Hospital and lived all my life in Salford. My uncle, Henry, was a very good footballer and played for Salford Amateurs. They say he could have been a professional but he was happy to play locally. At first I just played for Trafford Road Juniors and then when I was about nine I joined Salford Lads’ Club. It was a good team and I knew everyone as we played on the streets together. I wasn’t a defender in those days, I played in midfield or upfront. I suppose I must have been half decent because the really good sides kept asking me to join them.
Barr Hill and Deans Youth were the best teams about, but I was happy just to play with my mates. Then when I was about fourteen, I joined Barr Hill just for one season and also got selected for Salford (Boys). A few clubs became interested in me, Everton, Birmingham City, and I also had two weeks at Blackpool. Then one day after a match for Salford, Eric Walker introduced himself to my dad and asked if I fancied joining United. My father wasn’t a football man but he was incredibly supportive, so when he told me about United I was so excited. It was just beyond my wildest dreams.’
The Reds’ interest came in 1979/80, a term in which United at last put in a realistic challenge to take the First Division title away from Liverpool. Garton was taken on as an associate schoolboy in the April of that campaign and, now part of the family, he could hardly contain himself at the prospect of meeting his great idol, Martin Buchan.
With all the enthusiasm that a Red Salfordian could muster, his first effort for the club came on the 16th August 1980 when, wearing the number four shirt while lining up at centre-half, his ‘B’ side kept a clean sheet in a draw at Bury.
‘I hadn’t played much at centre-half as a kid,’ he noted. ‘When you are young you tend to just play anywhere in order to get a game. I enjoyed my first season playing in defence and always thought I was comfortable in that position. I was a very thoughtful player, quite big for my age but also fast and athletic with good control. I was never into raw-boned crunching tackles. I suppose the coaching staff saw me more as a sweeper and that’s why they put me in defence.’
The following week he was drafted into the ‘A’ side, only to experience the difference between local or schoolboy football and the professional game when Bolton defeated the Reds 5-2. Turning out solely for the ‘B’ team from then on, predominantly in central defence or on a handful of occasions at left full-back, they finished the term in the lower part of the league table.
He impressed in the opening ‘B’ fixture of the 1981/82 campaign, a 3-2 win at Southport, and to his astonishment, the following week he was yanked up to the Central League for a clash against Wolves, his first game on the Old Trafford pitch.
His recollections of that experience were understandable, ‘I was just in shock! I had just signed as an apprentice and was told I was going to look after Martin Buchan. I mean, he was my hero and I wanted to play just like him. It was just a dream come true. Here I was, this snotty-nosed Salford lad, who had a very poor, impoverished upbringing, when sometimes my parents couldn’t even afford electricity in the house and my dad was out of work and I was living on hand me downs.
As I looked at the team sheet, it was filled with internationals on both sides. I was in awe of some of my own team-mates. Back then you know you are a long way from the Reserves and here I was lining up against John Richards, one of the most experienced forwards in the First Division. At first I didn’t think I was good enough, but that specific game gave me self-belief as we won 3-0 and I had stopped Richards from scoring. It was a real feather in my cap.’
Over the next few months he was a fixture in the ‘A’ team and was also drafted in for a Youth Cup tie at Walsall. As the season progressed he started to gain invaluable experience in the Reserves alongside Mike Duxbury, Paul McGrath and Gordon McQueen, and by the time the better weather was due he had established himself in the second string by starting in ten out of eleven fixtures over March and April. Also cementing a formidable partnership with Graeme Hogg in the under-18 team, the side conceded only two goals in nine games on their way to reach the national final.
‘I remember the Youth Cup run very clearly,’ he said. ‘It was an exciting time. We would travel to away games and play in the big stadiums, stay in hotels, it was a new experience for us all and I loved it.’
United faced Watford in the two-legged final only to hand the initiative to the Vicarage Road side by losing on home turf. A pulsating conclusion in Hertfordshire resulted in an astonishing 4-4 draw, which meant that the Reds were edged off the winner’s podium by the narrowest of margins.
Garton recalled, ‘Atkinson said it was the best game of football he had seen. To be fair it had everything and it could have gone either way. People often talk about my own goal but it was just a frantic contest that neither team deserved to lose. It was a fantastic experience and I felt it was the making of Eric Harrison. That was the foundation of what happened later and it was proof that he was the right man.’ Although terribly disappointed, it was an otherwise marvellous campaign for the defender as he had taken part in 44 matches and his stock was clearly on the rise.
He started six consecutive games for the Reserves over the September and October of 1982 prior to dropping down to the ‘A’ team where he remained for the following three months. In the meantime he resumed in the Youth Cup as West Brom, Derby and QPR were all felled before a classy Norwich side ended United’s hopes of any further progress in early March. By now back in the Reserves, his luck in the Lancashire Youth Cup was only marginally better as the Reds lost out in the final to Manchester City in the May. Injured the following day in an ‘A’ team fixture, it caused him to miss a post-season youth tour to Holland.
He was still absent for the opening couple of weeks of the 1983/84 term before turning out for the ‘A’ team at Stockport in mid-September. However, he featured in only two further games in the first half of the campaign as he struggled for fitness and was out of action entirely for four months from October. That period should have seen him pushing for a first-team place, a fact which was borne out when Hogg forced his way up to make sixteen senior appearances.
His resumption with the Reserves came in early February although, unfortunately, it was obvious he had returned too quickly and was sidelined for another five weeks. He started a dozen games as the season drew to a close, which included the last eight Central League fixtures.
Then afforded a place on the bench for Lou Macari’s testimonial, a game in which he went on for Mike Duxbury against Celtic, a week later he was included in the first-team squad that flew out to Hong Kong and Australia. Despite not getting a run out in the match in the Far East against Bulova, nor in the opening match in Australia versus the national team, for the final two games against Nottingham Forest and Juventus he took the right full-back spot.
‘I really enjoyed my time in Australia as I had suffered a stop-start season and was looking forward to getting fit,’ he claimed. ‘It was good to be involved in the first-team and still be in the manager’s thinking.
I remember the match against Juventus at the Sydney Cricket Ground particularly well. The ground was pretty good, but every now and then you ran across a piece of turf and it was like an ice rink. It took me a little while to realise it was the actual cricket pitch that had been rolled thousands of times and we tried to keep the ball away from it after that. Your boots would go ‘click, click, click’, it was like Bambi on Ice!’
His breakthrough was edging nearer, and he did himself a power of good by scoring twice in three games for the Reserves in September 1984. Then, as he was walking down a corridor at The Cliff one day, Atkinson casually asked if he would ‘Fancy playing tomorrow night?’ to which Garton replied naively, ‘Fancy playing where?’
It was only then that it dawned on him that the manager was referring to a League Cup tie at Old Trafford.
Still without a car at that stage, his normal route to the ground was on the No. 58 bus down Ordsall Lane to Trafford Bar. On the seat in front of him on that most memorable of days was a man reading a newspaper, which carried a back page headline that blazed ‘Billy the Kid’ in reference to his promotion. As he walked to the stadium, his boots in a plastic bag over his shoulder, he went unrecognised when crossing the forecourt and into the players’ entrance.
The outcome was exactly as required, a 4-0 victory over Burnley, and once all the commotion was over he celebrated with a pint in the Jubilee Pub on the council estate where he had been born and raised. Six weeks later he went on as a substitute for Kevin Moran against PSV Eindhoven at Old Trafford then finally got a First Division start at Filbert Street when United came away with a 3-2 victory.
Now brimming with confidence, although recording only one further first-team game that campaign, he went on to become a mainstay of the Reserves’ defence. Such was his form that he scored in each of the last three of his 29 Central League appearances.
He made further progress by performing in twelve first-team matches in the 1985/86 term. However, with McGrath and Moran the preferred partnership in the heart of the defence, Atkinson saw fit to loan him out to Birmingham City, for whom he made five league starts in a one-month stopover.
With the first-team down at the wrong end of the table and results becoming more and more critical, Atkinson favoured the experience of McGrath, Moran and, to a lesser extent, Hogg in the opening months of the 1986/87 season. That poor run led to Atkinson’s demise and new manager Alex Ferguson took over in the November. Keeping with the old guard initially, it didn’t take Ferguson long to identify some of the problems and he dropped McGrath a month later. Garton was elevated for eight consecutive league and cup fixtures from late December into early February before McGrath was reinstated.
He was present for nine senior league and cup matches through September and October 1987 until injury sidelined him once again. A few weeks later Steve Bruce joined from Norwich, a development that spelled the beginning of the end for the local lad.
He bemoaned, ‘At first I was constantly getting these hamstring problems. It would be okay for a few weeks and then it suddenly flared up. It was really frustrating as the physio couldn’t find anything wrong. I’m sure people started doubting me and thinking I was some sort of hypochondriac. I just couldn’t get fit, so in the end I saw a doctor. I was told I had a sciatic nerve problem, where there was a protrusion on one of the discs in my back. It was pressing on my nerves, causing my hamstring problems.
I had back surgery to shave my disc and was told I would make a full recovery. But I still felt terrible and discovered I had glandular fever and was out once again. After my injury and illness, Alex Ferguson brought in Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister and I knew I was never going to get back into the first-team.’
If the previous year wasn’t bad enough, his last campaign with the Reds was even worse. After trying to get fit in the summer, he made an appearance in the Reserves’ second game, a solitary goal defeat at Manchester City on the 6th September 1988. Without realising it, he had already put in his last stint for United.
‘I missed virtually the whole season and was resigned to moving on,’ he sighed. ‘There was some interest from John Bond at Birmingham where I had enjoyed a decent loan spell and Forest were also interested, but I wanted to stay local. So when (Manchester) City came in for me I agreed to join them.
I signed forms and everything, then Mel Machin phoned up and said the deal was off as I had failed the medical. In the end the doctors identified that I had ME. I had no idea.Then after being told about the illness everything fell into place about why I was struggling so much. I was gutted because I knew it was the end of my career, but I was also relieved that I had finally got to the bottom of the problem.’
Even though his condition had finally been diagnosed, Garton was depressed as he was without a job and had a young daughter to support. There was talk of a testimonial, though chairman Martin Edwards didn’t support the idea and it was left to his friends to organise something without United’s help. In the end, on a cold and rainy night, approximately 4,000 fans turned up at Salford RLFC to give him a send-off that seemed hardly appropriate.
His next move was to enrol on an F.A. coaching course which, ironically, was held at The Cliff, and he also spent hours at Manchester’s Central Library in order to research articles about his illness. He got involved in sports promotional work, and by 1992 his health had improved to such an extent that he took up the manager’s job at Salford City. When breaking the news, the local Reporter newspaper revealed that he had been attached to Doughty Rangers in the Eccles Sunday League, while a club spokesman said that with his ‘reputation and standing in the football world, we are hoping he will be able to bring players to us and generate more interest.’
‘It was a challenge being a manager but I loved it. I was playing, too, but I got sent off in my first game for fighting,’ he admitted. ‘A big crowd had come to watch as the papers had been building up the game all week. Things weren’t going well on the pitch and I was getting more wound up. Then one of their players tackled me and I took offence and threw a punch. I wasn’t fit enough to play full games and I didn’t play every week, but I was just pleased to be back in the game.’
He spent only seventeen months at Salford City before being offered better terms by Vauxhall Conference outfit Witton Albion. He told a reporter of the move, ‘If I can get through games at that sort of level I might as well be playing a higher standard of football.’ Employed on a full-time basis, in the 1993/94 term he took part in 23 matches there. The following term he was installed as player/coach at Hyde United and in almost four years at Ewen Fields he turned out in nearly 150 league and cup games.
During that period he undertook a university degree in PE and Teaching and soon began working in schools on a voluntary basis. In 1994, he was offered a teaching job at St. Vincent’s School in Altrincham and quickly worked his way up to the position of deputy head. It was then that he met his future wife, and they often travelled to the USA to visit her family. While in the States he crossed paths with Jeff Illingworth, a former PE teacher at Ordsall High School, and began helping out by coaching children.
After being out of the game for a couple of years, in 2000 he took over the reins once again at Salford City. Putting in a few more appearances for the Moor Lane side before receiving an invite to join Illingworth in California to start a ‘Soccer Club’, because his wife was entitled to a green card, they decided to emigrate there. Salford’s chairman publicly thanked him for his efforts by saying that he ‘had brought a lot of professionalism to the club.’
Today, Billy Garton runs ‘Carmel Valley Manchester Soccer’, a club that accommodates over 600 children and fields nearly 30 teams, while his wife operates a thriving dance studio.
Casting his thoughts over his time in football, he concluded, ‘I sometimes look back at my career and wish that I had done the weights and built myself up more. I was always good on the ball but I didn’t always win those physical battles. But I played for Manchester United and I will always be proud of that. I will never lose sight of where I came from, what I have worked hard to achieve, and I consider myself a lucky guy.’