Billy Garton – The Salford Lad
Billy Garton only played 51 first team games for United in his six years as a professional at Old Trafford between 1983 and 1989, yet he’s included at the expense of more decorated red shirted heroes because he was a local boy whose life story is perhaps the most engaging of all his peers.
“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.”
“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.