“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.
“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.”
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.”