Book extract: Six Foot Two Eyes of Blue: The Authorised biography of Jim Holton, by Colin Leslie
The door of the Auld Hoose bar in Hamilton swings open and in breezes former Manchester United and Scotland full-back Alex Forsyth, owner and manager here since the 1980s. On the day of our meeting he is looking fit and well – and so he should be, having only weeks before retired from the pub game, a letter from Sir Alex Ferguson among the many messages he has received from well-wishers. We are not here to talk about the end of an era, however, rather the start of one – the Tommy Doc Era.
Following the wretched 18-month reign of Frank O’Farrell at Old Trafford, Tommy Docherty was prised away from Scotland’s national team by Sir Matt Busby and appointed Manchester United’s new manager on 22 December, 1972. A frenzied month of transfer activity followed, and when the dust settled – Forsyth, Jim Holton, George Graham and Lou Macari were paraded as United’s new signings. It was no coincidence that all of these recruits were Scots.
Forsyth beckons me to follow him to the other side of the pub where a framed black and white picture of Manchester United, circa 1973, takes pride of place on the wall. “There’s me, big Jim, wee Lou, Willie Morgan, Martin Buchan,” he points out, “we had loads of Scots back then. They even used to call us MacChester United. I was one of the Doc’s first signings. He signed me, Lou Macari and George Graham all in one week and then big Jim quickly followed from Shrewsbury.”
United were in dire straits before Docherty walked through the door. A humiliating 5-0 defeat at Crystal Palace on 16 December, 1972 left United bottom of the First Division, with only five wins and 16 points from their first 22 matches. It proved to be the final straw for the club’s beleaguered board who were left with little option but to wield the axe, dismissing O’Farrell and his assistants Malcolm Musgrove and John Aston. That same day they told a disillusioned George Best, who had walked out on the club in November, that he would never play for the club again, although another “final chance” would be granted to their maverick star the following season.
Within days Docherty had been appointed. Docherty had been authorised by the Old Trafford board, headed by chairman Louis Edwards, to spend big. Sir Matt, a director and by far the biggest influence at the club, acted as a sounding board as The Doc set about approaching his targets.
“Matt ran the show,” said Docherty, “the other board members didn’t know a centre half from a mince pie.”
In the final days of 1972, Docherty swooped to sign Graham from Arsenal for £125,000 and Forsyth from Partick Thistle for £100,000. The Forsyth deal, in particular, happened at breakneck speed, the defender racing south from Glasgow to sign with 35 minutes to spare before the Scottish transfer deadline.
Drama also surrounded the capture of Lou Macari. Docherty snatched the Celtic man, literally, from under the noses of Liverpool, cosying up to him in the stand at Anfield and offering him better terms as the in-demand forward sat watching his prospective team-mates play. Afterwards, as Docherty spirited Macari away to Manchester, the pair were lucky to escape serious injury when the manager’s new Mercedes was rammed from behind by a lorry in thick fog.
Two days after the unscathed Macari signed for a club record £200,000, big Jim Holton joined the new-look United – putting pen to paper on 10 January, 1973. It is a matter of debate whether Docherty had even seen Holton in action, but he had heard glowing reports and desperately needed a dominating figure to play alongside Martin Buchan at the heart of the United defence.
When Shrewsbury put Jim Holton on the transfer list towards the end of 1972, United had quickly been alerted to his availability by Harry Gregg. Jim’s old landlady and friend from Shrewsbury, Ruth Williams, drove the Scot up to Manchester to complete the deal on the evening of Tuesday, 9 January. He was met at Old Trafford and shown round the trophy room by Pat Crerand. He was then ushered in to meet Docherty and conclude the formalities of signing for United for a fee of £80,000 – a significant outlay for a relatively unknown 21-year-old. “Within 20 minutes or so the deed was done, I’d put pen to paper,” said Jim. “I could hardly take it in. I was with a First Division club, and the way my new boss was talking I wasn’t going to have to wait to get my chance of proving myself. I was walking on air.”
As an aside, newspaper reports of Holton signing for United the following morning sat alongside another curious story – Harry Gregg had made an audacious attempt to lure George Best to Third Division Swansea on loan. It would have been quite a coup for Gregg, but while he was able to celebrate Jim’s slice of good news, he was left disappointed as Best chose to remain in self-imposed exile.
Meanwhile, Maurice Evans, who had taken over from Gregg as Shrewsbury manager, accepted that his departing defender was always destined for bigger things than the Third Division. He predicted: “Jim was over the moon about joining United and you cannot blame a player for having ambition. I’m convinced he will make his mark in First Division football. He’s got all the attributes to be a success in the top sphere. Holton looks a future Scotland centre-half to me.”
Docherty’s first four signings came swathed in tartan, although they were soon joined by Irishman Mick Martin – signed from Bohemians for £20,000 – and much was made of the influx of Scots. “I always went for good players, no matter what nationality they were,” insists Docherty. “Having been manager of the Scotland national team I’d seen a lot of Scottish players who were up and coming. When I went to Man United and saw the weaknesses that they had, I knew where to go to strengthen the club.”
Martin Buchan, who 11 months earlier had been United’s record signing when he joined the club for £120,000 from Aberdeen, agrees: “United were in need of fresh faces. I’ve always said there was a curious mix of legends – Law, Best and Charlton – and players that wouldn’t have got a game in Aberdeen reserves, and I make no apologies for saying that.”
Willie Morgan, who had been with United since the summer of 1968, had also witnessed the team disintegrate from European aristocrats under the management of Busby, to mediocre also-rans during O’Farrell’s forgettable reign. “Doc inherited a bad team, no doubt about it. I had to play through those years of decline,” says Morgan. “Doc brought a lot of Scots in, and he never stopped wheeling and dealing, but he also brought a lot of crap in at times. Bringing Jim in was a masterstroke, though. We had Third Division players in the squad but with Jim, he came from the Third Division and looked a First Division player.”
Forsyth and Graham turned out for United in a 2-1 friendly win against Hull – scorers Law and Charlton – on 30 December before making their competitive debuts in a defeat by Arsenal days before Holton and Macari were signed. United were dumped out of the FA Cup at Wolves the following week. It was a blessing in disguise as Docherty was at least allowed to devote all his attention to avoiding relegation. His spending spree had cumulatively made United the first-ever £1 million team, and much was made of this in the build-up to their clash with West Ham, which was billed as a meeting of “Princes v Paupers”.
Holton and Macari were registered in time to make their United debuts, two of an incredible eight Scots in Docherty’s starting XI that day. For the record, the line-up was: Stepney, Young, Forsyth, Law, Holton, Buchan, Morgan, MacDougall, Charlton, Macari, Graham.
“I made my debut with Jim that day and there were eight Scots in the team, something that will never ever happen again in the history of Man United,” says Macari. “I’ve got to be honest, until recently I didn’t even realise there were eight Scottish players in the team that day. I was absolutely amazed that at a club like Manchester United you could get eight Scots in the one team on any given day. Unlike nowadays where foreign players are the flavour of every season, it was Scottish players who were the big players – most clubs were keen to get them in.”
Tartan scarves were worn by some supporters at Old Trafford, a nod to the new breed of player rather than the Bay City Rollers, and even the physio Laurie Brown was a Scot. Brown, who hails from Musselburgh, laughs, “When we were getting Jim Holton from Shrewsbury, I can remember the chairman, saying to me ‘Thank goodness we’re getting a Welshman’. I had to say: ‘I’m sorry to tell you, it’s another Scot!’ People used to say to me ‘you haven’t lost your accent’, but you didn’t lose your Scottish accent if you were at Manchester United!”
The eight Scots became seven when the injury-prone Denis Law was forced to make way for a Welshman, Wyn Jones. Another law – the one of averages – suggested it would be a Scot who grabbed the headlines, and Macari marked his debut by scoring a late equaliser in an entertaining 2-2 draw with the Hammers.
Within weeks Ted MacDougall would join West Ham. He had been signed by O’Farrell for £200,000 from Bournemouth only three months earlier, but was swiftly jettisoned by Docherty. Other Scots would soon arrive though. By the end of 1974, Docherty had handed debuts to Stewart Houston, Jim McCalliog, Arthur Albiston and Martin Buchan’s brother George.
Like Macari, Jim also impressed the 50,878 crowd in his first-ever top-flight match against West Ham. He had looked raw and a tad ungainly, but his commitment was there for all to see. United had at least shown some fighting spirit, having clawed their way back from 2-0 down to earn a point, and this was reflected when the attendance leaped up by 8,000 for the midweek visit of Everton four days later.
The match at Old Trafford finished goalless and was followed by a tough assignment away to fellow strugglers Coventry, where Jim made his mark with a goal and the type of ultra-aggressive display that became his hallmark. Docherty and his team laid down a marker that day, which Jim had ably advertised. With their First Division future at stake, United were going to stand up and fight. The days of them being outmuscled or pushed around were over.
“United’s fight for their First Division lives is going to be a rugged one, and in more ways than one,” warned David Meek in the Manchester Evening News. “It’s going to upset the purists and there was much head-shaking at Coventry about the way the Reds got stuck in. But desperate situations call for desperate remedies. Manchester United are going to show their claws and reveal a mean streak that in the past has not been part of their make-up.
“The strapping Jim Holton leads the new approach. The Reds’ strong man centre-half crunched three opponents in the first quarter of an hour and then turned on his power up front to smash home a header that earned United their point in a 1-1 draw. Holton landed himself a booking but by that time he had made his presence felt.”
After the bruising scrap at Highfield Road, The Doc lavished praise on his new enforcer Holton. “I think we have got a winner, a real hard diamond,” he said. “Although he got booked at Coventry it was an honest tackle going for the ball. The Coventry fans may not have liked him, but I remember when they had George Curtis at centre-half and he ate centre-forwards for lunch! Jim Holton will get better with playing in the First Division. At present he may make mistakes because you cannot expect a 21-year-old to come suddenly into the First Division and know it all. At his present rate of progress, however, he will become one of the best in the country. In our present position we have got to play with strength and Jim Holton will help provide it. No-one will do us any favours between now and the end of the season which must be met equally hard by us.”
After only three games in a United shirt, Jim had already won the respect of his manager, supporters and some distinguished team-mates. “I had no prior knowledge of him when he came to United,” admitted Bobby Charlton, who had already announced his intention to retire at the end of the 1972-73 season. “I did not know whether he could use his head, whether he was left or right-footed, until we were thrown together on the field. Any doubts I might have had were soon dispelled in the first few games. Here was someone big and strong and a great competitor. His heading was faultless and as good as anyone’s in that position. My first impressions were certainly not misplaced.”
Willie Morgan remembers the arrival of the wide-eyed Holton well. “He was a bumpkin, in the nicest possible sense,” he says. “He was as raw as they come when he arrived from Shrewsbury. He was really eager to learn, but because we needed points, usually the best advice was: ‘Jim, just kick anything in front of you and you’ll be fine’. To be fair to Jim, he did want to play and learn, and eventually he did fantastically well, to have come from Shrewsbury and to be playing for Scotland – and not looking at all out of place – within a few months. It was an incredible achievement. Everyone wanted to help him because he did have the rawness about him. He didn’t just want to learn, he did learn, but he was the typical centre-half. He was the perfect centre half.”
Buchan and Holton seemed to be made for each other as a defensive duo, and they hit it off immediately. “Jim settled in very quickly and was accepted by all the lads and all the staff. He was just a lovely bloke,” says Buchan. “I’ll be honest, I hadn’t heard of him before he signed. In fact, Tommy Doc had barely heard of him before he signed – it was Paddy Crerand who went along to watch him. At the end of the day, he could play. You don’t worry about which club a player came from. I mean, I went to Manchester United from Scottish football. We all started somewhere, not necessarily at the top, but he settled in very quickly and became a popular member of the squad.”
Jim did not look out of place. He looked every inch a Manchester United player, and what’s more he arrived with a professional attitude – determined to keep his feet on the ground and remain the same person.
To friends and team-mates, it appeared that Holton had settled in seamlessly at his new club, but back in Shropshire Mrs Holton was getting more than a little impatient. With his focus firmly on United, Jim had overlooked the practicalities of finding them a new home so they could start living their life as a married couple again.
“Six months later I’m still in the Midlands and he’s still in Manchester,” Jan recalls. “If you can picture the situation... Jim had been married six months and then all of a sudden he’s whisked off to Manchester, placed in the Piccadilly Hotel in the middle of Manchester. He can have anything he wants, he doesn’t pay for a thing – everything’s bought, paid for, sorted. He’s picked up and dropped off for training. Basically, he slips very easily back into the bachelor life. He was 21 and all of a sudden he’s a Man U player and personally I think it did go to his head at first, he was overawed by it all. I was very much forgotten, not intentionally but more through circumstance.”
Jan took control of matters and put the couple’s house in Shrewsbury on the market so they could look for a new home in Manchester. The property sold within a week but with Jim still living in a hotel room, Jan was forced to go back and live temporarily with her parents. “I had a dog by then, a Labrador, Tanya, so we moved back to mum and dad’s and waited... and waited!
“I then got a job temping because I was getting bored doing my mum’s housework. I think I left it about six months before I cracked. To be fair, he used to phone me regularly, as good as gold, but I remember I just lost it with him.
“What finished me off was that he was chatting away one night and telling me where he’d been, and then casually he mentioned he’d been to the Playboy Club in Manchester that afternoon. I just exploded! I’m a Gemini and I have a long fuse, but when I blow, I blow! He got it both barrels and he basically got told, ‘Either you find us a house and I move up there within a month or I don’t move at all.’ So it was a threat really. It got the desired reaction because he found a semi-detached house in Urmston and I finally moved in within about six weeks.
“We loved Manchester. We loved the people. Although we were involved in football, it was the ordinary people – our neighbours and friends – that made it so wonderful. I’d come from Birmingham, then I’d got married then I’d gone to Shrewsbury where basically they rolled the pavements up at 10 o’clock at night. I was from Birmingham and was used to nightclubs, but I think they only had one in Shrewsbury. Nobody spoke to you, and if you smiled at anyone they looked at you as though you were mental.
“Nothing against Shrewsbury, but I was a city girl and used to city life. When I moved to Manchester it was like going home because they were so friendly.”
The couple settled into a new home in Whalley Avenue in Urmston and Jan immediately fell in love with the city. Being a footballer’s wife in those days was a world away from the WAG culture we are used to today, and Jan rarely went to watch Jim play, but she does recall the occasion when Bobby Charlton’s wife almost choked on her sandwich when she learned that there were women in the 1970s out earning a living.
“Jimmy Rimmer’s wife and I both had jobs and when we told her she couldn’t believe it. She looked down her nose and said ‘You’re not actually working are you? You don’t actually have a job?’ I was just a common Brummie bird and she was used to moving in different circles than us!”
•Six Foot Two Eyes of Blue is written by Colin Leslie and published by Empire Publications. £10.95