'˜Joining Man Utd was probably one of the worst decisions of my life'
Former Nottingham Forest star Garry Birtles gave a revealing insight into his successful career when he appeared at Long Eaton United FC recently.
The former Forest and Man United forward shared his story as part of the club’s extended 60th anniversary celebrations.
Perhaps one of his finest achievements came in 1979, when in front of almost 100,000 he bagged a brace for Forest against Southampton to win the League Cup.
In the same year - earning a reputation as one of the continent’s fiercest strikers – he was voted European Young Player of the Year, Forest’s Player of the Year and scored vital goals as the club conquered Europe for the first time in its history.
And at Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu Stadium, he led the line as Brian Clough’s ‘Miracle Men’ secured back-to-back European victories the following year.
And upon returning ‘home’ to Notts, the 60-year-old traced his history back to the area.
“My career started with Attenborough Colts, just down the road,” says Birtles. “I played for them and got signed on schoolboy forms by Aston Villa when I was about 12.
“Like every kid in the country you want to play football, that’s all I wanted to do.
“My mum and dad let me go for a month’s trial at Aston Villa, I missed my GCEs, and didn’t get taken on.
“I had to come back to Chilwell and go to the Beeston job centre and there I found a job to be a carpet fitter.
“I thought my chance in football had gone and so I worked on building sites laying floors in the middle of winter.”
Playing for Clifton All Whites in his spare time, Birtles transferred to Long Eaton United along with John Raynor for the 1975-76 season when the Clifton chairman made the switch to the Blues.
“John Raynor was great for me. He got my interest back in the game and he bought my here when I was about 19, when I went from being a left winger to a centre forward playing with Stevey Holder and Kevin Flynn. It was Long Eaton United that changed the perspective of my career.
“Brian Clough had heard about this lad from Long Eaton who was supposedly doing quite well and came to watch us in an FA Cup qualifier against Enderby Town.
“Someone came straight through me, broke my shin pad and I got carried off. I came back on and that’s when Cloughie said the half-time OXO was better than my performance, which it probably was at that point, but he gave me an opportunity with a month’s trial.”
Impressing on trial, Birtles made the “no-brainer” and bid farewell to the Blues and laying floors for a living to sign a £60 a week contract with Forest – the same wage he earnt as a tradesman – in 1976.
The following March Birtles made his debut but the game was memorable for all the wrong reasons.
“It was against Hull City, I played in midfield and had an absolute nightmare.
“When I came off Cloughie said ‘son, if I ever play you in midfield again, give me a shotgun and I’ll shoot myself’ because my performance was that bad.
“That was the one appearance I made in midfield, I never played in that position again.”
A spell on the side-lines followed, largely restricted to playing for the reserves on Saturday mornings, until an opportunity opened in September 1978.
Journeyman striker Peter Withe had been sold to Newcastle United after helping Forest to the First Division title and his replacement, Steve Elliott, failed to fill his boots.
Up stepped Birtles who faced Arsenal – a game they won 2-0 – and then Liverpool in the European Cup, where he scored his first goal.
“Liverpool were the defending champions and we were massive underdogs,” said Birtles.
“The night before I couldn’t sleep. The lager really did help and that’s no word of a lie. I remember I had two or three pints, got a few hours’ sleep then got on the pitch.
“We were the only team who got fined if we didn’t go out on a Friday night, it was one of those things you did in those days. We would have won four European Cups if we hadn’t been drinking I tell you.
“I scored against Liverpool too. Tony Woodcock did all the hard work, I just did the tap in at the Trent End but to score in front of the Trent End was absolutely fantastic.
“All Cloughie said to me before the game was ‘Son, get in the box’ and that just stuck in my mind.
“I used to go to the children’s pen in the Trent End with my dad as a kid. So for my dad to be there to watch that game against Liverpool was special.”
Earning a place in the starting 11, Birtles – who shirks from his goal scoring exploits, praising the team instead – scored 25 goals in all competitions in his first season, the crowning glory of his achievements being a night in Munich against Malmo FF in 1979.
“To get your mates and your family across there watching you win the European Cup, it’s got to be the proudest moment of your life when you’ve been a floor layer from a council estate, what more can you say.”
A second European title came the year after but the team didn’t celebrate in typical style.
“You win a European Cup and you think ‘right, massive celebration time here’.
“We stayed in a hotel an hour from Madrid, the worst hotel you will ever see in your life, it was like the Adams’ family country retreat.
“When we won the cup we all had to go back there. All the wives and girlfriends and family were having a party in a swish hotel but we had to go all the way back to this hotel.
“We weren’t allowed a party afterwards, apart from five of the lads who jumped out the window and got a taxi back into Madrid: Robertson, Lloyd, Burns, Needham and Anderson, the rest of us stayed there and played Connect Four.
“We were still up having a drink and playing Connect Four at about five o’clock in the morning when Peter Taylor had come down.
“All of sudden the lads had come back and Pete came in and thought they’d been playing Connect 4 all night but they were absolutely smashed. They got found out in the end.
“I was knackered, I couldn’t walk, but fair play to them.”
England call-ups followed versus Argentina, Romania and Italy, and Birtles would make the move to Manchester United, the club of his childhood idol George Best.
“It was probably one of the worst decisions I’ve ever made in my life.
“I got a really bad injury, a stress fracture of the pubic bone, and I couldn’t do anything. I wasn’t even allowed to drive, all I could do was walk.
“They said I didn’t score for about 40 odd games but the fact was I was out and then I had to do a pre-season and get myself fit again. It just didn’t work for me.
“In 1982 John Lennon got assassinated and the joke was that if I’d have shot him he’d still be alive today. The Iranian hostages, the first thing they asked when they came out was ‘has Birtles scored yet?’ Those were the jokes going round.
“I scored my first league goal against Swansea at Old Trafford and you’d think we’d won the European Cup, the League Cup and the league because the sound was just unbelievable, it was one of the best goals I’ve scored as well.”
Away from football Birtles would regularly make the 90 mile journey to the Cadland, Beeston, for Sunday lunch and jumped at the chance for a return to Forest when he heard Brian Clough was interested, taking a 50 percent pay cut in the process after two seasons at United.
From the City Ground he later moved across the River Trent to rivals Notts County and then to Grimsby Town before announcing his retirement after 16 years in the professional game.
“I retired in 1992 at 36, which wasn’t bad for a footballer in those days, and went on the dole which was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.
“I’ve always worked and I thought I’d get a job in football but when I finished nothing was forthcoming, the phone stopped ringing.
“I’d go to pick up my dole money at a post office in West Hallam with a cap on because I was so ashamed.
“It was one of the worst things that has ever happened in my life because you’ve always worked and you want to work. It is an eye-opener to say the least and I was lucky to get into radio and television which saved me.”
Now a football pundit, Birtles – who lives minutes from Grange Park on Nottingham Road – remains proud of his roots.
“A lad from a council estate in Chilwell. That’s where I was born and bred and I’m proud of it.”