Forgotten Heroes: Gordon Milne

Gordon Milne: A nice guy who managed to win

When Bill Shankly arrived at Anfield in December of 1959, he immediately set about the task of bringing Liverpool back to the First Division after several years down in the Second. That clearly required the recruitment of several new players, some of whom became legends over the following decade of success. Names such as Ian St. John and Ron Yeats are recognised as two of the most significant of Shankly’s signings in those early years, both of whom arrived with great fanfare and were instrumental in transforming Liverpool from Second Division also-rans to First Division Champions. But, before either of those players arrived, Bill Shankly had quietly signed a young player from Preston North End by the name of Gordon Milne. The fee was a mere £16,000 (roughly half as much as the fees for the other two players) and was one of the most astute signings of the early sixties as Bill Shankly knew exactly what value he was getting for his money.

Gordon Milne was born in Preston, Lancashire, on 29th March 1937. The world of football is a small one, and it’s perhaps not too surprising that he was already well known to many famous players during his childhood. His father Jimmy was a player with Preston North End at that time, along with a fellow Scot by the name of Bill Shankly. Bill and Jimmy played together in the 1937 FA Cup final, losing out 3-1 to Sunderland. A year later Preston returned to the final, this time without Jimmy Milne who was sidelined with an injury, and won by a single goal (a penalty in the last minute of extra time). The two Scots would later become managers of those two finalists, with Jimmy Milne taking over at Preston in 1961, and Bill Shankly at Huddersfield in 1956.

So it was that Bill Shankly had known young Gordon literally from the cradle, and had watched him grow to be a promising footballer following in his father’s footsteps as a wing half. His development as a player first took him to amateur side Morecambe, where he honed his skills, and was then signed by his father’s former club, before making the move to Liverpool. The Reds were not the only club interested in signing the promising young player, as First Division Arsenal were also making moves to lure him away from Preston. But it was Gordon’s father Jimmy’s good friend Bill Shankly who was able to persuade him to put pen to paper for Second Division Liverpool. As Gordon recalls, ‘œBill Shankly left me in no doubt that the object at Anfield was to get out of the Second Division. We just missed out in my first season, finishing third behind Ipswich and Sheffield United. But we clinched it comfortably the following season.’ In that memorable season, Gordon played in all forty two league matches, as well as all five matches in the FA Cup. The last of those FA Cup matches was a 1-0 loss in a fifth round second replay against his former club.

The 1962 Second Division Champions Medal was to be the first of many honours that he would receive, as Liverpool returned to their rightful place in the top flight and Gordon proved himself equal to the challenge that the higher level of competition provided. He was never a flashy player, and was more inclined to anticipate moves and make interceptions rather than risk a harsh tackle in order to set up an attack. Shankly’s credo of ‘œKeep it simple, but do it well’ seemed to be tailor-made for Gordon Milne as he was a reliable and precise passer of the ball, particularly when making one-two moves into the opposition penalty area. The one criticism that could be made was that he should have used that movement forward to score more than he did, but his role was more of a provider for other players to get the goals.

In his first season in the First Division with Liverpool, he played in forty one League matches, and six in the FA Cup where they reached the semi-final. The following season he was an ever-present, playing in all forty two in the League, and all five in the FA Cup. The reward for all of that hard work was a League Champions medal at the end of the season, which was Liverpool’s first since 1947.

The following season, a whole new challenge was presented to Gordon and his team-mates as the previous season’s success meant that Liverpool were now competing in Europe as well as in the League and the FA Cup. Unfortunately however, his steady run of appearances came to an end with a serious knee ligament injury suffered in the FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea. The match was played on Good Friday of 1965, but the day was anything but good for Gordon. Liverpool won the match and were on their way to Wembley, but it would have to be without Gordon who was clearly out of the line-up for the rest of the season. At least he would have had a few words of comfort from his father Jimmy over that, as he knew from his own experience in 1938 what it felt like to be kept out of the side due to injury. The image of Gordon sitting forlornly on the bench in a rain-soaked track suit, as his team mates celebrated the club’s first ever FA Cup win, is often described as the only sad moment in such a memorable day. For many it was called the club’s finest hour as they succeeded in finally lifting the trophy that had eluded them for so many years. In the dressing room after the players celebrated with sips of champagne from the cup, Gordon simply said, ‘œI’m chuffed and happy the boys won. If any team deserved to win the cup they did. It meant a lot to me that I was able to go around the ground with them and show the cup to those fabulous supporters of ours.’ Team-mate Geoff Strong then went over to Gordon and offered him his shirt saying, ‘œYou are just as entitled to it as I am.’ The reply was simply, ‘œNo Geoff, you keep it, you played in it and you’ve earned it.’

The 1964-65 season may have been over for all other clubs in England, but there was hardly any time for Reds players to rest, or to celebrate their victory, as Liverpool had to prepare for their next big match – the European Cup semi-final first leg was to be played at Anfield only five days later. This was of course another day of disappointment for Gordon who would obviously not be able to play, but that didn’t mean that he would have no part in the victory that night. As the teams were out on the pitch warming up for the match, Bill Shankly played one of his psychological tricks on Inter Milan as he sent Gordon Milne and Gerry Byrne (who had broken his collar bone at Wembley) to walk around the path beside the pitch. Between the two of them was the FA Cup, held high to show it off to the crowd, whose delirious roars of approval increased to deafening levels as they approached and then passed The Kop. The ploy worked to perfection as the Italian players were visibly shaken by the noise, and Liverpool went on to win the match 3-1. As we all know only too well, Inter won the second leg 3-0 and the first European adventure came to an end.

Gordon Milne was fully recovered for the start of the 1965-66 season, and went on to play in 28 League matches, one in the FA Cup (losing to Chelsea), and six in the European Cup Winners’ Cup. That at least allowed for an appearance in a European final, but it was a disappointing night with a 2-1 extra-time loss. The League campaign finished successfully with another Champions medal, but sadly that was to be the beginning of the end of his career at the top level. It was becoming apparent that his form had dipped following his injury, and that his previous level of play would not be regained. One disappointment seemed to lead to another, which as he explains, ‘œI not only missed out on the two biggest fixtures of that [1964-65] season but also suffered a knockback to my international career. I had played 14 times for England [in the previous eighteen months] and was hoping to play in the 1966 World Cup finals but I didn’t make it and I feel that absence through injury had something to do with that.’

In the summer of 1967, Gordon Milne left Liverpool and moved up the coast to Second Division Blackpool, and then two years later he joined Northern Premier League club Wigan Athletic as player-manager. That was to be the beginning of his lengthy managerial career, which continues to this day. His success at Wigan was noticed by the Football Association and he was subsequently appointed as manager of the England Youth team, who won the 1972 UEFA tournament by beating West Germany 2-1 in the final in Barcelona. The youth squad in those days included some future star players, such as the young Phil Thompson.

The success with the England Youth team led to an offer to become manager of Coventry City, where he spent ten years. The difficulty of success in spite of the reality of life in the less glamorous clubs can be understood when he explains, ‘œWe produced some good players but had to sell them. Yet we managed to stay in the top flight while clubs like Manchester United, Tottenham, and Newcastle went down.’ A move to Leicester City came next in 1982, who had been relegated to the Second Division the previous year. Gordon’s success at management was proven again as they immediately gained promotion at the end of his first season in charge. One of the players that Gordon recognised and signed for a bargain price was Gary McAllister from Motherwell, for a transfer fee of £100,000. In 1986, he was offered the job of managing Besiktas in Turkey, and as he says, ‘œdecided to give it a go.’ In his first season there they won the cup, and then won the championship the following season. Then came the league and cup double, followed by another championship in a season where they were unbeaten in the league. In Gordon’s last season as manager they were just short on goal difference and had to settle for second place.

Six and a half years in Turkey was followed by couple of seasons in Japan with Grampus 8 (where he was succeeded by a French manager named Arsene Wenger) before returning home to England in 1994. At the time he said that he wasn’t interested in taking on any club management position, but he did express interest in being the assistant to the Chief Executive of the League Managers Association. Before he knew it, he was appointed in the senior position, as the incumbent (Jim Smith) suddenly left to take over as manager at Derby County.

Gordon later found himself briefly back in Turkey as manager of Besiktas for a second time, where he had considerably less success than in his earlier spell due to internal politics within the organisation. He was accused in the press of taking illegal payments for signing unknown players, but not one shred of evidence could be produced to back up the allegations. John Toshack was brought in to become the new manager of the club, with Gordon supposedly on his way out. But, further problems over his contract saw him stay on in order to sort out the details in the legalities. The second stint at Besiktas was followed by a move to Newcastle United as Director of Football. During that time, England were preparing for the Euro ’04 qualifier against Turkey, and due to his obvious knowledge and experience of Turkish football, Gordon was invited to join a group of Football Association delegates who visited Turkey in advance of the match to discuss such matters as security. A couple of years later, Gordon was once again at Besiktas, this time as Director of Football.

The unheralded signing of Gordon Milne in 1960 set a pattern for the rest of his career. He was never the centre of attention as a player, and was always seen as completely unselfish on the pitch. He scored a total of 19 goals in 282 appearances for Liverpool, but created many, many more than that for his team-mates. Gordon Milne may not be considered as one of the superstars of the game, and is seldom mentioned in any surveys or polls of legends or of fan favourites. But, his contribution to Liverpool FC and their early successes under Bill Shankly cannot be underestimated. His joy of winning medals with Liverpool must be tempered with the agony of what might have been if not for his ill-timed injury. Gordon Milne is widely recognised as one of only a few genuine ‘œnice guys’ in the game, and in spite of this image he has managed to have great success in his career. Proof perhaps that nice guys don’t always finish last.

Keith Perkins

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