An Interview with Huddersfield Boy and Global Journeyman John Milner

As part of the HTSA Heritage Project, author Lee Morris interviewed John Milner, whose career started at Leeds Road under Bill Shankly and ended in North America (via an encounter with Pele).

Front cover from a Huddersfield Town matchday programme (Saturday, 19th November, 1960 v Scunthorpe United). Copyright resides with Huddersfield Town. Image reproduced for the Huddersfield Town Heritage Project.
Front cover from a Huddersfield Town matchday programme (Saturday, 19th November, 1960 v Scunthorpe United). Copyright resides with Huddersfield Town. Image reproduced for the Huddersfield Town Heritage Project.

It was way back in 1934 when Huddersfield Town’s third team began to play matches at Beck Lane in Heckmondwike. It had played host to Town’s first ever FA Cup game in 1909 but it became the venue for Town’s third team games when the club began to rent it in 1934. It later became the home of the junior side. The club eventually bought it in 1951, adding new dressing rooms and even installing floodlights in 1954. This was quite something as Leeds Road didn’t get floodlights until 1961.

The floodlights at Leeds Road were funded by the sale of Denis Law in 1960. Law himself had played many a game at Beck Lane. He wasn’t alone, either, as many of the young players who broke into the first team over the years had made their debuts there, including Ray Wilson, Les Massie, and Steve Smith.

And it was in Heckmondwike that local lad John Milner first appeared in a Town shirt, when he had a trial in 1958 at the age of 15:

My career with Town began with a trial at Beck Lane training ground. I can remember it was a rainy evening on a muddy field but Eddie Boot, who was assistant manager/coach at the time, saw a youngster with promise.”

Milner clearly impressed: “I was invited to join the club on the ground staff, which I did.”

In 1958, the young players had a very different start in football compared to those in 2021:

“When you were on the ground staff, you trained with the professionals and then did a little work around the stadium in the afternoon.”

At the time, Town’s manager was Bill Shankly, who had been in the post since 1956 after initially joining the club in 1955 as assistant manager to Andy Beattie. When Beattie resigned, Shankly stepped in. The canny Scot had overseen two Second Division mid-table finishes by the time Milner had arrived at the club.

After a spell on the ground staff, the time came for Milner to become a professional at Leeds Road in early 1959. Milner recalls:

I reached the age of 17 and Bill Shankly called me into the office to offer me terms to sign professional. By this time I was a regular member of the reserve team.”

Milner speaks fondly of his time as a young player at Leeds Road, and in particular, of Mr. Shankly:

My warmest memories are in my ground staff days under Bill Shankly. In the afternoons, Bill would leave his office and organise a three-a-side scrimmage between the turnstiles and the main stand. He was always trying to organise a game, Scotland against England. Denis Law, Gordon Low and Bill were the Scots, Stewart Holden and myself represented England.”

Stories of Shankly’s kindness are plentiful in the world of football and Milner’s experience of the man is no different:

“If there was a mid-week game in Blackpool, Bolton or Manchester, Bill always invited me to join him. He was a great man and deserved all the success he got at Liverpool.”

Although he’d signed professional earlier in the year, Milner didn’t make any first team appearances in 1959, instead remaining a regular in the reserve side. He never played a first team game for Shankly. The Scot departed the club in December 1959.

The events are now well known, but Shankly had wanted the Town board to sanction the signings of Ron Yeats and Ian St. John. A vote was taken and Shankly lost, with the chairman having cast the deciding vote. Days later, Shankly left the club to become manager of Liverpool.

Ironically, Shankly’s last game had been a 1-0 win over Liverpool at Leeds Road. At the time of his departure, Town sat in 5th place and Eddie Boot took over as manager on a caretaker basis. Milner recounts this period:

“Eddie Boot took over as manager. He had been a very good player with Town, but I don’t think he was cut out to be a manager. Eddie was a quiet, unassuming man, but he didn’t get the respect he deserved from the senior players. Maybe it was down to the contrast between him and Shankly.”

Boot took charge of nine games before being appointed as the permanent successor to Shankly. He eventually steered Town to a 6th place finish, just three points away from Shankly’s Liverpool in 3rd.

Meanwhile, Milner had still not made his first team debut and it wasn’t until September 17th, 1960 that he was picked, with his debut coming in a 2-1 away victory at Sunderland’s Roker Park. This was only Town’s third victory of the campaign.

Defender Peter Dinsdale had been playing out of position at outside-left before Milner came into the team to fill in. He remained in the side for the following game, a 5-1 loss against Plymouth Argyle at Leeds Road.

Milner was replaced at outside-left for the following game by John McCann and he would have to wait until October 29th for his next appearance, a 2-1 win over Bristol Rovers, where he played at outside-right in the absence of Kevin McHale. He remained in the side for the next two games, two home losses against Derby County and Scunthorpe United before McHale returned to the fray.

Two more appearances followed that season against Brighton & Hove Albion (home) and Luton Town (away) where he played as a forward.

Sadly, Milner was very much a victim of the times: