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).
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:
“I was in and out of the first team on a regular basis. In those days there were no substitutes, so countless Saturdays I was traveling with the first team as the 12th man, in case a player became sick.”
Substitutes weren’t introduced in the Football League until the 1965-66 season, and then, they were only permitted in case of injuries. It wasn’t until 1967-68 that substitutions were allowed for tactical reasons.
Milner remained in the reserves for most of the 1961-62 season until April of that season when he played all of the remaining eight games, deputising for Pat Saward at right-half. He was involved even less during the following season, playing just two games as a forward during 1962-63.
Despite being in his fourth year as a professional Milner had never managed to hold down a regular place in the side and eventually handed in a transfer request:
“After four years as a professional, I made a huge mistake in my life. I had become frustrated by not being a regular in the first team and requested a transfer.”
After making just 17 first team appearances in his four years at the club, Milner left Leeds Road for Lincoln City in October 1963. Of those 17 appearances, nine of them were at Leeds Road. Milner reflects:
“When I think of playing at the old Leeds Road ground it brings back memories of playing when the pitch was in a poor condition. Compared to the ground today it was dreadful. At the end of the season the only grass left on the field was in the four corners. Still, at the time, most grounds were in similar condition. It did make playing a little more difficult.”
Milner went straight into the side at Lincoln and was ever-present for the rest of the 1963-64 season, helping them to an 11th place finish in the Fourth Division. However, he didn’t enjoy his time at the club:
“I thought moving to another club would give my career a boost but the opposite happened. Signing for Lincoln City wasn’t a good move. A dreadful manager, Bill Anderson, and non-existent coaching led to the club finishing bottom of the Fourth Division. Just thinking about my experience at Lincoln makes me shiver.”
Lincoln started the 1964-65 season well, but things soon fell apart. Anderson was moved upstairs by the directors and they began to pick the team. Eventually, they appointed a new manager, former Lincoln player Con Moulson. Unfortunately, this did nothing to improve the situation. He oversaw a run of eight straight defeats before he was sacked. It was during this spell that Milner captained the side, though he seldom played under new player-coach Roy Chapman. Lincoln finished 22nd in the league and despite being in the drop zone, they were re-elected at the end of the campaign.
The 1965-66 campaign wasn’t much better for the club, but Milner did play the majority of it, missing just one game all season through illness. Despite this, he told the club he wanted to move and handed in a transfer request, expressing his wish to go and play in South Africa. Although this was granted, he remained at the club and continued to play in the side. Once again, they finished in the drop zone and had to be re-elected.
For the 1966-67 season, Milner remained at the club but became a part-timer, combining his playing with his job working for an insurance company in Huddersfield;
“After four or so years living in Lincoln, I told the club I would only continue playing for them if I could return to live in Huddersfield. I was captain of the club at the time and although the club reluctantly agreed to my move it didn’t really work.”
Milner eventually fell out of favour at Lincoln and he reiterated his desire to leave the club. His wish was finally granted and he was released in February 1967. He joined Bradford Park Avenue for the remainder of the season where he played eight games. He also had short spells at Cambridge United and Sligo Rovers, where he played for former Town teammate Ken Turner, who was managing them at the time:
“After a brief spell at Bradford—a period I can’t remember—I signed a contract to play for Boston Beacons in the North American Soccer League. The coach was Jack Mansell.”
Milner was a trailblazer in some respects. He made the move to the United States a number of years before a lot of Football League players seemed to move en masse. George Best, Alan Ball, Bobby Moore, Gordon Banks, Peter Lorimer and Roy Ellam were just some of the players who played in the North American Soccer League in the 1970s, years after Milner had already blazed a trail.
When he arrived at Boston Beacons in 1968, Milner discovered that he’d be playing with a number of international players:
“I learned that most of the players who had signed with the club were internationals. Five Danish internationals, two Irish, one Argentinian and two Jamaican. I thought I would have trouble making the team, but not only did I play every game, the players requested that I be made captain!”
In his first and only season for the club, Milner played 31 games and scored two goals, both of which came in the Beacons’ first ever home game. It was also during his time in the States that Milner played against one of the greatest players of all time—Pele:
“It was a great experience playing in the NASL. One of the highlights of that year was playing for Boston against Santos of Brazil. To play on the same field as the great Pele was a wonderful experience and the Santos team were all brilliant players.”
Milner is complimentary about the training and coaching methods he experienced in America:
“It was my first experience of good coaching and I’ve always wondered how much better my career would have been if we had the same back at Town.”
The league went through some difficulty at the end of the season, with CBS pulling their funding and a number of the teams folding:
“After the league collapsed, Jack Mansell took the manager’s job with Reading. He offered me a two-year contract with another two-year option. After much soul-searching, I decided to stay in North America and settled in Vancouver, Canada. I played as a part-time pro at Vancouver Royals with an ex-Town player, Peter Dinsdale.”
Milner remained in North America, settling in Vancouver, Canada and working in real estate. He briefly played in the NASL once again in 1974, when he turned out once for Denver Dynamos, a team managed by his former Lincoln teammate Ken Bracewell. He still lives in Canada today with his wife, Hilary.
Despite being a professional footballer for over a decade and playing with and against some of the game’s best, Milner remains humble and content:
“I’ve had a great life, played with some of the greatest players in Denis Law and Ray Wilson and played against Pele. I was only an average player, but I was good enough to be a pro for many years and get the respect from some of the best.”