Everyone has their favourite player. Many make their preference known by forking out a few extra pounds when purchasing a replica shirt and having the name of that particular individual emblazoned across the back.
If replica shirts were part of a supporters match day attire back in the early seventies, rather than tartan scarves and a number of similar items dangling from both wrists, then the club shop would have to have stocked up on five letters more than any others, as the name of one player would have been on prominent display across the back of those shirts. The white letters standing out above the number five, spelling out the name – HOLTON.
Jim Holton was not “six foot two”, nor did he have “eyes of blue” as the legendary terrace anthem proclaimed, but nevertheless, his presence at the heart of the Manchester United defence did strike fear into the heart of the opposition forwards who knew that their Saturday afternoon was not going to be an easy one. It also lifted the Old Trafford faithful, as they knew with ‘Big Jim’ in the line-up, the Scot would give his all in the attempt to secure victory for United.
Upon his appointment as manager of Manchester United, Tommy Docherty was determined to rebuild the ailing team and to do so as quickly as possible and he seemed to keep a cheque book lying constantly open on his desk.
With January 1973 only ten days old, he was scribbling out yet another, paying Shrewsbury Town £80,000 for an unknown twenty-one year old. The youngster was not to remain unknown for long, as within a few weeks, Jim Holton was the new terrace hero of Old Trafford.
Although born in Lesmahagow, just south of Glasgow, Holton like George Graham, another early Docherty signing, played all his football in England, having failed to make any impression whilst on Celtic’s ground staff.
Rejected at Parkhead, the sixteen year old headed south to West Bromwich Albion for trials, determined to make the grade as a professional footballer. His displays in the Midlands must have been considered more impressive than they had been in the east-end of Glasgow and he was signed as an amateur in December 1967, winning his sought after professional contract four months later.
Holton was to make steady progress over the following three years, moving through the junior and youth teams, but somehow failing to make it beyond the Central League side. Eventually, at the end of season 1970-71, he was given a free transfer.
Uncertain about his future, he was soon offered terms by former United goalkeeper Harry Gregg, now manager of Shrewsbury Town, who had watched him in Albion reserve team games and it wasn’t long before he was a regular in the first team, after making his debut at Bournemouth on the opening day of season 1971-72.
Gregg had told the rugged youngster upon signing, “You’re going to make it. I’m sure you can make it right to the top too” and to this day the legendary United goalkeeper still speaks fondly of “the lovely, lovely lad”.
A letter from Shrewsbury to the SFA offices in Park Gardens, Glasgow, alerted new Scotland manager Tommy Docherty to the promising youngster in the heart of the Shrewsbury defence, pushing him forward as a possible candidate for the national under 21 side. A visit by Docherty to Gay Meadow, confirmed the contents of the letter and the name of Holton was pencilled into the Scotland managers notebook.
Upon taking over at Old Trafford, ‘the Doc’, remembering the talented Holton’s performances, sent Pat Crerand to run his eye over the youngster and upon his return to Manchester, the assistant manager confirmed everyone’s opinion that the player could do a commendable job for Manchester United.
So, after only sixty-seven appearances for Shrewsbury, Jim Holton made the big step up from the Third Division to the First, determined to make the most of his opportunity.
On January 20th, he made his United debut against West Ham United, taking over the number five shirt from David Sadler and two months later was pulling on the dark blue of Scotland as he made his debut at under 23 level against Wales. Another two months down the line, he was making his full international debut, again against Wales.
Jim Holton’s career in the dark blue of Scotland ran on a parallel to that in the red of Manchester United and he was one of the successes in the 1974 World Cup in West Germany, after scoring one of the goals in the deciding qualifying tie against Czechoslovakia at Hampden.
Few players can have made the same impact on the Old Trafford crowd in such a short space of time as this big fellow. His physical appearance and determination, along with his ‘take no prisoners’ attitude made him a firm favourite and the terraces were soon vibrating to the sound of “Six foot two, eyes of blue, big Jim Holton’s after you”. The the last statement was in fact, the only one that was true.
The physical nature of his play and at times over exuberance saw him fall foul of referees and he was sent off twice in his first nine games for United. Firstly in a friendly against F. C. Porto and in the League against Newcastle United. To many outside Old Trafford, he was considered a dirty player, an opinion that was strongly rebuffed by Holton himself.
“I was pretty raw when I joined United”, he was to explain, “and I was pitched right in at the deep end. Every match was a battle and we were fighting for our lives. It was for those reasons that I got the reputation of being a dirty player. That’s something that I have never been. I’m a big fella and I play the game with total commitment. I play hard, but I am not dirty.”
Perhaps it was more than a little coincidence that United won only one of the eight fixtures that he missed during the relegation season of 1973-74 and it came as no surprise when he was voted the supporters Player of the Year. He was also awarded the Scottish Football Writers Player of the Year award, the first Anglo-Scot to do so.
In the Second Division, Holton’s presence was going to play a major part in Docherty’s plans for an instant return to the big-time, but a broken leg in the 4-4 draw at Sheffield Wednesday on December 7th 1974 brought a premature end to the big man’s season.
In reality, it also brought an end to his Manchester United career.
He returned to the first team during the close season tour of 1975, but a knee injury during the warm-up of the pre-season friendly against Red Star Belgrade, in August of that year set him back again. Upon returning to fitness, he was to suffer a second broken leg, against Bury, in what was only his second reserve match of his comeback.
By now, Brian Greenhoff had taken over the number five shirt, with Colin Waldron signed as cover, Jim Holton was out in the cold.
During the summer of 1976, he went to the United States, to play for Miami Torros and upon his return joined Sunderland in September of that year, initially on a one month’s loan deal, before signing a permanent contract on a £40,000 move.
On Wearside, he only managed fifteen appearances in five months and in March 1977, he joined Coventry City in another £40,000 deal, where his career enjoyed something of a re-birth, playing in some ninety-one games, over a three year spell. A return to the States in the summer of 1980 with Detroit Express, was sandwiched in between.
In May 1981, he signed for Sheffield Wednesday, but persistent injury problems saw him fail to make any first team appearances with the Owls and he decided to retire in the summer of 1982.
Upon retiring, he returned to Coventry, taking over a public house, which became a regular haunt for visiting United supporters. Sadly, his life, like his United career was to be brief, as he died from a heart attack at the age of 43, in October 1993, whilst at the wheel of his car as he returned from a keep fit session.
In the modern game Jim Holton would have reached legendary status and indeed holds such a position in the hearts of supporters of a certain age. In all probability, his red and yellow card record would have made Paul Scholes look like a choir-boy by comparison, but no matter what, he was a player who wore his heart on his sleeve and was a great lad to speak to.
A truly memorable figure in United’s history.
Iain had written many great books on United, including Manchester United: Rising from the Wreckage 1958-68 available on Kindle and as a hard back. Follow Iain McCartney on Twitter.