Here’s Garry Birtles in action for Nottingham Forest in his second spell at the club. I don’t know who that Brighton player is!
The bearded striker first came to the attention of Forest assistant manager Peter Taylor in September 1976, according to the book ‘With Clough By Taylor’:
A friend rang from Burton, saying. ‘There’s a lad from Long Eaton who is going to Manchester United.’ I was thunderstruck: I expect that sort of information from my staff. I phoned my scout for the area who said: ‘Oh, Birtles. Used to be at Clifton as a amateur. Can’t play.’ I fumed, ‘Whether he can play or not, if he goes to Old Trafford and signs, you’ll get the sack.’ Then I phoned back to my contact in Burton and asked him to watch Birtles, who was there that afternoon with Long Eaton. He rang in the evening. The United business is a bum steer. No-one’s in for him but I think the boy has got something; he’s no mug.’
After a month’s trial, Birtles eventually signed for Forest from Gerry Fell’s old club Long Eaton in a £2,000 deal. After a slow start, he eventually forced his way into the first team following Peter Withe’s departure. Memorably, the striker scored the first and created the second in a famous 2-0 victory over holders Liverpool in the European Cup in 1978.
Three months later, Garry tucked home Forest’s third goal against Brighton in a 3-1 victory in the League Cup, after Graham Moseley failed to hold onto Frank Clark’s shot.
Such was Birtles’ progress that forced his way into the England team, making his debut against Australia on 13th May 1980 against Australia – Peter Ward making his international debut against the same opposition later that month.
Such was Birtles’ progress that forced his way into the England team, making his debut against Australia on 13th May 1980 against Australia, just two weeks before Peter Ward’s only full England appearance.
On 22nd October 1980, Clough sold Birtles in a £1.25 million deal to ex-Brighton player Dave Sexton, then boss of Manchester United. It was a fee considerably higher than if he had signed from Long Eaton all those years before. The deal was part of a famous ‘triangular’ transfer that saw Peter Ward join Forest from Brighton for £450,000, and Andy Ritchie arrive at the Goldstone from Manchester United in a £500,000 deal.
All three attackers struggled at their new clubs. Ritchie battled to win over Seagulls’ fans’ disappointment at the departure of Peter Ward. However, Ritchie’s rich vein of form in 1981/82 was such that he was voted Rediffusion’s Albion Player of the Year. Birtles went through a barren spell when he just could not score. It took until the FA Cup 3rd Round Replay against Brighton at the Goldstone Ground in January 1981 for him to register his first goal for the Red Devils:
Brighton also proved lucky for him the following 1981/82 season, and Birtles shook off his Old Trafford despondency to score for Manchester United in a 2-0 victory over the Seagulls in November, with future Albion centre-forward Frank Stapleton the other scorer:
However, Birtles never truly established himself as a Manchester United player, despite being given a fair chance by new boss Ron Atkinson
In 1982/83, the Nottingham-born striker found his way back to the City Ground at a fraction of the original fee. Another misfit, Peter Ward, also returned to Brighton on loan. As for Ritchie, he finished the season back up north, at Leeds United in a straight swop for Terry Connor. He eventually returned to Old Trafford, in a way, when his newly promoted Oldham Athletic side played Manchester United in August 1991.