Alex Mills Sunday Life Memory Lane article with John Garrett

Posted : 15th December 2018

The following excellent article by the leading local sports journalist Alex Mills was published in a recent issue of Sunday Life and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the writer and the newspaper.


Having been told he was past his best at only 26 years of age, jovial John Garrett bears no grudges!

The Ballymena man was in his 11th season at Windsor Park when he was surprisingly shown the door.

It was Linfield manager Roy Coyle who delivered the telling blow – a nightmare scenario for any young footballer. However, John didn’t take issue with his gaffer ... there were no raised voices or tantrums. Instead, he agreed with him!

“I left the Blues in 1986 when Coyler decided I was past my best – and he was right,” admits John. “Although I was a full-back, my game was about going forward ... I liked to bomb up and down the wing. It was a game against Coleraine, a Gold Cup semi-final, that highlighted my game had changed.

“Coyler had given me orders to sort out Felix Healy. And, although he flattened me with his arm the first time we clashed, I hit him a few times after that, which duly led to him being dismissed as he lost it a bit.

“In fact, Coleraine had two other players sent off for horrible tackles on me before Dessie Edgar came in with a kung-fu style challenge, hitting me around the chest. I told referee Alan Snoddy it was the worst of the lot.

“He asked ‘what do you want me to do? There are 10 minutes left, you are winning 4-1, if I send him of, I’ll have to abandon the game’. I told Alan to forget about it and get on with it.

“The next night in training, Coyle asked how I rated my performance. I told him I did what he wanted, I stopped Healy from playing. He responded by saying they had eight men on the pitch and asked how many times did I go forward? He was right. I’d stopped doing what I was good at and erased the strongest part of my game.

“That was my final year at the club. I was told unofficially by a club director, who was also a good friend, that the manager would be releasing me at the end of the season.”

In many ways, it was a sad way to end a glorious spell . . . John, nicknamed Schuggie by his team because of his strong Ballymena accent, had won four league titles and enjoyed two Irish Cup success – he also has numerous other medals.

He joined the Blues in Billy Campbell’s final six months at the club, in 1975.

“When I first moved to Linfield, I was 15 and played in the Rangers team,” recalls John. “After about a season and a half, I thought I wasn’t going anywhere, so decided to approach the manager in terms of getting my release. I walked into Roy Coyle’s office and he was sitting with David Crawford, Larry Warke, George Best and a few other directors.

“I thought to myself, ‘what’s going on here?’ They talked me out of asking for a move, telling me they think I can make it at the club. I must say, I walked out of the room 10 foot tall. I only played about 30 games in the Swifts when I was called into the first team.

“The team was in transition and, to be honest, having lost to Carrick Rangers and Coleraine in successive Irish Cup finals, Coyle was on his last legs. I wasn’t involved in the 1976 defeat by Carrick. I played for the Swifts that morning and had no transport, so I went on home.

“Then, 12 months later, I sustained an injury leading up to the Coleraine game and shouldn’t have played – they beat us 4-1. I think most people were waiting on the axe to fall on Coyle, but we beat Glentoran in the final of the County Antrim Shield in the final game of the season – that earned him a reprieve.

“Things just took off after that. Wee Jimmy Martin arrived to form a great partnership up front with big Billy Hamilton. The following season, we were one point behind the Glens on Boxing Day and we had to travel across town to face them.

“They were 2-0 up at half-time, but wee Jimmy scored a hat-trick in the second half – we beat them 3-2. It didn’t win us the league, but it gave us the platform to go on and win it. We ended up winning the double.”

John believes the secret behind that successful period at the club was the manager bringing in the right players at the right time.

He added:” “Coyler didn’t have to spend big money. He would have signed boys coming home from England, like Lindsay McKeown, Roy Walsh. And, there were lads promoted from within the club ... the likes of Terry Hayes, myself, Billy Hamilton, Noel Mawhinney, Lee Doherty, Noel Bailie. We had the basis of the same team nearly the whole way through.

“I’m regularly asked who was the best player I played with. I always liked a good spine to the team. We had George Dunlop (in goals), Peter Rafferty (centre-back), Peter Dornan (midfield) and Martin McGaughey up front.

“How do you pick one of those? But to me the most difficult thing in football was putting the ball in the net and Martin was the master of that.”

John got the chance to sample full time training when he was 18, invited to trial with Sheffield United. He really didn’t couldn’t have written the script. Being a self-confessed Rangers fanatic, he had to room with Celtic legend Jimmy Johnstone.

“What a character,” gushed John. “He had just left Celtic and he was on the bevvy most of the time.

“He used to take me out with him at night. ‘Right, Big Yin’, we’re going for a drink’, he would say to me. He would get me into the night clubs – he was mad.

“Bouncers would try to block me getting in as I was young, but Jimmy would say, ‘it’s ok, the Big Yin’s with me’.”

John, however, always knew he would never make it on the full-time circuit because of a hereditary eye cataract problem.

“My eyes were always bad,” adds John, who had to wear contact lenses in his playing days. “I found it difficult playing under floodlights. I knew I wasn’t good enough as a player, but my eyes were always going to be a problem as well.”

When he eventually walked out of Windsor Park for the last time, John was not short of offers.

“It was gut-wrenching for me leaving Linfield, especially at such a young age as I still had a lot to offer, but there was only one team I was signing for – my home town club, Ballymena United.

“Alan Campbell had tried to sign me on a couple of previous occasions. In fact, Carrick Rangers offered me four times what Ballymena had on the table when I eventually did move.

“I played for two months before I damaged my knee. They (medical people) didn’t know what it was, I still think it was a cruciate problem. So, I decided to pack it in – I was still only 26.

“When our boss Jimmy Brown got the sack, Alex McKee took over. He asked me to be his assistant.

“I began joining in training and played one game for the reserves. I went straight into the first team – and was there for the next four years, without missing a game.

“Jim Hagan had arrived as boss. In my first league game the following season, I injured my knee against Coleraine. This time my cruciate had snapped. To be honest, I think it had gone the first time. I had an operation, but it wasn’t a success. This time I had to admit defeat and hung up the boots at 32.”

Did you know?

John was one of the youngest players – or possibly even the youngest – to have been granted a testimonial season by Linfield at the age of 24, having spent eight years at Windsor Park. Because there were so many long-serving players eligible, the criteria for a testimonial was later extended to 10 years.

When Linfield won the league and cup double in the 1977-78 season, John was a prominent member of the team. At only 18 years of age, again he is one of the youngest Linfield players ever to be a double winner.

John is still held in high esteem by Linfield fans. He currently vice-president of the Roden and Raven Linfield Supporters’ clubs respectively. He is also vice-president of the Ballymena United Youth Academy.

On May 6, 1989, John picked up his third Irish Cup winners’ medal following a 1-0 over Larne at the Oval. Paul Hardy grabbed the winning goal. And, the irony is, the Sky Blues beat Linfield in the semi-final.

Being a season ticket holder at Rangers, John travels over to Ibrox around 10 times a season.
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