Ray Baartz. United's first Aussie experience
As we prepare for the arrival of the modern-day phenomenon that is Manchester United, let's turn back the clock to Australia's first connection to what is now the richest and most famous club in the world.
Quick quiz. First non-British player to sign for Manchester United?
Brazilian? German? Italian? Argentinian?
Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.
Ray Baartz. Australian-born and bred. A little known piece of Old Trafford history, although the Manchester United match program did make it front page news on January 22, 1966. There he is, a baby-faced Baartz, being hailed for his achievements with the reserves after signing professional forms nine months earlier. Described as ''a strong, forceful type of player, he has settled in well into our English style of football'', Baartz is smiling in the photograph, but the truth is, all is not well. He wants to go home. Within months he is back in Newcastle, having turned his back on the Red Devils. Regrets?
''None whatsoever,'' he says.
As we prepare for the arrival of the modern-day phenomenon that is Manchester United, let's turn back the clock to Australia's first connection to what is now the richest and most famous club in the world. They weren't then, although they were on the way.
In the 1960s, this was a club in the rebuilding phase after the tragedy of the 1958 Munich air disaster robbed the team, the club, and the game, of a golden generation of talent, most notably the precocious Duncan Edwards. Eight players perished in the snow, but manager Matt Busby survived to lead the revival. By the time the 1964/65 season began, the Red Devils were back as serious title contenders, boosted by the big-money arrivals of Pat Crerand and Denis Law.
On the other side of the world, Adamstown Rosebuds coach Brian Daykin - and ex-professional with Derby County - had arranged a scheme to send the club's two best youngsters to Old Trafford on a three-month training scholarship. Baartz and teammate Doug Forsythe were to pioneer the program. Baartz was just 17.
''The whole idea was to get a taste of professional football through training, it was never meant to be a trial, and I had no doubt that after three months I'd be coming home,'' he recalls.
Baartz and Forsythe flew into Manchester to be greeted by an apprentice, Irishman Frank McEwen. They were then taken to Old Trafford to meet Busby. ''Basically, he knew nothing about it,'' says Baartz. ''After we told him why we were there, he said 'ok how long are you staying'. Then he asked us where we were staying. We had no idea. So he arranged digs, and then said the club would give us two pounds a week pocket money.'' It wasn't an auspicious start.
Baartz surprised himself, however. After three months, Forsythe was sent home. Baartz, however, was making meteoric progress, and after just 11 games in the under-18s he was thrust into the reserves, making his debut against Preston North End. In a reserves team boasting the likes of John Aston, Jimmy Rimmer, Brian Noble, Noel Cantwell, Brian Kidd and David Sadler, this was no mean feat. Word was getting around, and before the end of his first season, he was offered a professional contract.
Most players would have been overjoyed. But for Baartz, there was nagging uncertainty. He didn't know whether he really wanted to be there. He'd lost his father as a youngster, and he was missing his family, and his friends. Even though his wages had gone up to 12 pounds a week, that off-season he couldn't afford to fly back to Australia. Forsythe was gone, and he was a long, long, way from home.
''Manchester still seemed to have a lot of damage left from the war, and it was a pretty depressing place,'' recalls Baartz. ''I was just hanging around for weeks, basically on my own. The only way I could contact Mum was by letter. It was a pretty lonely existence.''
Baartz managed to stay the distance, and on the surface his career was on an upward trajectory heading into the 1965-66 season. Scoring two goals for the club against an England FA X1 which included Bobby Charlton and Bobby Moore underlined his potential, although first team football still seemed no closer - not least because of the emergence of a skinny kid from Belfast, George Best. Nonetheless time was still on Baartz's side. Theoretically, at least.
The arrival of childhood mate Col 'Bunny' Curran a few months into the season should have helped, but didn't. ''Bunny was as homesick as I was, and eventually he left after just a few months,'' says Baartz. It was time to see the manager.
''I went to see Matt Busby and told him what I was thinking,'' Baartz says. ''He turned around and said: ''Son, no one leaves Manchester United. Give it another month.''
But - speaking to the Sons of United website recently - Baartz exposed his true feelings. ''I was playing with a real lack of confidence and I was happy to just go with the flow, even if it meant getting a bollocking from Jimmy Murphy (reserves manager). I was very shy and had never had any real coaching. Most of the lads were taught to play with a certain arrogance and I had never experienced that sort of professionalism. I didn't think I could crack it. The weather was terrible, and I missed all the colours of the Hunter Valley. It was a real contrast to the lifestyle I had in Australia.''
When Baartz returned to see Busby, he barely had to open his mouth. ''He said 'you haven't changed your mind, have you? That's when he wished me good luck.'' So that was that.
Well, almost. As fate would have it, a year later Manchester United toured Australia for the first time, and Baartz lined up against his old club for NSW at the Sydney Sports Ground. After an influential performance in a 3-1 defeat, Baartz was approached by Busby to return to Old Trafford. Later the manager told the press: ''You saw how Ray Baartz played, so now you know why we wanted to keep him.''
It's history that Baartz went on to star with the Socceroos before his career was cruelly cut short by injury at the age of 27, but he'd done enough for former Socceroos coach Rale Rasic to describe him as the best striker we've ever had. And while his time at Old Trafford was short, it was also sweet. Baartz keeps in touch with McEwen - who spent the bulk of his career with Shamrock Rovers - to this day, while for many years he was also regular contact with Aston.
There are also the memories of going ten-pin bowling with a baby-faced Best (''he never touched a drink, so for him to end up the way he did was a big shock to me''), and being taken under the wing of Charlton - subsequently returning the favour when the Red Devils legend came to Australia to make a guest appearance for Newcastle KB United in 1978.
''When I went over there all I cared about was not making a fool of myself,'' he says. ''The way things turned out, I often wonder what might have happened if I'd stayed. But there's no regrets. Absolutely none. It just never felt right for me.''