‘I was Bestie’s unofficial minder on his whirlwind trip to Oz. He was paid £30,000, but by the time he flew home, he’d blown the lot’
Aussie exiled Linfield legend Billy Millen reveals he longs to see his goals from the Blues’ famous European win over Man City, why he moved his family away from NI and crazy times with pal George.
He is fondly remembered as one of the great characters of his Irish League generation and an absolute Linfield legend. As a flamboyant, long-haired striker, Billy Millen terrorised defences and scored goals for fun as the Swinging Sixties gave way to the troubled Seventies and a too close for comfort brush with a Belfast bombing incident that forced him to seek a new life for his young family, first in South Africa and then Australia.
Down Under, he continued to live as he played, hard and fast. Married three times, he once accompanied George Best on a £30,000 six-week spending spree.
Now aged 68, and enjoying his retirement under the Australian sun, he has but one regret from a life well lived.
Forty-eight years after the event, he has yet to relive his two most famous goals in Irish League football history.
September 30, 1970. Linfield 2 Manchester City 1 in the old European Cup Winners’ Cup in front of 25,000 at Windsor Park remains one of the most talked about and remarkable results by an Irish League side in Europe, Linfield’s part-timers overcoming a star-studded City side, holders of the trophy and parading then household names like Francis Lee, keeper Joe Corrigan, skipper Tony Book, Mike Summerbee, Colin Bell and Neil Young.
Millen scored both Linfield goals with a Francis Lee reply to his first sending relieved City through on away goals after a 1-0 first-leg win at Maine Road. City went on to lose in the semi-finals to eventual winners Chelsea.
His is the name forever linked with arguably Linfield’s finest hour and a half in their European history.
But he has no reminders other than fading newspaper clippings.
“If there is television footage, I have yet to see it, and I have been searching for over 40 years,” he laments from his home in the Sydney suburb of Camden, still sounding unmistakably Belfast after four decades Down Under.
“I would love it if someone reads this and can even turn up some highlights. I can’t believe I have never seen those goals people still talk about and it would mean a lot as my memory of the game now is sketchy.
“Looking back, it seems to have passed by in a flash.
“I do remember the goals. I got the first after four minutes. The City full-back, Glyn Pardoe, tried a pass back to his keeper Joe Corrigan and I thought, ‘I can get onto this’. I managed to get a toe to the ball and it trickled over the line.
“Windsor went wild as that was us level after the 1-0 defeat at Maine Road two weeks earlier. It was a brilliant City team. They had been League champions two years earlier and then FA Cup winners and people had expected us to get beaten by four or five goals in both matches.
“But we were a good Linfield side, too, with Phil Scott, my great mate Dessie Cathcart, Billy Sinclair, Bryan Hamilton, Isaac Andrews, Eric Magee and Eric Bowyer.
“Billy Bingham, our manager, had us training four nights a week for six weeks prior to the first leg and we were super fit.
“What a motivator Bingie was. He always got the best out of me. He even picked me to play for Northern Ireland, against Spain, a month after the City matches. I was to play up front with George Best and Derek Dougan but I pulled a hamstring on the morning of the match and missed out. But that’s football.
“I remember us arriving on the team bus to Maine Road and seeing about a thousand Bluemen waiting outside. Bingie said we were playing for these people and we were not to let them down.
“He not only had us brilliantly prepared, physically and mentally, he had devised a tactical plan to frustrate City with me dropping back into midfield, and it worked perfectly until about seven minutes from the end when Colin Bell scored.
“Bingie (inset) was so annoyed he slammed his fist into the dugout and cut his knuckles. I remember coming off and seeing his hand covered in blood.”
It was still a momentous performance by a Linfield team, fielding a 17-year-old Alan Fraser, and commended in the Belfast Telegraph by the late, great football writer Bill Ireland, who observed: “Linfield reduced the City superstars to the realms of ordinary mortals. They came within seven minutes of achieving a modern miracle against one of the best club sides in Britain.”
The experience sent Linfield into the return leg with hopes that soared with Millen’s early goal, only for Lee to equalise soon after.
“We still felt we could beat them and came out and battered them in the second half,” Millen recalls.
“I got my second goal from a short free-kick laid on by Dessie Cathcart with Sinky as a decoy. We’d seen Spurs score from the routine on Match of the Day the Saturday night before and decided to practice it in training for the City match. It worked a treat. You have to remember free-kick routines were a novelty then.
“That was about 10 minutes into the second half and we went on to dominate. I remember Bryan Hamilton and Ivan McAllister going close to scoring but they held out. It was an agonising way to lose but we still took immense pride from the performance over the two legs. And we were paid a £10 bonus!”
City’s legendary manager Joe Mercer later admitted: “If this was one of the easy draws, give me a hard one every time. You have got to hand it to this lot, they played magnificently and we’re just very thankful to be through.”
More recently, Millen was pleased to see keeper Corrigan acknowledge on Facebook that Linfield deserved even more credit than they were given.
That wasn’t the only impression left on the giant England keeper.
Let’s not forget the growing maelstrom on the streets that provided a tense backdrop to the game and led Corrigan to relate in his autobiography: “Let’s just say there was a very intimidating atmosphere inside Windsor Park, which was packed to the rafters. The Northern Irish people love their football and they were vociferous in their support.
“With only one goal to pull back, the excitement boiled over and things began to turn nasty. Behind my goal, bottles and other missiles began raining down from the terraces and the people throwing them made no secret of their intended target — me. It was unnerving to say the least and Linfield manager Billy Bingham had to come out and plead with the fans not to force the game to be abandoned.
“Linfield played out of their skins but the crowd trouble took the focus away from a fantastic performance by them and I don’t believe they got the credit they deserved for the victory.
“We were relieved to get on the plane and fly home straight after the match. In fact we had an armoured car escort us to the airport and I believe there were SAS officers on the coach.”
City’s quick getaway left Millen and his team-mates disappointed they didn’t get to mix with City’s stars over traditional post-match drinks. “But I still got their autographs,” he laughs. “I nipped into their dressing room after the game with my autograph book and a pen. I don’t think they could believe it was the same guy who had just scored two goals against them.”
Those Troubles storm clouds continued to cast a shadow and soon after, they led to Millen’s departure from the city and club he loved.
He explains: “I took my daughter, Dorothy, then aged three, into the city centre to do some Christmas shopping when a concerted spate of bombs started exploding all around us. It was terrifying and we rushed home empty-handed. Dorothy thought Santa wasn’t coming that year. I just decided I didn’t want to bring up a family in that environment and packed our bags for South Africa.”
It was a wrench for a young man born in Orangefield in east Belfast, and who grew up a Glenman, hero-worshipping his favourite player Walter Bruce.
But the Glens showed no interest in the talented teenager in much the same way as George Best before him and he ended up signing not once, but three times for their fiercest rivals, becoming a thorn in their side.
“I was 16 when I signed for The Duke, Tommy Dickson, and went straight into the Swifts but I wasn’t getting anywhere so I took a year out to play in the Old Boys League. That was great experience, playing against grown men kicking lumps out of me. It hardened me for another crack at the Irish League with Distillery where I played alongside the future Linfield captain, Peter Rafferty. In 1966, I got a move to Arsenal for a fee of about five grand. I could have gone to Leeds or Birmingham who were also interested but I chose London because l had an uncle there, which was a bad move as I spent my time going round dog tracks with him.
“I went from earning £2.15 a week as a storeman in Belfast to £18 a week at Arsenal. It was brilliant but two nasty knee injuries curtailed my chances and after 15 months I was back again at Linfield. That time, Arsenal told me the Glentoran manager John Colrain had been in touch but by then I’d given my word to Ewan Fenton at Linfield. We didn’t even talk money. I grew up a Glenman but always felt I was a Linfield player.
“If it hadn’t been for the Troubles, I would have ended my playing days at Windsor.”
South Africa, though, under the country’s old Apartheid regime, was not exactly a peace haven.
“I joined a club called Arcadia Shepherds in Pretoria who looked after me very well. I was earning £120 a week, playing in front of 25,000 and in the English summer, some of the First Division top players used to come out and play for six weeks. I came up against Johnny Giles, the best passer of a ball I have ever seen, Frannie Lee, again, and Peter Lorimer.
“But I was never comfortable with the Apartheid system. No-one would speak to me in English, it was all Afrikaans, and my long hair was frowned upon. I once refereed a match between two teams in a black township and was told later I’d have got six months in jail if the police had caught me.”
Millen’s next stop was his last, finding a football and cultural way of life that suited his colourful style and personality in Australia.
“I went out to join an Italian club called Marconi,” he recalls. “I was told they were based right on Bondi Beach and leapt at the chance. When I got there, they were 30 miles inland, but I loved it, the football, the whole Aussie way of life, and I’ve never looked back.”
His favourite memory is of a whirlwind six-week visit by his great pal George Best, that saw him acting as an unofficial minder to the legend.
“George came over in 1989 for a series of appearances,” Millen relates. “He came with his then partner, Mary Shatila, and was paid £30,000, which was huge money then, but by the time he flew home, he had blown the lot. He won 10 grand in a casino one night and lost 18 grand the next. The press got wind and I had to hide him for two days.
“He was hero-worshipped everywhere he went here and had time for everyone. One day, he heard about a young boy who needed hospital treatment. A Celtic supporters’ club were raising money and George played an exhibition match to help them.
“He was a lovely lad, very generous and very intelligent. He could polish off The Times crossword in no time.
“It was like being in Belfast with him down here. Everyone knew him. I remember one day going to a remote island off Tasmania and betting George 10 dollars no-one would know him there. The first guy we met off the boat said, ‘What about you, George?’ They were fun times.”
Millen admits he shared George’s love of the ladies, too. Married three times, he has been settled for the past 20 years with Australian wife Denise. He has a daughter Dorothy and son Billy, back in Belfast, and another daughter Jill in London. George Dunlop, Linfield’s folk hero keeper of Roy Coyle’s all-conquering 80s team, is married to Billy’s sister Kay.
And he is immensely proud that a grandson, Dorothy’s son, Josh Robinson, is in the present day Linfield team.
“Imagine, my late, great team-mate Phil Scott and I both having grandsons playing for Linfield,” he says. “Jordan Stewart is Phil’s grandson and he would be as proud as I am.”
Contented Millen is adamant he has all he wants out of life, bar that elusive film footage of his two famous goals. And he is encouraged it will surface by another little cameo he shares.
“I was looking through old Linfield pictures last year and came across one of my Irish League-winning team being presented with their medals,” he explains. “I realised I’d left three weeks earlier and didn’t get one. I mentioned it to an old friend in Belfast, Tommy McKee, and he got on the case. He spoke to the league and Lunn’s Jewellers and next thing, my medal (above) arrives in the post.
“It took a Glentoran supporter to get a Linfield player his medal. After that, anything is possible. Now, if only I could trace that video...”