When Honiton Town played Manchester United
PUBLISHED: 07:00 26 December 2016
Picture: Courtesy of Mike Turner
Honiton Town took on Manchester United in 1985. We take a look back at the match.
It’s hard to imagine Honiton Town ever sharing the same football pitch as Manchester United’s superstars. But on March 29, 1985 they did just that. Steve Jennings caught up with three of the key Honiton men who were involved on that memorable night 31 years ago.
In the 1984-85 season, Honiton Town were a team enjoying being in the top half-dozen of the Devon Premier League, and were pitting their wits week-in and week-out against the likes of local rivals Budleigh, Exmouth and Bideford, with the visit of Exeter City’s reserves deemed a glamour fixture. But in March 1985, it was a game against Manchester United’s reserves that was the highlight for Town followers.
For Honiton’s player-manager Barry Burroughs, joint manager Mike Turner and club captain Graham ‘Wiggy’ Charleton, the night still lives long in the memory.
The game was arranged by former clubman Phil Brown, a native Mancunian and United fan, and it was he who did all the work. Mike said: “We don’t really know what it took to get United down here to play us because Phil did everything and had several meetings with their officials. He was a director at Miller & Lilley - and they sponsored the game – and he had many contacts. He worked with local businessmen like Steve Noah of the Deer Park Country House Hotel to get the game arranged.”
It may have been seven years before the Premier League was introduced, but United were a glamour club and arguably the best supported team in England. It was obvious that Honiton couldn’t accommodate the game so the search was on for a ground that could. With a handful of potential hosts considered it was Wordsworth Drive that was selected, home of Taunton Town. After a few date changes to accommodate their illustrious visitors the date was set for March 29. The game was on!
Barry had the unenviable task of picking a squad for a game that all club members wanted to play in. He said: “Mike and I picked the team together. We decided to stick with those that had served us so well throughout the season and agreed that everyone selected on the night would feature in the game. That was only fair we thought. We knew we couldn’t keep everybody happy and unfortunately some had to be left out.
“That said, there were no grumbles from those left out – at least not as far as I am aware. Even now, years later, no-one moans because all club members had such a great night and all the squad felt involved.”
Entry for the game was by purchasing the match programme for £1 and an impressive crowd of 2,800 turned up – a mix of United fans and Honiton folk who travelled to see the game. They had to brave some adverse weather as it was freezing cold and the heavens opened early on and the rain continued all night, but this didn’t dampen the spirits.
United went into the game having beaten fellow high-flyers Aston Villa 4-0 at Old Trafford. Although they brought down their reserves, the team had seven present or future internationals, including flying Dutchman Arnold Muhren, Scotsman Alan Brazil, Gordon McQueen and Arthur Graham, Irishman Kevin Moran and Welshmen Clayton Blackmore and Alan Davies. It was quite a team that lined up against the Devonians.
Barry recalls being cautious going into the game while preparing his players: “When you’re younger, you dream of playing professionally for a top club and here I was the player-manager playing against a top club. Of course I was really looking forward to it but apprehensive too.
“We knew a game like this was really about containing the opposition with the quality they had and keeping the scoreline down as they could really destroy us. I asked my players to believe in themselves and go out and give their all and that’s exactly what they did and I think they all acquitted themselves really well. None of them looked like they were overawed and they all put in a performance and that’s all I could ask.”
The score line had little consequence for those watching with United showing their superior professionalism and fitness running out 9-0 winners. But for Mark Demspey missing a second-half penalty there would have been double figures.
The star for United was a young man who scored four goals but would never play for the first team. Gary Worthington, nephew of legend Frank. He would enjoy a career in the lower leagues, including a short stint at Exeter City, and is now head of player recruitment at rivals Manchester City.
Reflecting on the game, ‘Wiggy’ said: “It was obviously very special for me, but I remember being very nervous on the night – this was the biggest crowd that I ever played in front of by far.
“I was given the task of marking Alan Brazil – so my main concern was him as he was some player, lightning fast - so I didn’t really have the time to watch the others and make notes. But afterwards, the general feeling among our team was that Muhren was the one that stood out. In fact, he left during the game and was whisked away to join the first team squad for their next league game on the Sunday.”
Barry agreed. He said: “Given the fact that it was me trying to mark Muhren I would have to agree. He was like a ghost that drifted in and drifted out of the game. One minute he is stood next to you and you think you have him covered and then, just like that, he is gone and creating havoc. He was a genius, he had a great touch!
“The game was a real eye-opener and showed us all what it took to be a professional footballer. We were a good side with some really good players for our level but this was different class in fitness levels and talent.”
After the game, there was a reception for the players at Taunton before many of the United players ventured into Honiton to spend a few hours at the Pit Club and they stayed at the Deer Park Hotel. The professionals mixed happily with the Honiton players.
Mike said: “There were no airs and graces. It was different then and they could have a beer and let their hair down. They enjoyed themselves.”
The long trip to the West Country proved a worthwhile experience for the United players too, who clearly enjoyed their time away, and the game even had a small write-up in the programme for their next home game against Stoke City on April 6.
But it was memorable trip for the wrong reasons for two United players. Dempsey and Blackmore were denied the chance to play at Honiton Golf Club on the day after the game for having the wrong footwear. Rules are rules it would seem!
On the following Friday night, United went to Liverpool and beat them 1-0 thanks to a Frank Stapleton goal in a season where they finished fourth in the top flight. They also beat Everton 1-0 in the FA Cup final at Wembley later that season with a Norman Whiteside goal. Irish international Kevin Moran, who played against Honiton, would create history by being the first player sent-off in a cup final.
As well as offering great memories, the game had positive implications for Honiton Town off the field, as Barry recalls: “We made a few quid out of the game. We had only just moved to Mountbatten Park and the money helped us build the clubhouse and the club could develop from there.
“The club should always be grateful to Manchester United and all those involved with setting this up. It was a great occasion - I very much doubt this would happen today!”
Copies of the Honiton Town v Manchester United match programme are available on the internet for collectors to buy. There featured an article called ‘Star Spot’ and Town custodian Jock McGrath was highlighted. He cited the biggest influences on his career being ‘Mike Turner and Toby Bitter!’
For United fan Mike, this was a night he will always remember, he said: “Brilliant night – never forget it! As a lifelong fan, I never expected to be part of a team playing Manchester United. But there I was in the dugout rubbing shoulders with some of my heroes. It was a brilliant experience and a dream come true for me!” n