Cables Greats: Frank Garton

We have previously featured a number of Cables Greats, ranging from pre-World-War-One goalkeeper Billy Mercer (who later played for Huddersfield Town in the 1928 FA Cup Final) to 1960s Football League star Tony Hateley (formerly of Aston Villa, Chelsea and Liverpool). Mercer represents players who started here at Hope Street before reaching for the top level, Hateley players who came here towards the end of their careers. Others, like Albert Jelly and Harry Grisedale, were just great Cables players: faithful servants for the team they loved. It would be interesting to know how many great non-Cables players have graced the Hope Street turf. I have written previously about watching Stan Mortensen captaining Lancaster City here in the early 1960s. Almost ten years earlier, in the spring of 1952, Cables played host for a representative match between Lancashire Youth and Liverpool Youth. The Lancashire team was captained by fifteen-year-old Duncan Edwards of Manchester United, who died six years later in the Munich Air Disaster after 151 appearances for United and 18 for England. He played left-half for Lancashire, a position he was to make his own in his short but brilliant career, and shoring up the Lancashire defence was sixteen-year-old Bolton Wanderers’ goalkeeper Eddie Hopkinson, who played over 500 games for the Burnden Park club (1952-70) and fourteen times for England (1957-59). The legendary goalkeeper Bert Trautmann, who died aged 89 just a few weeks ago on 19 July 2013, was another eventual star that played at Hope Street: for a victorious St Helens Town team that defeated Runcorn in the final of the George Mahon Cup in the late 1940s. After 37 games for Town during the 1948-49 season and a few at the beginning of the next season, Trautmann was signed by Manchester City in October 1949. He went on to make 508 appearances for City, retiring in 1964 after nearly fifteen years at Maine Road. A broken neck sustained in the 1956 FA Cup Final has become one of English football’s most endearing legends. I was privileged to watch both Trautmann and Hopkinson at Anfield during the 1960s.

It is tempting to speculate if the 9000 spectators that witnessed Trautmann’s appearance for St Helens Town at Hope Street included a certain young man from Tarbock who at the time was keeping goal for Bootle Athletic in the Lancashire Combination. The young man in question was Frank Garton, whom Cables signed for the second time in November 1950. The ensuing ten years witnessed Cables’ most successful era, due in no small measure to what Neville Walker describes in his book From Slacky Brow to Hope Street as Garton’s ‘great and consistent service. He was,’ Walker adds, ‘one of the truly great Prescot goalkeepers.’

Frank Garton was born in the Prescot area on 10 June 1926 and baptised a few weeks later on 4 July. His parents, William Garton and Lilian nee Reynolds, were married in Prescot in 1925. Little is known about Frank’s childhood except that, according to his son Bill, his early football career included playing for Liverpool Boys and winning a cup winner’s medal with them in 1940. At about the age of fifteen he started work as a joiner at Cronton Colliery, a position which exempted him from military service and which he retained until the colliery closed in 1984.

Garton first signed for Cables during the closing days of World War Two. He played his first match at Hope Street, aged nineteen, in a trial match on 18 August 1945 and made his league debut soon after in Cables’ very first official match after the war, away at Kendal. Bert Taylor’s report in the following week’s Prescot and Huyton Reporter states that Garton ‘saved many awkward shots’. He went on to make 27 appearances in what Walker aptly describes as ‘that first season of experiment’ before moving to Tranmere Rovers. Hopes of making an impression in the Football League came to nothing. Garton’s exclusion from the Tranmere website’s all-time list of players indicates that he made no first-team appearances, and by the beginning of the 1948-49 season had moved to Bootle Athletic. Meanwhile Cables’ goalposts were guarded by two ex-Liverpool keepers: Harry Nickson (1946-48) and Alf Hobson. As a Bootle player for over two years, Garton would have featured in a number of matches against Cables. One, a 3-0 Cables away win on Saturday, 3 December 1949,was reported by Bert Taylor, who mentions a shot from Cable’s Sandy Lyon and the resulting ‘brilliant save’ from Frank Garton.

The Cables AGM in June 1951 included a bitter-sweet report from Club Secretary Frank Boydell: bitter because the team had recently been relegated to Division Two of the Lancashire Combination; sweet because of the return not only of Albert Jelly from Northwich Victoria but goalkeeper Frank Garton, who had re-signed for Cables in November 1950. His debut soon after came hard on the heels of a 7-0 defeat at Wigan and heralded an almost immediate change in the team’s fortunes. His first full season at the club (1951-52) witnessed an unprecedented double: victory in the Liverpool Senior Non-League Cup final against Skelmersdale United at Haig Avenue, Southport, and promotion back to the Lancashire Combination Division One. The ‘Garton Years’ (or perhaps more accurately the ‘Garton-Grisedale Years’) proved to be a golden era for the club. He stayed for ten seasons, ‘making him one of the most loyal players the club has ever had’ (Walker).

1952 wasn’t only a good year on the football pitch for Frank. A few weeks after his triumphant season had drawn to a close, he married his fiancée Doreen Roughsedge at St Nicholas’s Church, Whiston. They went on to have three children: Pamela (born 1953), William (1955) and Frank Junior (1961). Not that family life kept Frank away from his position between the sticks for Cables. He was an ever-present during the 1951-52, 1952-53 and 1953-54 seasons, his 200th consecutive appearance marked by the presentation of an eight-day Westminster chiming clock. Those were the days! Garton’s benefit match was originally scheduled for the end of the 1955-56 season, but he generously passed the privilege to Tommy McMahon, whose career had recently ended through injury. Frank’s benefit match was played at the end of the following season in May 1957. A few months later, Cables were embroiled in the first of two exciting FA cup runs in the late 1950s. This time they progressed to the first round proper only to be defeated at Hartlepool. Despite conceding five goals, Frank was ‘many times a hero’ (Walker). 1957-58 was yet another season during which Garton was an ever-present, and absent only four times during 1958-59. By the end of this season Garton had made over 400 appearances for the club.

The 1959-60 FA Cup run, which I followed avidly from the terrace in front of Hope Street’s main stand, took Frank Garton and his team to a match against Darlington in the first round proper. They lost 4-0. It is Neville Walker’s opinion that Garton ‘was made something of a scapegoat’ and soon after dropped. Frank was back in the first team by Christmas ‘and playing as well as ever’. Nevertheless, 1959-60 was destined to be his final season at Cables, playing his last match in an unexpected 3-1 away win at Wigan on 13 May 1960.

Here’s Neville Walker, commenting on Garton’s rocklike physique and abrasive style:

While there may have been taller goalkeepers, their weight was perfectly adequate for the job. Garton himself demonstrated this many times as he would pause and watch opposing forwards attempting to ‘charge’ him, as was permitted in those days, only to ‘bounce’ off Frank with nothing but a bruised shoulder to show for their efforts!

It makes us wonder if Nat Lofthouse would have scored his controversial 1958 FA Cup Final goal if Garton rather than Harry Gregg had been in the Manchester United goal! Walker also gives us this wonderfully comic insight into Garton’s mischievous side:    

On September 8 1952 at Hoghton Road, St Helens, [Garton] caused the abandonment of a Senior Non-League Cup tie when he swung on the cross bar and brought it down to earth! A touch of dry rot, perhaps?

After Cables, Frank firstly played for Cronton Colliery FC and then for its cricket team, where he appeared alongside old Cables’ team-mates Allan Hampson, Tommy McMahon and Ronnie Mercer. He died aged 74 in 2001.

I am indebted to Frank’s son Bill and Mrs Jan Byers for their help with Garton’s family background and to Neville Walker for allowing me access to unpublished notes for his book ‘From Slacky Brow to Hope Street’.