TRADITIONALLY, Manchester United's footballing idols tend towards the glamorous and spectacular; where once Best, Law and Charlton captivated audiences at the Old Trafford 'Theatre of Dreams' now Cantona and Giggs hold centre stage. But in between, during a period when the Red Devils' fortunes were at a low ebb, Jim Holton emerged as a cult hero with a difference.
The soccer cliche 'rugged Scot' might have been fashioned for the giant central defender. Well-nigh unbeatable in the air and abrasive in the tackle, he exerted a truly formidable physical presence which, on balance, compensated amply for an undeniable clumsiness when it came to the game's finer points. In some quarters he was criticised for his rumbustious methods, but he was devoid of malice and it was significant that any vilification came from outraged spectators rather than his opponents on the pitch.
Having been an amateur with Celtic, then failed to make the grade at West Bromwich Albion, Holton was rebuilding his confidence with lowly Shrewsbury Town when United - struggling at the foot of the First Division in January 1973 - gambled on his raw promise. His vigorous approach made him an instant darling of the Stretford End - itself no longer with us, having fallen casualty to the modern move towards all-seater stadiums - and soon the affectionate chant of 'Six foot two, eyes of blue, Big Jim Holton's after you' became a familiar refrain.
Though unable to prevent United's relegation in 1974, Holton became an increasingly effective and influential player, winning international recognition and playing a stirring part in Scotland's 1974 World Cup campaign. Sadly, after helping to set his club on course for an immediate return to the top flight, he suffered a broken leg in December 1974, thus beginning a sequence of ill-fortune that was to dog him for the remainder of his career.
On the come-back trail in the reserves, he broke his leg again and - with others prospering in his absence and United riding high once more - there seemed little alternative but to seek a fresh start elsewhere. Accordingly Holton joined Sunderland in 1976 and then Coventry, but a series of injuries limited his progress; indeed at his final club, Sheffield Wednesday, his fitness problems were so severe that he never played a senior match.
However, Holton was a personable fellow, tailor-made for the licensing trade, and he became a successful publican in Coventry, where he lived with his wife and two teenage children until his death of a suspected heart attack after a fitness training session.
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