Silk and Spiel:
The Barry Silkman Story

By David Clayton

Footballer. Manager. Agent...

Not many people in football can claim to have seen so many different sides to the game, but Barry Silkman can.

As a player, he was unmistakable in appearance and style, with his mop of black curly locks and socks rolled down around his ankles, he was very much a product of 1970s football.

Skilful, an entertainer and typical of the maverick era of players such as Frank Worthington, Rodney Marsh and Stan Bowles, Silkman never reached the heights he probably should have and his stop with City was both brief and memorable.

He started his senior career at Wimbledon, before moving on to Barnet and then Hereford United.

When Terry Venables became manager at Crystal Palace, he made Silkman his first signing, and between 1976 and 1978, he was a first team regular at Selhurst Park, making more than 50 appearances for the Eagles.

But as ever, the Stepney-born attacking midfielder was soon on his travels again.

“When I was at Crystal Palace, Malcolm Allison tried to sign me for Plymouth Argyle, but I didn’t really want to go, so a loan period was agreed instead,” said Silkman.

"Things went well for me at Home Park and Plymouth wanted to make the loan move permanent, but with a proviso that if a bigger club came in for me, they wouldn’t stand in my way – plus they also wouldn’t ask an inflated fee."

“That was the way they convinced me and so I signed for Malcolm, but I’d only played about 13 games when he left for City and Bobby Saxton took over. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before Malcolm returned to sign me for City and I was happy to go because it was a great move. I just wanted to play football and for me to get a chance to play for a club as big as City was too good a chance to turn down because I was by then 27 and though I’d enjoyed my time at Palace and Plymouth, City would be the biggest club I’d ever played for.”

Though the Blues had finished runners-up to Liverpool by a single point in 1976/77 and then finished fourth the season after, the 1978/79 campaign had been a disappointment and Allison had returned to Maine Road in what is best described as a joint manager role alongside Tony Book.

Allison wanted to assemble a fresh young side to take the Club forward, and so began to sell some of the more established players, bringing in several new signings in the process. Silkman joined City towards the end of the 1978-79 season, making his debut in a 0-0 draw against Everton at Maine Road in April ’79.

“I’d convinced Malcolm to buy Steve Mackenzie from Palace – not for the £250,000 City paid – I said he was probably worth more like £50,000. He was, at 17, a real prospect and he proved to be a great signing. The fans, staff and players at City were fantastic with me – really good - and it is such a pity that it would all fall down because of reasons other than football.

“I got on really well with Mick Channon, Asa Hartford and Colin Viljoen and was very close to all three of them. The games I played, I really enjoyed because City fans loved to be entertained and Maine Road was a wonderful place to play football.

“I remember we played Bristol City at Maine Road in May (1979) and I was up against Norman Hunter and he told me that – in no uncertain terms – that if I didn’t stop taking the Mickey, he’d chop me in half. I said, ‘You’ll have to catch me first.’ So, not long after, I started juggling the ball on the touchline and Hunter started running towards me. As he got within touching distance, I left the ball on the ground as he launched himself into a tackle, but I’d obviously seen him coming so I jumped up and over as he went underneath me and he slid head first into the hoardings.

"He wasn’t best pleased, but I just told him, ‘You’re the one who wanted to go skiing, mate!’"

“Another time, I remember going to watch the younger players training and I saw a kid called Ray Ranson who I thought looked a real prospect. I said to him afterwards. ‘You should be training with the first team, mate.’ Ray smiled, but shrugged his shoulders and replied, ‘Actually, I’ve been given me a free transfer and they’re just trying to find me a new club and if they can’t find a League club, they’ll look at non-League. Nobody at City likes me as a player.’

“I was like, ‘Really? Well they’ve made a mistake.’

“I went to see Malcolm and asked him his thoughts on Ranson and he confirmed the club were trying to move him on. He added, ‘I’ve been told he’s nowhere near good enough, Silks.’

“I told him whoever said that was wrong and that he was good enough for the first team. He listened to me and they kept Ray on and, when a few weeks later Kenny Clements broke his leg against Ipswich, I went to Malcolm again and said that he should give Ray a go at right-back.

“He said, ‘Yeah, but Silks, everyone thinks he’s useless.’

“I said, ‘OK, play him once and if he is as useless as everyone says, never play him again’ – so he did, and I think he went on to play more than 200 games for City over the next six years and had an unbelievable career.

“I’d always been a good judge of players.  At Crystal Palace, I had a great relationship with Terry Venables and in my first week at the club, he asked me for my opinion on a player he had tried at centre-half, centre midfield and a striker, so a week later, as we walked in off the training pitch, I said, ‘T.V - the answer is right-back.’ He asked me what I meant and I told him the player he’d asked me to watch, that he should play him as a right-back.

“He laughed and said he would never make a right-back, so I asked him to stop, close his eyes and listen to me tell him all the things he was good at, and when I’d finished I asked him which position had I just described? He said, ‘A right-back.’ So, we went on pre-season to Holland and in the dressing room before the game, Terry looked at the player - Paul Hinshelwood - and told him he’d be playing right-back that day. He said, ‘Gaffer, I’ve never played there before…’ Terry looked at me and said, ‘If it doesn’t work, blame him!’ and pointed at me.

“Hinshelwood went on to play more than 300 games for Palace in that position, so as I say, I felt I could always spot talent.”

Silkman’s time at City was cut short after he fell foul of chairman Peter Swales.

The Blues had just been beaten 2-0 by Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park and Allison, who Silkman had been good friends with, decided he needed a few days away from everything and so stayed in London. To help protect Mal’s family, Silkman covered for his manager, claiming he wasn’t at training for three days because he was ill with flu. But when Malcolm returned and Swales discovered the true reason, he made it clear to Silkman his career with City was over.

“I was expecting to play against United on the Saturday and after training following Malcolm’s return, the teamsheet went up after we’d had a two-hour wait and I just said, ‘Right lads, see you tomorrow.’ Asa said I should look at the teamsheet first and of course I was down as 15th man! With only 12 players needed - 11 plus one sub – there was no way I’d be playing. What I didn’t know was why?

“What had happened was, Malcolm had told Tony Book and Peter Swales that he’d just needed some time and that he’d had to get away from everyone and everything for a while. I’d been covering for him because nobody had seen him for a few days, but the chairman was angry and said, ‘Right, Silkman’s out. He’s a liar!’

“The chairman called me and told me I wouldn’t be playing for City again and I ended up going on loan to Maccabi Tel Aviv for a loan spell, but it wasn’t for me. Eventually, I ended up going to Brentford who told me if a better opportunity came up, they’d let me go.

“I’d only played 21 games for City and I loved my time there. I felt I hadn’t done anything wrong, but in hindsight, I should have just got on with my football but there was nothing I could do.

“Brentford were as good as their word and so as soon as Terry Venables got the job at QPR, he made me his first signing. again. I always say to people, ‘I was Venables’ first signing at Palace, his first signing at QPR, but when he got the Barcelona job, I sat waiting for a call that never came!"

After QPR, Silkman played for Leyton Orient, Crewe and Wycombe before helping a former team-mate find a new club after hanging his own boots up. That led to more players approaching him for help and he eventually became a full-time football agent.

"I still follow City's results and I'm proud I played for the Club," said Silkman. "It's funny, a couple of years back, a mate called me up and said there was a guy at Aston Villa who played with his socks down like I used to. 'He's copying your look, Silks,' he said. It turned out to be Jack Grealish!"

In 2013, The Metro listed Silkman as the tenth most influential agent in football, with Jaap Stam, Patrik Berger, Mark Schwarzer, Yakubu - plus West Ham's Tomas Soucek of late - among the many players he has represented.

“Zinedine Zidane would have signed for Newcastle, but the scout Kevin Keegan asked for an opinion from didn’t rate him at the time,” smiled Silkman. "They might have missed out, there!"

One suspects 'Silks' has a thousand other stories to tell about his life and times in football – not to mention his business partnership with David Gest – and perhaps he’ll share them some day in what would be a fascinating autobiography.

A life less ordinary, indeed…