Gary Bailey has lived out every schoolboy’s dream, representing South Africa, playing for Manchester United, England and finally Kaizer Chiefs – but along the way he learnt there’s a lot more to life than fame…You’re never too young to go after what you want. My dad, a former professional soccer player with Ipswich in England moved us to South Africa in 1963 when he was offered a coaching job here. As a five year old, already mad about soccer it was fantastic as in those days all the top English players came here to play after retiring from professional football in the UK. So I grew up surrounded by soccer with a great coach – my dad. His reason for me to eventually go to Wits University was the soccer team, but for my mom it was to get a degree behind me. I always knew that soccer would be my career.
It’s important to have people believe in you. I was thrilled to make the Wits team six weeks into my first year and a year later I was asked to represent South Africa. My dad, who was the coach (didn’t hurt) was hesitant though as he said “We’ve got to be careful because you’re going to play for England one day – and South Africa was banned from FIFA.”
Glamour isn’t always what it seems. At the end of my second year at university I joined three other young soccer hopefuls and headed for Europe. After trying Holland and Germany I managed to land a try-out with Manchester United. The next thing I knew I was signing a contract – I’ve made it I thought. I was then put in a tiny bedsit in one of the poorest areas of Manchester with another young Welsh player. That wasn’t the problem – the fact he could only go to sleep listening to Elvis – that was a problem. Add to this freezing wet weather most of the time and always being the ‘Seth African’ and it wasn’t always plain sailing. I longed for South African sunshine and friendly people.
You must always stay humble. It’s easy to let fame go to your head. Running on to Old Trafford with thousands of dedicated fans cheering you before going to win your first game is heady stuff. I didn’t realise I’d become a star overnight. I just went down to my normal pub to celebrate. Half the crowd there were United fans and the other half Manchester City – our big rivals. Our fans were great but the City guys called me a pimple faced ……. The next thing I knew a fight broke out and I found myself leopard crawling out of there – brave as a lion… The following Monday our manager called me in and gave me hell because the team had to pay for damages to the pub. He told me in no uncertain terms that a) from now on it was wine bars only and b) I looked far too scruffy for a Manchester United player and to go and get myself a decent car and clothes. This came with a massive cheque and carte blanche at all the best Italian clothes shops in Manchester.
Never be a goalie… If you’re a full back at rugby at least you can get the ball, make a run and score a try but a goalkeeper stands and does nothing. Then he has one moment to react and save a goal, after which everyone says ‘that’s your job’, even if it’s a great save – but if you don’t save it the world comes down on you!
You don’t know what you can handle ‘til you try. Playing for Manchester United and England in goal was extreme pressure but you just take it one day at a time. When you’re 20 you don’t think about when it will all be over – you just enjoy it.
On Kaizer Chiefs and muti. Playing back in South Africa for Kaizer Chiefs was more than just a different style of soccer. My first Chiefs away game was in Durban and myself and Mark Tovey were the only whiteys in the team. When we were asked who wanted sea-facing rooms we eagerly jumped at the offer whilst the rest of the team and management looked on in horror. Why didn’t they want to see the ocean? We were told there’s a monster in the sea that can come out and take you…” We learned this and much more – it was one of the most privileged times of my life.
When marriages break up, kids should never suffer. Sadly my marriage didn’t work out but one thing I’m grateful for was that my ex-wife and I firmly agreed that our three beautiful children, Lara, Jenna and Ross (now 20, 16 and 14) wouldn’t be affected. Moving into the single circuit at the time I saw so much bitterness amongst other divorced couples who tore each other apart irrespective of how much damage it did to their kids. This is why I wrote my book ‘Divorce for Dads’.
There are always new doors waiting to be opened. Television work had always appealed to me and I was happy to be the one shoved forward for interviews at Manchester United. So when I found myself back in South Africa and at the end of my playing career it wasn’t the end of something but the beginning of a new career - at Supersport. My mom was also happy that my weekly elocution lessons as a kid weren’t totally wasted!
If you’re patient there’s the perfect person for you out there. Although I’d met my partner Michelle McLean at MNet where we both worked, it was quite a while before we actually went out. I was looking for a particular type of partner, but I was looking in the wrong places. Now I couldn’t be happier.
You have to give back. Six years ago I was approached to become the patron of Yenzani Children’s Home for abandoned, abused and orphaned children. A project I was happy to help and become involved with. The moment you start doing well in life it makes sense to consider others who haven’t been so fortunate. Sadly there are so many very wealthy people who could do so much more. After all you can’t take it with you…