The first Canadian to ever play for Manchester United recently celebrated his 90th birthday in Oshawa.
Roy Killin was born in Toronto in 1929, but moved to England with his parents at a young age. Both of his parents were from the United Kingdom.
Killin grew up with a love for soccer, and is one of the lucky few who managed to turn the sport he loved into a career.
During his professional career he played for three teams: Manchester United (Man U.), Lincoln City and Peterborough.
The former Man U fullback grew up during the Great Depression, and with a lack of job prospects in Canada, he says his parents felt it was best to move back to the UK in the hopes of finding work.
His father was from Manchester, and his mother from Fraserburgh, Scotland, but he grew up in Manchester.
Killin’s father was a painter, a taxi driver and an actor. He even worked on the Royal York Hotel, now the Fairmont Royal York in Toronto.
He says his father only ever went to his games when he went pro. But, his mother was the one more into sports, and was often seen at his games..
He would eventually end up moving back to Canada in 1962.
Killin notes when he was 10-years-old, the Second World War started. He explains since the war was going on, he lived through the constant bombings in England by Axis forces.
“It’s rather surprising,” he says. “The kids treated it almost like a big lark. It was fun. You know, at 10 years old, we thought it was a bit of a joke… in fact, the days after the bombings, we’d go out and look for shrapnel.”
Shortly before the war started, he started playing local soccer.
Killin was noticed by a scout for Manchester United, and went to play for the organization’s junior teams.
He explains player progression to the main squad was like a ladder, and when he was 19-years-old and in the air force, the manager of Manchester United asked to see him.
His mind quickly went to thoughts of being off the team, but instead he was asked if he wanted to play professionally.
Killin’s son Vaughan notes the manager’s name was Sir Matt Busby, who was known for a group of players called “the Busby Babes.”
“Everyone seemed to get ‘Sir’ but me,” jokes Killin.
Despite this, he was overwhelmingly happy with Busby’s request.
“I think I floated out – I didn’t walk out on the floor,” he laughs. “I couldn’t believe it. It was great.”
So, when Killin’s time with the air force came to an end three months later, his pro career took off.
“That was all I did – play soccer, train, play soccer,” he says.
According to Killin, playing as a young professional was a “lark,” and he could get away with a lot.
However, he recalls the magnitude of the organization, though impressive, pales to what it is today.
“It’s rather surprising, United now, if you think of what they own and what they cover, they have grounds all over… but in those days, they trained and played [in one place],” Killin says.
He says the team treated him well, and notes he had to behave himself and do what he was told.
“The big thing is, I never got to play for the first team, I just didn’t make that,” he says. “But it was fun. It was great fun.”
His son notes if he had stayed with Man U. for a bit longer, he could have achieved greater success.
“I’d been a pro there for three, nearly four years, and I didn’t feel I was getting on fast enough – they probably knew better, but I just felt that way,” Killin explains.
He was also married and his first son had just been born, so, he wanted a house, but was unable to get one in Manchester.
“After the war, they weren’t building houses… if you got a transfer, more often than not the club would get you a house, [but with] United I couldn’t have done that because all houses were taken up by the senior pros, so there was no chance I would get a house,” he explains.
He was eventually able to purchase a house when he transferred to Lincoln City
“That was the only reason, and I often regret it. At the time it seemed like a good idea, but it wasn’t really, I should’ve stayed with United,” Killin reflects. But, the only thing I say to myself is that when we’d moved to Peterborough about five years later, their plane crashed and there were about seven or eight players killed. Two of the players that were killed were my position.”
Killin was the reserve fullback when he was with Manchester United, and notes the team’s reserve fullback died in the plane crash.
“So, that’s the only reason I feel, well, maybe it was a good move after all,” he explains.
For Killin, some of the best memories for him on the pitch are the crowds.
He also was able to play against some big name players of the era.
“There were some players that, unless you’re around my age, nobody would know them,” he says.
Killin says one such player is Sir Stanley Matthews. He again joked how all these players were getting knighted, but he wasn’t.
“When you were playing an exhibition game, Stanley Matthews was a forward, and you were a fullback, and you had to mark him,” says Vaughan. “Stanley Matthews got the ball, and my dad comes up to him, and Matthews said, ‘Stand away from me, don’t tackle me, they’ve come to see me play.’”
Killin says Matthews was correct in what he said, noting it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a lot of people to see him play.
“He was quite right,” he says with a chuckle.
After moving on from Manchester, Killin went to Lincoln City, a second division team. He says his new team was “cliquey.”
He called the manager a “Geordie”, a name used for people from northern England.
Killin noted his new manager had a preference for players also from the north.
“We had about six Geordies on the team, and they always got in,” he says. “He was a bit devious, this manager, and you don’t learn these things until it’s too late.”
He then moved on to Peterborough, which Killin explains was a “non-league club.”
“They paid fantastic money, and… I got as much there as I did in a second division club,” he says.
Towards the end of his career, Killin had an operation on his knee which eventually forced him to call it quits from the game he loves.
After his operation, he was able to move back to Canada where he found a job and still played semi-pro soccer.
“They had a league called the National League, and the team I played for was called ‘Ulster United’ and it was a semi-pro, so I managed to keep on playing for a while,” he says.
Yet, as Killin was working nights as a compositor, it became too much for him to play soccer during the day and work at night, so he had to stop.
“But it worked out,” he says. “It was a good move to get a trade because I could get a job anywhere then.”
He notes professional athletes always hit that point where they have to stop playing.
When he retired from professional soccer, Killin says he was 33 years old.
A few years ago Manchester United came to play a game in Toronto.
While the team was in town Killin got the opportunity to sit down with their manager, Sir Alex Ferguson.
“We just had a little chat is all. It was very nice of him,” says Killin.
Outside of his career, Killin married and had two sons, Vaughan and David.
With pride, Killin states Vaughan has more trophies than he does from his time racing motorcycles.
He also says his other son David is a pilot, and noted both his sons are different from him. He says they tried soccer, but it didn’t hold their interest like it did for him.
As a professional athlete, Killin says his career didn’t impact his family life.
“You had a responsibility,” he says. “It’s not like you have a job where you go to work each day, like an office job or something like that. If you weren’t producing, you wouldn’t be playing and they wouldn’t keep you. You had to be in top form as much as you can.”
Killin’s wife passed away 12 years ago, and he says she was a one-of-a-kind woman.
“I was the lucky one – honestly, I was the lucky one,” he says with a smile. “She was the nicest, the kindest – she wouldn’t do anybody any harm, she would help anybody, she was really a kind person… I was the lucky one.”
Killin says he met his wife completely by chance on a Saturday night, otherwise known as dance night in the UK, when he was 16-years-old.
“She was the best. She really was,” he says.
He still watches soccer on TV today, and says it’s become a different game.
“The players are bigger, better trained – now the money’s much better,” he laughed.
He notes when he signed on to play with Manchester United, his signing bonus was 10 pounds, which he says amounts to around $30.
In comparison, Lionel Messi’s signing bonus was $59.6 million when he signed with FC Barcelona in 2017.
Today, Killin is going through treatment for bladder cancer, but he maintains a positive attitude and is hopeful for the future.