When United fans are asked to name the all time greatest striker at the club, players like Ruud van Nistelrooy, Mark Hughes, Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke or Eric Cantona might spring to mind. You ask an older fan and you might find Denis Law, Jack Rowley or Stan Pearson get in to the short list. The name Tommy Taylor is often overlooked.
When reflecting on the Munich Air Disaster, it is Duncan Edwards who often gets a mentioned. Those who watched him claim he was the greatest player ever, despite losing his life when he was just 21. Sir Bobby Charlton always speaks favourably of him, calling him ‘the complete player’. “He was incomparable, I feel terrible trying to explain to people just how good he was, his death was the biggest single tragedy ever to happen to Manchester United and English football,” he said. “I always felt I could compare well with any player – except Duncan. He was such a talent, I always felt inferior to him. He didn’t have a fault with his game.”
Former United manager, Tommy Docherty, said he was the best. “You can keep all your Bests, Peles and Maradonas, Duncan Edwards was the greatest of them all,” he said.
Jimmy Murphy, who trained the Busby Babes, said, “When I used to hear Muhammad Ali proclaim to the world he was the greatest, I used to smile. You see, the greatest of them all was an English footballer named Duncan Edwards.”
With the Munich reports popping up all over the place over the past week or two (the most ridiculous coming from BBC’s ‘The One Show’, with Ulrika Johnson taking up the red position, talking about the disaster from her ‘Man U’ supporting background), Tommy Taylor has seen more of the limelight he deserves. As one of the older players who lost their lives that day, aged 26, Taylor had proven to be an incredible player for United. Worthy of becoming the World’s most expensive player at £30,000, Sir Matt opted to sign the Barnsley lad for £29,999, to relieve him of the pressure from becoming the World’s first £30,000 player. The extra quid was given to the tea lady. Four years later, Sir Matt rejected a massive £65,000 bid from Inter Milan to keep him on our books.
In his five year career with United, he won the title twice, in the two years leading up to Munich, the first of those seasons, scoring 34 goals in the league. He scored an incredible 112 goals in 166 league matches. He also had an impressive 5 goals in 9 FA Cup games and 11 goals in 14 European games. In total, he bagged 131 goals in 189 games, an average of two goals every three games, a record unsurpassed by any of the great strikers that have followed in his footsteps. His goalscoring record for England was equally impressive, scoring a goal almost every match he played, with 16 goals in 19 games.
He was renowned for his happy nature, his unselfish attitude, his ability in the air, and he quickly became known among United fans as ‘the Smiling Executioner’.
Survivor Kenny Morgans reflected on his memories of Taylor. “Tommy Taylor lived three doors away from me and the three of us, Tommy, Duncan Edwards and me, used to go down for training together every morning. The boss always said that there wasn’t a player living worth £30,000 so he only paid £29,999 for Tommy. He used to say to me: ‘Dai, you hit those crosses as hard as you like but just remember this — make sure they’re nine-foot high’. So every time I beat my full back, I’d look up to see where Tommy was and put it where he wanted — on his head.” He went on to talk of Taylor’s character. “Tommy Taylor and Jackie Blanchflower had a party piece where they used to fight each other,” he said. “It used to be real! Tommy said he used to work down the mines so he would get under the table and show us what he did down the mine. It was a scream.” He continued, praising Taylor’s ability. “Tommy was one of the best centre-forwards in the world. Before I got in the first team I can remember United playing Real Madrid and I was in the stand. They were supposed to be the best team in the world. Real had Gento, Puskas, Di Stefano and Luis del Sol. Di Stefano was supposed to be the best centre-forward in the world — but my mate Tommy was just as good as him.”
Cricket umpire, Dickie Bird, grew up with Taylor, and has fond memories of their childhood and playing football with his friend. “Tommy and I used to practise on very rough ground. There would be broken glass and rubble everywhere, but that didn’t stop us. We practised for the love of the game,” recalled Dickie. “I would float the ball across and he would head it. To me, Tommy Taylor remains the finest header of a ball that I have ever seen. The finest. I like to think I may just have played a small part in his development. He had the gift of being able to rise in the air and hang there, waiting for the ball to come to him and then heading it with tremendous power. And nor was it heading the plastic-coated balls of today. This was a heavy leather thing, with the bladder sticking out in a large blob where the stitching had burst. We couldn’t afford a new one. When we played with the rest of the lads, it was usually 38-a-side on a strip 30 yards long. Chaos. It was a case of ‘next goal wins’ when it got dark. And it was usually Tommy who won us the game. There was none of today’s players who can only play with one foot. Tommy was two-footed. He had it all. And he got it from playing every day after school. That’s what we did in them days. Stayed out of trouble, went to church on a Sunday and got on with our lives.” Dickie reflects on Taylor later on in life, now playing for United. “He may have shared digs with the likes of Bobby Charlton, but the fame did not change him. He always came home after a game and supped a pint in The Woodman. You used to in those days; players were close to their roots. Not now. And Busby rated him. I talked to Sir Matt at the cricket after Munich. ‘Dickie’, he said. ‘Your friend was a great player’. To me, you couldn’t have asked for a higher compliment from a higher man. That said it all. Tommy Taylor was the humblest of the very humblest, a gentle giant.”
Tommy Taylor is just one of the eight men who never were able to really fulfil their potential, never able to really leave their mark on World football, as they deserved, but today, more than any other day, he should be remembered as United’s all time greatest striker.