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Munich Tribute: Tommy Taylor – the greatest centre-forward to ever play for Manchester United?

Tommy Taylor was born on the 29 January 1932 in Smithies, East Riding of Yorkshire and was one of six children. He lived in the Barnsley area and was schooled at the Raley Secondary Modern School, where he failed his eleven-plus. In 1947, Taylor left school, at the age of 15 and was working in a colliery, playing for the football team there. This was where he was discovered and signed for Barnsley two years later.

On the 7 October 1950, Taylor made his debut for Barnsley in a 3-1 victory over Grimsby Town. Waiting around a month before his next match, in a 7-0 victory over Queens Park Rangers, the 18-year-old scored a hat-trick. In his debut season at the club, he scored seven goals in 12 appearances, which was certainly something to get him noticed. The following season, he served his National Service whilst playing for Barnsley.

“I remember one of our teachers Arthur Hudson, who we called Pop. He gathered us altogether for a game and asked if we had our kit. This would have been just after the war. 

“Tommy put his hand up and said, ‘Sir, I’ve only got my clogs. I haven’t any boots’. Times were hard, his family couldn’t afford any boots and he was told he couldn’t play until he had found some. 

“It’s one of the reasons why I set up the Dickie Bird Foundation to help under-privileged children. These were tough times. I want to help children have a chance to pursue their sporting dreams. 

“Unless you get that chance, you don’t know how good you can become. I always think of that conversation between Pop and Tommy. It’s what motivates me. We have to give young people a chance.”

Dickie Bird speaking about growing up with Tommy Taylor.

In 1953, Taylor was signed by Manchester United, playing a total of 46 times for Barnsley, scoring 28 goals, Taylor was a player the club would not have wanted to lose. An unusual fee of £29,999 was paid for the services of Taylor and for the remainder of the 1952/53 season, having played 11 times, he scored a total of seven goals. Sir Matt Busby did not want to burden Taylor with a £30,000 fee, hence paying £1 less.

Taylor played for United in six different seasons, completing four full seasons, signing close to the end of his debut season at the club and not finishing the 1957/58 season because of the Munich air disaster. In total, Taylor played a total of 191 times for United, scoring 131 goals for the club. This was a great number of goals, meaning he had scored a goal every 1.45 matches.

Taylor was highly regarded by those that saw him play the game he loved. He was said to have been the best centre-forward that had ever played for United and England. The finest header of the ball of his era with great control and first-time passing of the ball – some modern-day footballers could have really learned something from this guy. Some greats of the game, Alfredo Di Stefano of Real Madrid, labelled him as ‘magnifico’.

“Do you know? He never wanted to sign for Manchester United, did Tommy. It was only because Barnsley needed the money. I think you’ll find that Sir Matt Busby and Jimmy Murphy concluded the transfer in the cinema because they wanted to keep it secret.

“They also agreed a fee of £29,999, so he didn’t become burdened by the tag of becoming the country’s first £30,000 player. 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.

“When I played cricket at Old Trafford, he came and sat in the crowd. His digs were in one of the terraces close to the ground. Tommy would come after training. How many players would do that today? 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.”

Dickie Bird talking about Tommy Taylor leaving Barnsley.

At the age of 26, to see his life disastrously end in the worst thing to have happened to an English football team at the time, would have been devastating, not only to his family and friends but to the supporters who worshiped him at every passing chance, whether it be at the Theatre of Dreams, Wembley or any other stadium in the country.

Tommy Taylor will always be remembered, even by those, like me, who never got to see him grace the pitch.

A broken plane, a broken dream, a broken heart, a broken team, no word said, a silent vow, we loved you then, we love you now. We’ll never die.

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