50 YEARS ON – “The Smiling Executioner”
His smile would have brightened even the darkest room. With his black curly hair, mischievous eyes, that smile and good looks, Tommy Taylor, standing at 6’1” tall and weighing in at 13 stones, he was the epitome of the professional athlete. Like the “Bestie” of a few years hence, it is true to say that Tommy Taylor would not have looked out of place on a Holywood film set. It is also true to say that the female contingent of Manchester United’s following back in the 1950’s looked upon him as a replica of Adonis!
Tommy Taylor was born on January 29th 1932, in Barnsley, Yorkshire, into a working class mining family. The details of his early life are rather sketchy and buried in the mists of time. From what I remember, Tommy didn’t actually take to playing football seriously until his early teens. He wasn’t a schoolboy international, although he did play for Barnsley Boys. Football to the young Tommy Taylor was just a game to be enjoyed with his contemporaries, nothing more, nothing less. He certainly had no aspirations at that early age for a career in the professional game. But as he moved towards his middle teens, he grew and filled out physically. He started playing for a local pub team when he was seventeen years old named “Smithies United.” Tommy started knocking in goals for them and soon came to the attention of the local Barnsley Football League Club. His progress was fairly rapid as he continued to find the back of the net on a regular basis.
He made his debut in the Barnsley first team and the goals continued to flow. Being a local lad, Taylor was blissfully happy playing for his home town team. Everybody knew him, he could live at home, and he was able to stay around his close circle of friends. But as the goals flowed, so his reputation was enhanced, and scouts from the top First Division clubs began to be seen at Oakwell, Barnsley’s home ground in large numbers. It didn’t faze him and he had no intentions of moving on – he was happy.
Manchester United at this time were in a period of rebuilding after their First Division Championship win in season 1951-52. A lot of that team were the wrong side of 30 and United were having trouble finding a goalscoring centre forward. Jack Rowley had moved out to outside left as Roger Byrne had moved to left full-back. Busby had experimented with playing John Aston Senior in the pivotal forward position, but this could only ever be considered a short term project. Eddie lewis filled the spot for a dozen or so games and wasn’t unsuccessful in that he found the net 6 times. However he was still young and raw. In the reserves, United were also experimenting with playing Bill Foulkes at centre forward and he was having quite a time. Bill hit the net regularly, and in one reserve game up at St. James’s Park in Newcastle, he scored four times! Busby was about to give Foulkes his head in the first team but an untimely ankle injury put paid to that plan. So in March 1953, he decided to take the plunge in the transfer market.
In the previous few months, Busby had sent Jimmy Murphy to watch Taylor closely in Barnsley’s matches. Both knew that there was a bevy of First Division clubs watching this exciting, athletic, young centre forward. On Murphy’s last visit to the Oakwell, he informed Busby that there had been more Managers, Chairmen and Scouts from other clubs in attendance, that he thought that there had been a general meeting of the Football League. Busby decided to strike. Both he and Murphy made contact with the Barnsley club, and were allowed to speak to the young Taylor. It was a hard job because Tommy was so settled and did not want to leave his native surroundings – he was settled and happy. One of their biggest problems was trying to convince the boy that he was good enough to play in the First Division. He was such a modest young man. It was the charm of the mercurial Busby that eventually turned the tide as he outlined the future plan that he had for Manchester United. Busby sold him on the prospect of being part of a very young team, and a club full of home grown young players – one of them, Mark Jones, also hailing from the Wombwell area of Barnsley. He convinced him that should he join United, the sky was the limit as to what he could achieve on the football field.
He sold Manchester United to Tommy with not only his charm, but his charisma as well. It’s well documented that he pulled of a coup in beating the other chasing clubs for Taylor’s signature. But the mark of Busby’s managerial qualities also came out in the finalizing of Taylor’s move. Barnsley wouldn’t settle for less than 30,000 pounds, which in 1953, was an astronomical figure. The British transfer record at that time was for inside forward Jackie Sewell who had moved in 1951 from Notts County to Sheffield Wednesday for 35,000 pounds. Busby did not want to burden young Taylor as being a “30,000 pounds player” so taking out his wallet, he pulled from it a 1 pound note and handed it to the lady who had been serving up the teas. The transfer went ahead for the agreed sum of 29,999 pounds and finally, Taylor’s signature was secured.
He moved over to Manchester and was placed into digs with David Pegg in Stretford. It was the beginning of a strong friendship that would only end for them both at the end of a snow bound Munich runway just less than five years ahead. Young David had made his debut for United in the December of 1952 away at Middlesborough and had begun to make the outside left position in the team his own. So it was that on Saturday, March 7th 1953, in front of 52,590 fans at Old Trafford, Tommy Taylor made his debut in the red shirt of United against their Lancashire rivals from Deepdale, Preston North End. It’s interesting to look at the team that lined up that afternoon; Crompton; Aston (Snr), Byrne; Carey, Chilton, Cockburn; Berry, Rowley, Taylor, Pearson, Pegg. Seven members of that team were over 30 years of age! However, it was a great introduction for the young Yorkshireman as he scored twice, his new friend Pegg scored twice, and the “Gunner”, Jack Rowley completed a 5-2 rout for United.
For the United fans of this era, it was the beginning of the club’s ascendancy to the summit of the football ladder. They were exciting times. The addition of Taylor was very instrumental to the team that was beginning to evolve. One by one Busby introduced his youngsters. Wood in goal; Bill Foulkes at right back; first jeff Whitefoot and then Eddie Colman at right half; Mark Jones at centre half; Duncan Edwards at left half; Jackie Blanchflower and then Billy Whelan at inside right; Dennis Viollett at inside left. It took two years from Taylor’s signing before the team really gelled, but once it did, they took British football by storm.
Taylor was a big strong, hard running forward who did not exactly fill the common perception of the barnstorming centre forward. He had great movement and real pace for a big guy, tremendous grace, and he moved wide to both the left and right flanks instead of ploughing the proverbial furrow down the middle of the pitch. He had two great feet and could really hit a ball. In the air, in my opinion he was the greatest header of a ball that I have seen. He had a prodigious leap and seemed to hang the air but still got tremendous force behind the ball. I heard him tell that as a young boy, he used to practice standing jumps. There was a small brick wall alongside a church, close to where he lived in Barnsley and he was eventually able to leap over it from a standing position. His timing was impeccable and to see him hurtling across the goal area to meet either a cross, free kick, or corner kick, was one of football’s joys. He had the ideal temperament – never let foul play get to him, and I saw him take a lot of stick from some of the better known defenders of his time. But he never retaliated, he just got up, got on with the game, and did what he did best – stuck the ball in the back of the opponent’s net. And boy, when he did – did that smile light up the stadiums. George Follows was a journalist who wrote for the Daily Herald, a national morning newspaper of that time. It was George who christened Tommy “the Smiling Executioner” – so apt for the big man. He really was a centre half’s nightmare because he would drag them all over the place and create so much space through the middle for the other forwards to capitalize on. He had the perfect foil in Dennis Viollet, and Dennis profited from so many balls knocked down to his feet by big Tom.
Just two months after joining United, Tommy became an international player. England embarked upon a South American tour in May 1953, and on 17th of that month, in Buenos Aries, Tommy debuted against Argentina in front of 91, 397 fans in a match that lasted just 23 minutes and had to be abandoned because of torrential rain. Seven days later and on that same tour he appeared against Chile, in the capital Santiago, and scored the opening goal in a 2-1 England win. A week later in Montivedeo, Uruguay, he scored once again when the Uruguayans defeated England 2-1. It’s interesting to note that the Referee in all three of those tour games was none other than Arthur Ellis, the Yorkshireman – yes, the same guy who compered the BBC Television prgramme, “It’s a Knockout.”
Tommy embraced the Manchester United family, just as that family embraced him. He was a fun guy with a perpetual smile. He never let the success that he found ever go to his head. Certainly, I don’t think that there was ever a bigger “catch” for the ladies than Tommy, but he had a local girl friend back home in Barnsley, and she traveled over the Pennines to be with him of a weekend. Both he and David Pegg embraced Bobby Charlton into their friendship and they were seen around together a lot. They used to love going into the local parks during the afternoon and watched the kids playing football. They liked nothing better of an evening than to walk into Manchester city centre (yes, I did say walk because they said that going on the bus was boring!) to go to the cinema. They were just everyday, down to earth, boy next door type of lads. No pretensions, no head in the clouds.
Tommy and David Pegg both had broad Yorkshire accents, and stood a lot of mickey taking from the other lads. But they both took it in good nature, and certainly gave back as good as they got.
Two games from Tommy’s career stand out in my memory. The first was an international game at Wembley on 9th May 1956 against Brazil. Tommy led the Brazilian defence a merry dance that afternoon and they couldn’t cope with him. He scored twice in an England 4-2 victory in a game where they also missed 2 penalties – Roger Byrne being one of the culprits. His strong running and aerial prowess caused the Brazilians all sorts of problems and they just had no answer to him Two years later, with the nucleus of the team that turned out that May afternoon, Brazil were World Champions.
The second game, and for me, probably his finest game in a Manchester United shirt came on February 6th 1957 at Maine Road against the Spanish Champions, Bilbao in the return leg of United’s first ever European Cup quarter final. Down 3-5 from the first leg, United were really up against it. Opposing Taylor that evening was probably one of the finest centre halves in world football at that time – Jesus Garay. Tommy ran his socks off that night, and inspired by the roars of the crowd, put in a superlative performance. He drifted, right, he drifted left, he was always there to receive the ball from defenders under pressure – no ball out of defence was a lost cause. He dragged Garay into positions he should never have been. Tommy scored the second goal that night, but during the last 15 minutes, as the United player's exertions began to take their toll, tiredness started to become a factor. They were defending the 18 yards area when a cross from the left was aimed in and Mark Jones towered above all and thundered a headed clearance away and out to the right hand side. For the umpteenth time that night, big Tommy was after it, followed by his shadow, Garay. He collected the ball on the half way line, turned, and there was Garay showing him the touchline. Tommy held the ball inviting the tackle, but Garay was having none of it. They jockeyed each other down that touchline and Garay looked quite comfortable. Big Tom started to take the ball towards the big Spanish centre half, just about in line with the 18 yard line. He showed Garay the ball and then a quick dip of his left shoulder and movement towards the left and Garay pounced flying towards the ball. Alas, it wasn't there! Tommy pulled the ball back onto his right foot and was away a yard. Looking up he released a cross of stunning quality aiming and landing the ball just on or around the penalty spot - normally the area where he himself would be. But of all the big lads United had, not one of them was there - instead, the smallest guy in United's team, little Johnny Berry was haring in at full speed. He met the ball full on the volley with his right foot and crashed the ball into the back of the net - it sped in like the speed of a bullet. Maine Road really did erupt as did the United players. I’d never seen the big fella' jump and cavort about like he did at that moment, nor had I ever seen Roger Byrne so emotional – but none of them forgot the lad who had set it up. That was Tommy taylor, prolific goalscorer that he was, he had an unselfishness about him that few players had. He covered acres that night, and after the game, Garay was magnificent in defeat, claiming that Taylor was the best centre forward he had ever played against.
He may have been a star, an established international player, but he never forgot where he came from. He had time for the fans but most of all, time for the kids. You’d always see him walking up Warwick Road and off to his digs in Stretford after home games. Tommy had a great relationship with the press and in particular Henry Rose of the Daily Express. Henry was Tommy’s biggest critic, and once stated that in a match against Billy Wright and his Wolves team, that if Taylor scored, he’d walk back to the Express offices in Ancoats barefoot. Tommy scored twice that afternoon and dear old Henry kept his promise – followed by a huge posse of kids – it was like watching the Pied Piper! He loved the banter with the fans, loved the camararderie, loved his club and loved football. Never in the news for the wrong reasons, he was just simply a lovely, lovely, person.
Rest on in Peace Tom – you gave us so much to remember.
Tommy played a total of 191 games in all competitions for United scoring 131 goals.
He was capped 19 times for England and scored 16 goals.