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Old 31st August 2011, 22:15   #1
tomclare
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Join Date: Oct 2004
Location: Houston Texas
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Default The Blue Plaques

The Blue Plaques

In September 2010, I was contacted through Red News by schoolmaster Chris Hirst. Chris is the Director of Learning at Stretford High School, which is situated on Greatstone Road, just a stone’s throw away from the Old Trafford Stadium. The reason that Chris contacted me was to see if I could help him, and his Year 7 students, with a project that they were about to undertake through the 2010-2011, academic year.

The project was about the ‘Busby Babes’, and the object of the said project was to see if the school could get the local Trafford Metropolitan Borough authority to authorize the erection of a number of Blue Heritage Plaques on the former lodgings of some of those former players. He had approached United, but unfortunately was told they didn’t have any information and could not help. This would be an easy task some may well have said. Not so, as we were to find out.

Chris initially asked me if I had any knowledge of the addresses where the ‘Busby Babes’ players had actually lived prior to the horrific Munich tragedy. Of course I had to open the back pocket of my memory and get my old grey matter working. Fortunately I was able to help and point him and his students in the right direction.

Most of that wonderful ‘Babes’ team, especially the single boys, did live in the Old Trafford area. Initially most of them were billeted together at Mrs. Watson’s boarding house which was situated at 5, Birch Avenue, which was off Talbot Road, close to the Lancashire Cricket Club. It was two large Victorian terraced houses knocked into one. The building has long since gone and has been replaced by a large office block.

Mrs. Watson’s unfortunately achieved some notoriety on several occasions, and eventually, the club was forced to move the young players elsewhere. Mrs. Watson’s better half was a drunkard, and a womanizer. There were times when he would play cards with lads and would be relieved of his money. This led to him losing his temper and sometimes to start hitting out. The end came when he had an affair with one of the young ladies who was working as a chamber maid, and once the powers that be at Old Trafford heard about this, they decided that the atmosphere at the boarding house was not what they wanted their young players to be privvy to. They were moved out to several other accommodations within the local area.

Tommy Taylor went to live at 22 Greatstone Road, and lived with the Swinchatt family. Jack Swinchatt MBE, was to contact Chris Hirst later and state that his mother and father shared one bedroom, he had the second bedroom, and big Tommy had the third bedroom, at their small terraced house.

Duncan Edwards was moved in with the Dorman family at 19, Gorse Avenue, along with Billy Whelan. Eric, the Dorman’s son, became Duncan’s closest friend. In this modern era, when players earn literally millions of pounds each year and live in huge houses out in the green belt areas, it will seem strange to the modern football follower that two seasoned full internationals, one who is arguably the finest Britain has ever produced, would be living in the spare rooms of what were then council houses. How times have changed!

The youngsters at Stretford High School continued to research and find out where the different players lived, and early in 2011, it was decided that the school would apply to have the Blue Plaques erected at the former homes of both Tommy Taylor, and Duncan Edwards. The applications were downloaded from the Borough Council website, and completed, and together with the appropriate cheque for the costs of the making of the Plaques (600 pounds each), were submitted back to the Borough Council.

Trafford Borough Council limits the number of Blue Plaque applications that are finally authorized for the Borough to no more than six per year. They are not authorized lightly. From the time of application, to the time of authorization, it normally takes some six to twelve weeks. It was with great pleasure that Chris Hirst received a telephone call from the Borough Council just four hours after the applications had been received at their offices, informing him that authorization for the erecting of the Plaques on the said properties had been granted. The students, staff, and teachers at the school, were so delighted and thrilled.

Chris then began working on how to approach the day of unveiling, and who he could contact to see if they would agree to do the unveilings. After much thought, he wrote to Harold “Dickie” Bird, the former cricket Test Match Umpire to unveil the Plaque at Tommy Taylor’s former home. “Dickie” went to school with big Tommy in Smithies, a district of their home town, Barnsley. It may surprise some that he was a very good footballer who played inside right to Tommy in the Barnsley Boys town team. They spent a lot of time together as youngsters, and even after Tommy joined Barnsley Football Club as a professional. “Dickie” was also a prolific cricketer, a batsman, and he went on to join the Yorkshire County Cricket Club. They both followed each other’s careers closely, until Tommy lost his life at Munich.

Hirst also wrote to Sir Bobby Charlton, and asked if he would consider unveiling the Plaque at Duncan Edwards’s former abode. Sir Bobby and ‘Big Dunc’ had been very close friends up, and until, Duncan’s passing at Munich. Obviously, if he was going to accept this invitation, it was going to be a very poignant, and emotional moment for him.

I had been in regular communication with Chris Hirst since the project began. To try and glean more information for him, I had called Wilf McGuinness, the former United player and manager to see if he could remember where most of the young ‘Babes’ were billeted. Wilf helped and I was also able to put Chris in touch with him. I was delighted when Chris informed me that Wilf had agreed to attend the school and had agreed to talk to the students. I was happier still when I found out that his visit would coincide with the time that I was in Manchester for my Annual Sportsman’s Dinner.

On May 19th, Cheryl and I visited Stretford High School, and it was a pleasure to meet Chris Hirst in the flesh, and also some of the staff and other teachers. I was invited to talk to the 7th year students, and it was quite an experience. For some 45 minutes I talked to them, first briefly about United’s history, and then about the team which I grew up alongside – the ‘Busby Babes.’ The kids were attentative, and when I asked for questions from them, they floored me. “Who is the best manager – Sir Matt or Sir Alex?” “Who was the best player, Duncan Edwards, Bryan Robson, or Roy Keane?” Who was better; Tommy Taylor, Denis Law, or Ruud van Nistlerooy?” “Which was the better team, the United team that won the treble, or the ‘Busby Babes’?’ And of course the all time favourite question; “Just how good was Duncan Edwards?” It was a refreshing experience. Chris then took us down to the Headmaster’s study where he surprised us by showing us the two Blue Plaques which had arrived at the school that morning. It was quite emotional for me to see them, and I was quite surprised by how big they were.

The following morning we returned to the school, and were introduced to Mr. Jim Hasledine the School Principal in his study. A short time later Wilf McGuinness arrived and after a short time, we were shown into the school auditorium which was packed with students. The reception we received was just so loud and like an explosion. Mr. Hasledine introduced Wilf, and for the next hour he had the kids enthralled as he recounted the time when he too was a ‘Busby Babe’. After his speech was over he spent time signing autographs and then we retired outside to have some photographs taken with the Blue Plaques. Wilf, like me, was so happy to see how impressive the plaques looked.

Before we left, Chris informed me that both ‘Dickie’ and Sir Bobby had accepted the invitations to unveil the respective Plaques. He also told me that the unveiling would take place on July 8th. Sadly, it meant that I could not be there to witness it as I was already committed to an obligation in Cologne, Germany, on that date. Nonetheless, I would be there in spirit.

The day arrived, and as well as Sir Bobby and ‘Dickie’, Brian Hughes MBE and his wife Rosemarie had been invited, as well as local MP, Kate Green. There was huge excitement within the school to be hosting such wonderful people, and after a brief reception, the children and dignitaries headed for the first location, 22, Greatstone Road. As well as the children, there was also a big media and public presence. Jim Hasledine introduced ‘Dickie’ Bird and he was very emotional when he talked about his pal Tommy Taylor.

“Tommy was my friend. We were brought up together in Barnsley in a little place called Smithies. We went to the same school, Burton Road primary, and then Raley Secondary Modern School. We both played for the school team, he played centre forward and I played inside right to him. At school, Tommy’s nickname was “Tucker” Taylor. I think that he got that label because he tucked the goals away.

Both of our fathers were close friends, having worked at the same coal face down the pit. At weekends they would enjoy a pint together, and they would argue with each other as to who was the best player, Tommy or me! Both of our fathers agreed that neither of us would ever go down the mines to work, and it gave them both a tremendous satisfaction when Tommy signed for Barnsley FC, and I signed for Yorkshire Cricket Club. That’s how it all started for us both.

We used to practice for hours together just the two of us. Tommy, from a standing start could jump over a garden gate. He could also jump on top of a snooker table as well from a standing position. When we were playing matches together, he always wanted me to cross the ball at head height for him so that he could rise and head the ball. He had this remarkable gift of being able to rise and hang in the air. I am convinced to this day, that this gift made him the best header of a ball that the game of football has seen.

Tommy was in these digs at this house after he signed for Manchester United. He loved cricket and spent a lot of time at Old Trafford cricket ground. He loved it also when Yorkshire played there against Lancashire and he would always come up to the dressing room to visit me. Though he was idolized in Manchester, there was not the slightest sign of any big headedness about my old school friend. If anything, he was rather shy. He was very proud of his roots, a typical, warm hearted Yorkshire lad.

Tommy, I know that you will be in heaven mate, because you were a good and honest man. You gave millions of people a lot of pleasure. Your achievements are all there in the record books for everybody to see. I always talk about you whenever football is mentioned, no matter what company I am with. It only seems like yesterday that we were both young kids practicing both football and cricket on broken glass, in fields, and on any old rough ground. I think that it gave us both the will and determination to succeed in both our chosen professions. They were poor, but oh! So happy days all those years ago. I hope that the many thousands of football fans will visit this place as it gives them the chance to remember a wonderful young man. I am so proud and honoured that Tommy was my friend.”

With that, and to loud cheers, ‘Dickie’ pulled back the drape covering the Blue Plaque, and it was there, resplendent upon the house wall, for everybody to see.

After a few minutes’ walk, the whole party moved on just around the corner from Greatstone Road, to 19, Gorse Avenue. For Sir Bobby Charlton it was an emotional few minutes, and this is what he had to say;

“Thank you for giving me the honour of representing everybody who had the pleasure of watching Duncan Edwards play football. My own digs were just a few hundred yards away from here, and Duncan’s, as you can see, backed virtually on to Longford Park. Whenever he wasn’t playing for Manchester United, you could always find him practicing or watching teams play in Longford Park. I have got to say, that whenever you mention Duncan Edwards, he was without doubt the best player that I ever played with, and better than any other player who I played against. I was fortunate enough to have done my National Service with him at Nescliffe, near Shrewsbury. I did see a lot of him, even though I hadn’t got into the first team by then, but he was a regular and an international by the time he was 18, he was such a sensational player.

He had a phenomenal love of the game and he just loved playing football. He had such a natural talent, you couldn’t teach him anything. If you were 50-60 yards away he could hit you with balls from his left foot, right foot, it didn’t matter, but the ball would be spot on. He was a phenomenal passer of the ball. He was tough, he tackled ruthlessly, he could play in any position at a time when the game was tough and for youngsters coming into the professional game, it was really hard playing football. The football pitches today are nothing like what we used to play upon. But to Duncan, it did not matter; he was just the most sensational player.

He loved Manchester United, and I know that he loved these digs. He was never a drinking man; we could hardly ever get him to come out with us. But he had a fantastic association with the local public and I was just so fortunate to be one of his pals for such a long time.

When he was very ill in Munich, the first thing he said to me was; “Where the hell have you been?” He was tough as teak, and he used to frighten me to death. He was the best and toughest player that I ever played with, and I’ll never ever forget, Duncan Edwards. This is just fantastic and I’m really grateful to the people who live here now, because every match day, they are going to get hundreds and hundreds of people coming here, and also to Tommy Taylor’s digs just around the corner where we have just been, to remember what is an integral part of Manchester United’s history. Munich is a part of Manchester United’s history unfortunately, and Tommy Taylor and Duncan Edwards were two of the club’s shining lights.

I am so proud that Council have authorized these plaques because it gives people the opportunity to think about what it was like in those days. When Munich happened, it was because we were trying to win the European Cup. Matt Busby said we were good enough to win it, and after we had defeated Red Star Belgrade, it looked as though the world was ours. Unfortunately at Munich, it was all broken and stopped.

Nevertheless, the European Cup became the Holy Grail and somehow we just had to win it. Fortunately, in 1968, we did win it, and we have won it since, and we have a fantastic club at Manchester United now. However, when most people think about Manchester United, they think about Munich and the great players that were lost, and I have to say that they were great players, and I am so pleased that there is such a big crowd that has turned out today.

I just want to say that Manchester United is the greatest club without any doubt, and it’s because of people like Duncan Edwards.”

The plaque was then unveiled, and one could detect a small tear in Sir Bobby’s eye.

The dignitaries returned back to the school where they were afforded lunch. For everybody connected with the project, especially the young students, it was the culmination of a lot of hard work and patience. For me personally, I was so pleased to have played some small part in the project, and to see those two plaques finally unveiled, filled me with great satisfaction.

It is right that these great players who perished in the snow at Munich, and those who survived, but have since passed, are remembered. They gave a lot to the local community where they lived. They were stars, that is for certain. But they were never pretentious; there were never any airs and graces. It was incredible to see them out and about in the local area – shopping, going to the cinema, going down to the local dance hall or pub, playing football with the kids in the local parks, and even walking, and cycling down, to Old Trafford on match days, along with the fans who were going to watch them play. For me personally, there has never ever been a group of players who have come near to touching them in the way that they lived their lives, the skills that they possessed, or for their love of life, and for the game and the club that they loved.
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