I was going to let this pass but, when I found myself thinking about it when I woke at 3 in the morning I realised I had to get something off my chest. First a plea: now that the 125 year jamboree evening is over can we say no more about it? – it could get embarrassing.
Now don’t get me wrong, using just the evidence of my own eyes, Tony Currie probably was the most talented player I have seen so far in a Blades shirt. He was my boyhood hero, his pictures cut out of The Shoot were on my wall, and he is a really nice fella, but the greatest player ever? Not by a long chalk. What people really did, when they voted, was to vote for the best player they knew of, the best match, the best team, the best manager etc. Let’s not pretend it is any more than that. Most fans had probably never heard of some of the players on the long-list – and probably didn’t care much either. What are all those players from years and years ago to them? I myself was the same once.
Fans, however should care – they should have heard of them. Anyone who calls themselves a Blade and who hasn’t been down to the Legends of the Lane yet should go. Those former players helped build this club we have today. Success can only build on what has gone before. I have supported United for a third of their history, my dad for over half its history, his dad takes us back almost back to the beginning. My kids will take that forward – perhaps one day my son will tell his kids he once shook TC’s hand, and tell them that he was his dad’s favourite player.
So who was the greatest player to in Blades history? How can you compare players who played centuries or decades apart? Players from different eras when equipment, player support (nutrition, medicine, physiotherapy, sports psychology), pitches etc. were so very different. Even Tony Currie himself, if he had been a modern day player, would be so different with all the back-up and the increased professionalism of today’s players. How I would love to have seen him achieve his true potential under those conditions!
But despite it being an impossible question what we can do is flag up the greatest players from their eras. Early on the candidate has to be Ernest Needham – he captained SUFC during their greatest ever period and played from 1891 to 1910 in the first team (and another 4 years in the reserves after that). Can you imagine any player giving 23 years service as a player today? During that time United won the English First Division (and were runner up twice), the FA Cup twice (and were runners up once). He was, for 8 years, one of the first choice players for England. He also captained England – one of the first professionals to do so. The very concept of an ex-miner captaining England at a time when the Football Association was still dominated by gentlemen-players was in itself revolutionary. He was a superb tactician and set the culture of the United team for many years afterwards. He also who wrote a book about Association Football: tactics, professionalism, and his thoughts on the game. He continued to scout for United for many years after he retired from playing.
Then there’s Billy Gillespie, scouted by Needham, the last Blade to lift a major trophy: the FA Cup in 1925. He signed in 1911 and would have lifted it in 1915 but for a broken leg. He played for 20 years and then became a coach. He was also a superb strategist and reader of the game: in many ways picking up the baton from Needham. He was capped 25 times for Ireland: and in those days that was a lot, with only home internationals being played each year.
The best player my dad ever saw was Jimmy Hagan: 20 years a blade from 1938 to 1958. A flair player capable of scoring with both feet, and controlling the ball in ways we would just love to see these days. Sadly, his peak years probably coincided with the Second World War, United having been promoted to the First Division just as war put paid to the League. He was only capped once by England: by all accounts due to his fall-outs with “the suits.” At least he appears at number 6 in the top 20. Not everyone has forgotten him.
Two places above him is Joe Shaw – you’ll have seen his statue in the car park – another one with 20 years playing service: 632 appearances in total. He was often referred to as the finest uncapped player in the land. Bill Shankly said of him: “one of the greatest players since the war… one of the best defensive brains in the land.”
But, if I had a time machine where would I go? It wouldn’t be to see the execution of Anne Boleyn, or the sacking of Rome, or the building of the Pyramids. It would be to watch Needham lead his men out against Aston Villa on the 15th of January 1898 when they won a blood and thunder game that was the pivotal moment in the championship winning season. And, no, I wouldn’t even waste time stopping off to see the 2003 play-off semi-final again.