by Ryan Johnson
Every year, Mick George host a charity match at the Abbey Stadium, giving U’s supporters the chance to don the amber strip for 90 minutes alongside club legends on the hallowed turf. I was fortunate enough to spend the best part of that game playing up front alongside a hero of my younger years following United: John “Shaggy” Taylor.
Many of our older supporters will have their fondest memories of Shaggy during his time with the U’s between 1988 and 1992, when he and Dion Dublin spearheaded arguably the club’s most successful period under John Beck. Shaggy was one of the stars of the team that won successive promotions from Divisions Four and Three on a charge up the English football pyramid towards the inaugural Premiership season of 1992/3. If it wasn’t for one of the worst pieces of transfer business of all time in March 1992, where Shaggy and £90,000 departed for Bristol Rovers in exchange for Devon White, little old Cambridge United could have just done the unthinkable and made it to the top division of English football for the only time in our history.
All of this happened before I was born however, so my only memories of him were after he came back home to the Abbey as a 32 year old in January 1997 on a free from Luton Town. The season after he re-joined us was one of only two promotions I’ve ever experienced, with Taylor part of the best front line I’ve seen at the Abbey in my years of supporting the U’s. John Taylor, a young Trevor Benjamin, a free-scoring Martin Butler, and an up and coming Tom Youngs. What we would give for even one player of their calibre to bolster our ranks in the current day.
Even though we won promotion that year, we should also have had the title well wrapped up before a deciding game at home to Brentford on the final weekend of the season. The trophy was indeed lifted at the Abbey on that afternoon, but by the visitors, as a 1-0 loss to the Bees meant that leading the division for the majority of the season was irrelevant if we were to go and draw too many games in the final months of the season.
The 1999/2000 season, however, was the year I found my love for Shaggy. A run to the fifth round of the FA Cup had a six year-old me thinking we had a chance of actually winning the whole thing, only for those dreams to be firmly extinguished by Sam Allardyce’s Bolton Wanderers. During this cup run we had neglected our league form greatly; with only four wins and twenty points to our name going into February, we were staring the prospect of relegation straight in the face. Taylor spearheaded a turnaround in our form in the final months of the season, with six wins from eleven games including two matches that will live long in my memory.
The first of these two games was Cardiff City away on 15 April 2000. Ninian Park was intimidating to any away fan travelling to the Welsh capital, let alone for a must-win relegation six-pointer. Looking back, I do wonder how the conversation would have gone between my parents in the decision making process behind allowing a six year old to be exposed to this environment. The choice was vindicated as Shaggy scored a hat-trick in a vital 4-1 win for United. Towards the end of the game, when on loan Jonathan Hunt (no, not the man we pointlessly signed from Wrexham in 2014) curled in our fourth, the home terrace emptied and we were ushered to the back of our open away end shortly before all manner of missiles came over from behind the stand. In our hour of need, Shaggy had come up trumps for us and it felt as though we were going to stay up.
The second of these games came just over a week after this, Easter Monday 2000, my seventh birthday. I awoke to the best present a United-mad kid could wish for, I was going to be mascot that day for our big game against Preston North End at home. I was introduced to all the players in the dressing room before the game and was star-struck when I got round to Shaggy. Meeting a hero as a kid is one of the best feelings you can ever have; to you, they are the greatest person in the world and it is something you never forget. We went on to win the game 2-0 with John Hansen and Trevor Benjamin ensuring we stayed up. As seventh birthdays go, I got everything I could have dreamed of.
Such was his love of the club that upon his ‘retirement’ he took up the reserve team manager’s role. He subsequently took over from John Beck as caretaker manager in November 2001 and was given the permanent job in January of that season. His first game as boss was a 6-1 loss to Tranmere, and we ended up getting relegated to Division 3 via a trip to the Millenium Stadium for the LDV Vans Trophy final – even as a manager Taylor was giving us days we’ll never forget. In typical United fashion we narrowly lost 4-1, but in a season where we only won seven league games it was a shining light.
In his only full season in charge of United, a certain Dave Kitson, John Taylor’s successor in the centre forward role, took centre stage, becoming our top scorer as Shaggy’s U’s sat comfortably in mid-table. The following season had another twist in Taylor’s love affair with United. The controversial sale of Kitson on Boxing Day of the 2003-04 season (what a Christmas present for United fans that was) for a criminally low fee put Taylor on the back foot (yes, another great striker of ours gone in a terrible piece of transfer business – there’s a theme here isn’t there?). With form deteriorating and no money to bring in a replacement (yet another case of déjà vu), Shaggy decided that putting his boots back on was the only way out of a potential relegation battle. Aged 39, a legend returned to play once again and earned himself a testimonial against Leeds United. He would not last the season however, being sacked in March 2004 as manager, succeeded by Claude Le Roy.
There ended Shaggy’s time at Cambridge United. Two spells as a player and then as a player and manager, ending as our highest football league scorer and one of our greatest ever players. When I found out he was on my team in the Mick George charity match I was over the moon, a chance to meet my United hero once again. To me he was the same man that I had the honour of meeting when I was a mascot 17 and a half years ago. He of course opened the scoring, rolling back the years with a run down the channel followed by an audacious lob and a trademark fist pump celebration.
John “Shaggy” Taylor. A true United hero.
This article first appeared in UTAS Issue Two