Lenny Taylor made only a single fleeting appearance for Manchester United’s vaunted 1992 FA Youth Cup victors and never played professionally but he remains enchanted by his experience at the club.
Taylor was released by Alex Ferguson days after David Beckham, Gary Neville, Nicky Butt and Ryan Giggs led Eric Harrison’s starlets to the 6-3 aggregate triumph over Crystal Palace that was the launchpad for their stellar careers. Yet 30 years later, and with close to 60,000 tickets sold for Wednesday’s final of the 2022 edition at Old Trafford between United and Nottingham Forest, Taylor exudes pride at a journey that began at a trial as a Birmingham schoolboy.
“I was chosen for a mass game in Nuneaton,” he says. “I was a right-back and we all played a half each and Ferguson was there. We had a little conversation afterwards – it was around Valentine’s Day so we cracked a few jokes about that. I signed YTS forms, went and watched a United game and it did wow me – I met some of the players and started to think: ‘Hang on. This is completely different.’”
Taylor took digs near United’s old training ground. “Around the corner from The Cliff, just off Lower Broughton Road,” he says. “Robbie Savage stayed there, and there was also Colin Telford, Giuliano Maiorana, Andy Rammell, Roger Sallis, Colin McKee.”
Ferguson’s renowned network of informants stretched to Taylor’s landlady, who one night caught him using a novel way to gain entry. “Up a drainpipe,” he says. “No one was answering the door. It was late and everyone was sound asleep and I thought: ‘You know what? The lads are in bed so they’ll hear me if I’m tapping the window.’ They did and let me in. By that time, the landlady had caught me and I was reported. Eric Harrison pulled me in and the gaffer had a few words with me.”
There was an escape, though, when Ferguson stormed an infamous party at Lee Sharpe’s house in Altrincham at which Giggs was an attendee too.
Taylor says: “Me, John O’Kane, and Raph Burke [all trainees] were upstairs and heard a voice and realised it was the gaffer. We were like: ‘Oh, crap.’ He was bawling, kicking everyone out. Then, he says: ‘Right, is there anyone upstairs?’ We all looked at one another and thought: ‘Oh, shit, please don’t come up.’ We couldn’t wait for him to go so we could get our arses home.”
The Scot was as diligent regarding on-field development. “If he wasn’t there personally, he’d be on the phone or get information from Eric or Nobby [Stiles, another coach] because he’d say: ‘I heard you had a great game,’” Taylor says.
Stiles was a United legend who won the championship, FA Cup and European Cup at the club and was in England’s triumphant 1966 World Cup side. “We were very fortunate to have him,” says Taylor. “His mentality was beyond belief. There were times where he put us in our place and got a bit frustrated, but he wanted the best for us. He’d pull us aside, sometimes other lads, especially defenders like John O’Kane, and Gaz [Neville]. Sometimes he’d have a little one-on-one with us and say: ‘This is how you should approach things.’”
Of a crop that also featured Paul Scholes and whose best players formed the nucleus of a United team that dominated domestic football, Taylor selects Giggs as the force.
“Even at that age, you go: ‘Wow.’ You couldn’t mark him because of his awareness and pure pace. But don’t get me wrong, he didn’t like coming up against me in training.”
Of the vaunted quintet who, with Phil Neville, became known as the Class of 92, Taylor says: “We didn’t think anything of them then. It was: ‘Let’s get training, win games.’ When you put on that jersey you’re playing in a cup final every day.”
Giggs became United’s record appearance holder, playing 963 times. Gary Neville was made captain by Ferguson in the mid-2000s. By then Beckham was England’s leader and Butt had been selected in the 2002 Fifa World Cup team of the tournament. Phil Neville enjoyed 11 years in the first team. Although Scholes has a claim to be the finest of the six he did not feature in the Youth Cup run.
“It sounds silly,” Taylor says. “But he had a few issues with his shin or his knees. Once these were over, you could tell he would be some player. He was cheeky – would have a smile for you if he pinged the ball a certain way or controlled it a certain way.”
Taylor’s moment came in the semi-final second leg against Tottenham at White Hart Lane where a 2-1 win took United to the final. “Eric brought me on in the last few minutes and apologised for leaving it so late. I said: ‘Don’t worry.’ I’m not 100% sure if I even touched the ball – I probably did – but I was glad to be part of the team.”
Taylor departed after the final. He says: “It was a bit soul-destroying. Eric mentioned Peter Reid [Manchester City’s manager] might be interested but nothing happened. I went to Port Vale for a trial and nothing happened either. Walsall were interested in taking me for a year but I declined. Maybe it was the wrong decision but I didn’t have someone advising me. I ended up going to Solihull Borough. I was there for about three years, but I was mainly in their reserves.
“I was trying to work shifts and train and play, and in the end I said: ‘I’ve had enough.’ I went on to do what everyone else does: survive. I was about 28, 29. Since then I’ve worked in a metal coating factory, done labouring for an electrical company.”
There is no bitterness though. “I had my crack,” says Taylor. “I said to my mum: ‘I apologise, I wish I could have made it so I could take care of you and all my family and friends.’ She said: ‘Don’t worry, son. You did yourself proud and that’s all we can ask for.’ I tell my 10-year-old daughter, Cyann, that. ‘Do yourself proud. If you’re down, pick yourself up.’”
Taylor remains grateful. “We achieved as a group, whether I played in the final or not,” he says. “And some got in the first team, some made history: trebles, titles, FA Cup wins, Super Cup wins, European Cup wins. I was very lucky to be part of what led to that.”
With his partner, Tina, Taylor is now a carer for her son, who has autism. “There are days when I think: ‘Ah, it’s such a shame.’ But you know what? Try and put a smile on your face and be a kinder person. What I experienced can’t be taken away from me ever.”