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Preston North End and England have their Tom Finney. Cambridge United and Northern Ireland have their own … and we know which one we would rather have.

Our Tom was a player of immense pace, strength, skill, goalscoring ability and determination – qualities he showed across ten years, in more than 360 appearances in black and amber and through a steadily mounting goal tally of 66.

The first United player to be capped while at the Abbey Stadium, he went on to represent Northern Ireland 14 times while becoming a much-loved fixture of the United landscape. The old place just didn’t seem the same when he finally left.

There have been very few U’s players over the decades who have been blessed with more natural ability than Tom, and Manchester United took the well-trodden path to Belfast to court the 15-year-old, who was turning out for his beloved Linfield’s junior sides. He attended a trial with his friend Sammy McIlroy but had to turn down a second opportunity because he’d landed a job with a gas company.

But his reputation grew during spells with Distillery and Crusaders, and it was no surprise to his admirers this side of the Irish Sea when Luton Town brought him over in 1973.

Among those admirers was a certain Cambridge United assistant manager by the name of Paddy Sowden, who persuaded Tom to sign for the Hatters and swooped again when his time at his next club, Sunderland, came to an end.

Tom arrived in Cambridge in August 1976 to the sound of United manager Ron Atkinson describing his signing as a scoop, and the Abbey faithful didn’t have to wait long to find out why.

One minute he would be winning the ball with a devastating midfield tackle, the next he would be leaving bewildered defenders on their backsides with a feint and a shimmy as he made swiftly for goal.

He formed a feared striking partnership with another Cambridge United Hall of Famer, Alan Biley, but he could perform with equal effectiveness in the engine room, on the wing or even in a bottling-up role. Ask Kenny Sansom why he seldom made it over the Selhurst Park halfway line one day in 1978 and he’ll simply mutter, ‘Finney’.

Meanwhile, he was serving his country with distinction. Having already represented the Northern Ireland amateur team, he scored on his full international debut against Norway in 1974, played every game as his team won the 1980 British championship and was involved with the squad right up until the World Cup finals of 1982 in Spain.

Such was his popularity at Newmarket Road that there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth when Tom left United for Brentford in 1984, but his absence was only temporary. He was back where he belonged within the year.

But the end had to come some time. After the end of the 1985/86 season, supporters were left to replay those full-blooded challenges, those spectacular strikes and those majestic expressions of pure skill in their minds. Sweet memories, all of them.

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