Derek Tapscott: Arsenal and Wales striker

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Welsh football has produced bigger and brighter stars, more extravagantly talented performers, more celebrated folk heroes than Derek Tapscott. But no one tried harder for his country, or for Arsenal, or for Cardiff City, than the industrious marksman who top-scored in two successive seasons for the Gunners in the mid-1950s and then shone for the Bluebirds as they soared exhilaratingly into the top tier of the domestic game at the decade's end.

Tapscott was a study in perpetual motion who never knew when he was beaten, a ball of energy whose speed and persistence hustled habitually composed opponents into uncharacteristic clangers on which he preyed voraciously throughout a 13-year professional career.

One enduring sadness was that a dip in form and confidence following a knee operation in 1957 cost him a place in Wales's squad for the World Cup finals in Sweden the following year, so he missed out on the glorious march into the last eight of the tournament.

The fifth of 16 children born to a coalman and his wife, Tapscott recalled with affection in his 2004 autobiography Tappy that he hailed from "probably the biggest family in Barry, maybe in South Wales". Their home was a three-bedroom corner terraced house, so space was at a premium and Derek shared a bed with three brothers.

After leaving school at 14 to become a butcher's delivery boy, Derek Tapscott took a succession of jobs, working as a radio repairman's assistant, an apprentice bricklayer and a council odd-job man, all the while impressing as a junior footballer. In 1949 he signed for Barry Town of the Welsh League as an amateur, then as a part-time professional in February 1953 after completing his National Service in the army.

Now his dashing displays began to attract a wider audience and in the following October, when he was 21, he was recruited by Arsenal, the reigning Football League champions, for £2,750. The step from homely Jenner Park to the marble-halled grandeur of Highbury was a mammoth one, but the sparky Welshman was not fazed, weighing in with 13 goals in his first 15 games for the Gunners' reserves. His reward, only six months after leaving Barry, was a senior début at home to Liverpool, playing up front alongside the ageing but still potent England icon Tommy Lawton.

Tapscott responded to his unexpectedly early elevation by scoring twice in a 3-0 victory, then two days later, in best comic-strip-hero fashion, he was called up for his first full international cap, to face Austria a month hence. Thus assured as to his quality, he added another two goals in his next Arsenal match, against Portsmouth, and finished the League season with five strikes in as many outings.

In Vienna, playing in tandem with Trevor Ford, Tapscott buzzed in typical energetic style, infuriating the Austrians with a full-blooded shoulder-charge on their goalkeeper, a tactic which was legal at the time but which was frowned on in continental circles. Wales lost 2-0 but the newcomer had laid down a marker for a productive future.

Back at Arsenal, where the manager, Tom Whittaker, was coping with a team in transition from the post-war combination which had collected two League titles and the FA Cup, Tapscotss contributed a creditable 13 goals in 1954/55, but the rough edges on his game became evident. His pace, directness and fearlessness were admirable, but at times he was a tad too frenetic for his own good and it wasn't until he began reading the game more maturely that he found the best of himself.

By 1955/56, the penny had dropped, and Tapscott entered his pomp, netting 21 times in League and FA Cup as the Gunners improved to fifth place in the old First Division table, adding a further 27 in 1956/57 as another fifth spot was claimed.

At this point, the 25-year-old had collected a dozen Wales caps and his horizon seemed cloudless, but his prospects darkened ominously during the run-up to 1957/58 when he damaged a knee. A subsequent cartilage operation sidelined him for the first 11 games of the new campaign and, in retrospect, it seems clear that he was never quite the same buoyant force again.

Still, he returned to sporadic action, netting in the Gunners' 5-4 home defeat by Manchester United in February 1958 – five days before the Old Trafford club was devastated by the Munich air disaster, which claimed the lives of eight players – but that was the last goal Tapscott would ever score for the north Londoners. That September, he reluctantly accepted a £10,000 transfer to Second Division Cardiff City.

Having struck 68 times in 132 League and FA Cup outings for Arsenal, Tapscott faced high expectations at the less rarefied level, and he did not disappoint, forming an effective right-wing partnership with his former Highbury chum Brian Walsh, helping to win the Welsh Cup in his first term at Ninian Park and earning a brief international recall.

Even better was in store in 1959/60 when he topped City's scoring chart with 20 goals and linked productively with the emerging Graham Moore as the Welsh club achieved promotion to the First Division, finishing a point behind the champions, Aston Villa.

He excelled among the élite, too, contributing 21 hits during 1960/61, including winners against Arsenal (very sweet) and Tottenham Hotspur, who were about to become the first club that century to lift the League and FA Cup double.

That season the Bluebirds were safe in 15th position, but in 1961/62, with Tapscott in and out of the side through injuries, they were relegated. Thereafter, as he slowed appreciably as a result of age and accumulated knocks, his form was variable but there was to be one more highlight.

Another Welsh Cup triumph (Tapscott missed the final) qualified Cardiff for the European Cup-Winners' Cup in 1964/65, and the veteran striker plundered the goal which proved decisive in eliminating the holders, Sporting Lisbon. The Bluebirds went out in the next round, the quarter-final, to Real Zaragoza, but their first excursion into continental competition had proved memorable.

That summer Tapscott, who had been running a lottery for the club in his spare time, was released, having scored 85 times in 212 senior appearances. He finished his League days playing part of one season for Fourth Division Newport County, then served the non-League clubs Cinderford Town, Haverfordwest and Carmarthen Town before laying aside his boots in 1970.

Later he worked as a representative for sportswear companies, retiring in 1997.

Ivan Ponting

Derek Robert Tapscott, footballer: born Barry, Glamorgan 30 June 1932; played for Arsenal 1953-58, Cardiff City 1958-65, Newport County 1965-66; capped 14 times by Wales 1954-59; married 1955 Glenys Laban (two daughters); died Cardiff 12 June 2008.