That sort of title is bound to provoke controversy and I will concede that it would be wise to replace 'greatest' with "favourites of Badzilla". I have always had a fondness towards any footballer brave enough to stick his head into the firing line, particular as when I was growing up a sodden lacey football would come close to decapitating an unsuspecting schoolboy. It was only later in my footballing 'career' (using a somewhat grandiose word for someone who never graduated above university intra-departmental level) that I realised headaches could be mitigated by heading the ball as opposed to letting the ball head me.
Anyway, my favourite exponents of the art of heading are listed in order below. They all excelled in the art, were sublime climbers, unerring in their accuracy, and brave as lions.
Tommy was one of the footballing greats and has been inducted into the Hall of Fame. Obviously I am way way too young to see Tommy play, but that does not preclude me from having knowledge of his craft. I first became exposed to the legend on Christmas Day, 1969. I was given a football annual for Xmas by my parents, and as a kid mad keen on football I read it avidly. The book was full of 1970 Mexico World Cup preview material, and one such article was a position-by-position comparison of England 1939 v Prospective England 1970. The journalist, obviously old enough to have lived through both eras, was somewhat dismissive of England 1939 and in most positions he was giving England 1970 the nod. That was until he got to the centre-forward position. Don't forget that then we had World Cup hattrick hero Geoff Hurst, Francis Lee and Geoff Astle. The author was contemptuous of these stars - Lawton was head and shoulders above and was the only England 1939 player to make this all-era team.
My second recollection revolves around the famous England victory against Scotland at Hampden Park in 1939. It was the 15th April and the weather was monsoon and bitterly cold. The match was dour and delicately poised at 1-1 with 2 minutes left on the clock. Then a cross came over that somehow evaded the head of Bill Shankley at centre-half, and Tommy Lawton rose to head the ball into the back of the net. The capacity 149,269 crowd fell totally silent. Lawton wheeled away and yelled "Get In!" which echoed around the moribund stands. The auld enemy had turned over Scotland on their patch.
Between 1994 and 1996 Alan Shearer was the greatest footballer on the planet. All the top strikers have sequences where they never miss. Rivaldo, when he scored against England in World Cup 2002, was going through such a rich seam of form. But Shearer, for the best part of three years was Deadeye Dick, and his stats at Blackburn of 112 goals in 138 is truly outstanding.
The greatest Shearer moment for me would be Euro 96. With a little forethought, and luckily a comfortable salary, I was able to secure two tickets for every Wembley-based game from opening ceremony to final. However, despite being there to witness England's spectacular 4-1 against the Netherlands where Shearer bagged two, it isn't that game at the front of my memory. No, it was England against Scotland - an emotional fixture at the best of times, but in the context of a major tournament, the prospect of defeat could not be considered.
England played dreadfully. Stage fright had got the better of them and at half-time with the score at 0-0 the Tartan Army were holding their own personal disco. But shortly after the restart, the wind was blown from their sails. Gary Neville overlapped for the first time on the right wing and delivered the perfect cross. I knew it was the perfect cross because I was sat at the other end of the stadium, and from my position I could map the ball's trajectory immediately after it left Neville's boot. That's something no TV spectator ever gets the advantage of, and having mapped the ball I could see Shearer, Hendry and Calderwood converging on the ball, but it was patently obvious that Shearer would win the race. Sure enough, he ran straight onto the ball which cannoned into the net.
Peter Withe was what is widely known as an 'Old Fashioned Forward' which is a euphemism for a tall, bustling striker who plays as a target man, always runs through the middle of the park and is somewhat rumbustious in his methods. But that would be wide of the mark - he actually had very deft close skills and tricky feet making him more than capable of wrong-footing the defense. Where he came into his own was his aerial prowess, and the vast majority of his goals came from him laying the ball off to a winger, turning and running to the far post where the ball would be duly delivered and he would nod it past the hapless goalkeeper. In Aston Villa's league winning year he scored 20 times out of 38 starts, almost all of them headers, and the majority of those at the far post. The reality is he preferred heading the ball to kicking it, and should the decision be marginal to do either, he would be stooping low to steer it with his forehead.
Two additional factors govern his inclusion here. Firstly, he started his career at the bottom of the footballing tree. Having been sacked by Southport after three games, he moved to Barrow - my own favourite team - languishing at the bottom of the old fourth division. He managed only one game there before being released, considered not good enough for fourth division football. Many years later, after he had been awarded 11 England caps and scored the winning goal in a European Cup Final, and was then managing Wimbledon, the Barrow Supporters sent him a speculative letter asking him whether he remembered his time at Barrow. Of course no-one expected a reply from a busy manager, but such is the accessibility of this footballing legend that not only did he reply, he penned an extremely humourous response, trotting out a couple of Barrow-based anecdotes.
Secondly, and this is something I have always had difficulty reconciling, he dated an ex-girlfriend of mine before I met her. I have always thought it incongruous that a bloke who's posters I had on my wall as a teenager would have a relationship with someone I also did. So now I can go around saying, I am two degrees from Peter Withe.
Here's an admission - I never saw Billy Hamilton live. On the TV yes, but live, no. Regardless of this, I have always had a particular affinity to the Northern Ireland striker primarily because when I was studying for my undergraduate degree in Leeds, my room-mate was an avid Burnley fan who constantly regaled me with Billy Hamilton stories.
My roomy wasn't prone to romanticising his stories and every Sunday evening he would come back from Burnley with Hamilton updates. One particular sticks in my mind. Burnley were chasing the game against opponents I have long since forgotten. The team were piling forward, the winger crosses, but its actually behind Hamilton. Undaunted, he leaps, whilst still maintaining his running forward momentum, but arches his back and neck mid-air, and in an Isaac Newton-defying moment of sublime brilliance, heads it into the back of the net. Of course, that could all be baloney - it wasn't captured on camera anywhere, but I now have a memory of that goal seared into my brain despite being more than 50 miles from the action, and I will keep it with me until my dying day.