The team that wouldn’t die – Busby Babes
Lest we forget… The flowers of Manchester, the Busby Babes.
We love you now.
In 1945 Britain was befuddled following the war effort, Football was left in abeyance since the players had to sign up for the cause and put their lives on the line for things bigger than football. Players and fans alike were happy to see normality restored as the war ended. What was to follow from United’s perspective was simply breath-taking. The United job was handed to Sir Matt Busby, before that in the 1930s the club were in deep waters as they had been relegated twice from the top division and had come very close to bankruptcy and on top of that the Nazi German Air Force(Luftwaffe) bombed Old Trafford in 1941 during the Second World War. As a result they had to play at local rivals Manchester City’s Maine Road. Such were the circumstances. It was clear; the Red devils were in ruins.
It was only Sir Matt Busby’s vision who saw beauty in the bombed stadium and a chance to create a beast from the fire. The task in hand began on 19th February of 1945. Busby, a resident of the coal mining community of Lanarkshire, Scotland grew up watching hard work and was quick to learn what wonders it could do. Crucially he knew Manchester and its people having played for United’s rivals City. Liverpool wanted Busby as a player-coach after the war but Busby denied the role as he had his own goals. He dreamt of building a team with young, fresh legs. A team which he could mould and craft himself as he wanted, Busby knew not only the future of the club but the whole game would depend upon the youth. His predecessor Walter Crickmer remained club secretary, he founded the Manchester United Junior Athletic Club (MUJACs) in 1938 which sowed the seeds for Busby’s team.
Busby set up his small office not far away from Old Trafford. To quote the man himself “In that small office there was not much room for dreaming, or much time but dream I did.” He subsequently hired old friend and army mate Jimmy Murphy as Assistant Manager making him in charge of the Reserves, paying special attention to the youth team. Just in a span of two years Busby’s intentions were solidified as he ended a 40 year trophy drought for United in 1948, playing fast, attractive and attacking football against Blackpool. Later in 1952 after a couple of years of coming close to league glory he won the league title with an ageing squad. Busby knew now was the time to bring in the academy players, he brought in Roger Byrne – who had excelled in the end of 1951/52 on the wing – soon was converted into a full-back and became a regular. Jackie Blanchflower, who alongside Byrne had been the first players to be called “Babes”, formed a centre-back partnership with Mark Jones, who’d also made a few appearances for the title winning side of 1952. Next came Eddie Colman and a boy in a beast’s body – Duncan Edwards, who made his first team debut at the age the tender age of just 17. However, not all of Busby’s players were home-grown ‘babes’ he signed In March 1953, he signed centre-forward Tommy Taylor from Barnsley for £29,999. Taylor formed an explosive partnership with Dennis Viollet, especially in 1955/56, when at least one of them scored in 21 of the 27 games they played together. United won the title against Blackpool, the club they’d beaten to win Busby’s first trophy (the 1948 FA Cup) clinching it on Saturday 7 April 1956. The average age of the team being 22. “The marks of the nursery cradle were on them, but they did not show,” said Busby, his face glowing with pride.
The challenge now was to prove that the title success was no fluke. Busby now sought a new test in the shape of the European Cup entering it for the first time in the 1956-1957 season. In the preliminary rounds they demolished a strong Belgian side Anderlecht 10-0 under Maine Road’s floodlights. The score stands as United’s biggest win a competitive match till date. Even after beating Borussia Dortmund and Athletic Bilbao, United sadly exited the semi-finals following a 5-3 aggregate defeat to the European Giants Real Madrid. Busby’s army marched on at home as a young, energetic lad by the name of Bobby Charlton scored twice on his debut against Charlton Athletic. And was later benched in the next match, such was the quality at disposal. A fifth consecutive FA Youth Cup trophy was secured as the talent just continued to grow. The title defence was successful as the strike partnership of Taylor and Viollet continued to tear defences apart but the topscorer was Ireland’s Liam Whelan who put 26 in the back of the net. Aston Villa became the stepping stone that season as they prevented United from being the first team to win both League and the FA Cup in a single season following a controversial 2-1 win at Wembley. Villa’s goalscorer McParland turned out to be the villain as his shoulder barge on goalkeeper Ray Wood resulted in Wood shattering his cheek bone. Busby was offered the Managerial role for Real Madrid after United’s league success in 1956. Real’s President claimed that the job would be like “managing paradise,”to which Busby responded “Manchester is my heaven,” and refused the job.
Despite the disappointment it was United’s time to shine as the focus soon turned to capturing a third consecutive league title and they began their attack on Europe by signing Goalkeeper Harry Gregg for a world record fee. The season much like the previous two began steadily and comfortably for United on both domestic and European grounds. They began February with a stunning 9-goal-encounter at Highbury edging Arsenal by 5 goals to 4 despite resting key players like Jackie Blanchflower, David Pegg and Johnny Berry and the creative inside-forward Liam Whelan for the trip to Belgrade.
After a 3-3 draw against Red Star Belgrade, United secured a place in the Semi-Finals of the European Cup. On their return to Manchester, the plane stopped for refuelling purposes at the Munich airport as direct flight wasn’t possible. When the plane landed on German soil the mood was playful all around as the lads played cards, chatted over the news, and read books and newspapers. They did their best to hide their fear while glancing towards the snow that had settled on the runway. After refuelling pilots James Thain and Kenneth Rayment twice abandoned take off, by then the snow started to settle on the runway. The players were called back to board the plane this time sensing something was wrong. In the cockpit Captain Thain and Captain Rayment discussed the problem they were having with station engineer William Black, who had told them that the surging they were having was quite common at airports like Munich because of its altitude. At 3.03 pm 609 Zulu Uniform was rolling again. Captain Thain describes the next attempt at take-off: “I told Ken that if we got boost surging again, I would control the throttles. Ken opened them to 28 inches with the brakes on. The engines were both steady so he released the brakes and we moved forward again. He continued to open the throttles and again I followed with my left hand until the levers were fully open. I tapped his hand and he moved it. He called `Full power’ and I checked the dials and said: `Full power'”. Inside the passengers’ compartment Bill Foulkes had sensed that something was wrong: “There was a lot of slush flying past the windows and there was a terrible noise, like when a car leaves a smooth road and starts to run over rough ground”.
The Elizabethan left the runway, went through a fence and crossed a road before the port wing struck a house. The wing and part of the tail were torn off and the house caught fire. The cockpit struck a tree and the starboard side of the fuselage hit a wooden hut containing a truck loaded with fuel and tyres. Bill Foulkes and Harry Gregg helped the ones in distress, Sir Matt Busby was badly injured and was taken on a stretcher, Bobby Charlton shaken by the tragedy walked towards Gregg and Foulkes, and he was then helped into a mini-bus by them. It was only the next day that the true horror of the crash was revealed as English football cried rivers. The Busby Babes weren’t only the jewels of Manchester but whole of England; such was their charisma and appeal. Seven Manchester United players passed away immediately on sight and Duncan Edwards died fighting his injuries on 21st February at the Rechts der Isar Hospital in Munich. Johnny Berry and Jackie Blanchflower were injured very severely and professionally weren’t able to kick a ball again. The Gaffer was seriously injured that resulted in him staying in the hospital for 2 months and during that period he was read his last rites twice. Luckily for Jimmy Murphy, the assistant manager hadn’t travelled with the team to Belgrade as he was managing the Wales National Team. A board meeting was soon called upon in which a proposal had been put forward to shut down the club temporarily but Busby’s words “Keep the flag flying, Jimmy” were all Jimmy could think about fuelled by passion and commitment to the club he denied the decision and put together a team to face Sheffield Wednesday for the FA cup fifth round tie just 13 days after the crash in front of a capacity crowd of 59,848 at Old Trafford. The team sheet was bitterly blank in the United Review but Murphy did his job and got a team together before kick-off signing Ernie Taylor from Blackpool and Stan Crowther from Aston Villa who was signed just an hour before kick-off and was given special permission by the FA having already played for Villa in the Cup. The rest of the team were youth products and reserves, United won the match 3-0 headlining newspapers and magazines, Hardman’s message on the front of United Review (the club’s match programme) was straightforward and effective. “Although we mourn our dead and grieve for our wounded, we believe that great days are not done for us… Manchester United will rise again.” The boys in red marched on from there to Wembley as they were to face Bolton Wanderers in the final. A weak and frail Busby was lifted from depression by his wife Jean who said to him “You know Matt, the lads would have wanted you to carry on.” These words made him return to the land of Manchester, United lost the match but won many hearts as reaching the final itself after losing almost everything the club had was a miracle. Jimmy Murphy definitely shut up the nay Sayers and proved United indeed will go on.
The following season was nothing short of spectacular with Bobby Charlton, Dennis Viollet and Albert Scanlon recovering from their Munich injuries to play again and another addition to the squad was Sheffield Wednesday’s Golden Boy Albert Quixall and the England amateur international, school teacher Warren Bradley also arrived from Bishop Auckland. Charlton scored a personal record of 29 goals that season. The following season they finished 9th but didn’t forget their roots and what Busby had taught them. As some would say in true Busby tradition with Violet establishing a spectacular tally of 32 league goals, a record that still stands. United were too inconsistent to win the league anything less wasn’t acceptable for Busby. He then turned to the transfer market for strength bringing in Maurice Setters and the scoring ability of David Herd from Arsenal. Soon came his real stroke of genius, bringing Denis Law from Torino for a then record £115,000. Then came the signing of Pat Crerand , after bringing in Noel Cantwell from West Ham to captain the side, just five years after Munich in 1963 United finally won a major trophy in the form of the FA Cup against Leicester. It was evident United were rising slowly and were on their wy back to the top, after a successfully rebuilt youth policy likes of Johnny Giles and Nobby Stiles came into the squad. George Best broke through out of nowhere and suddenly they had the attack three European Footballers of the Year. United had moved on from the crash as George Best got himself a huge fan following after becoming the first football pop-star, and then there was the passing ability and the ferocious long shots of Bobby Charlton combing with the fiery devil play of Law. It was just a matter of time as two League triumphs followed in 1965 and 1967, after that a perfect climax to the Munich story. Roughly ten years after the crash United won the European Cup in a 4-1 win in extra-time against Portuguese giants Benfica. The European holy grail was always something Busby was after, “They’ve done us proud. They came back with all their hearts to show everyone what Manchester United are made of. This is the most wonderful thing that has happened in my life and I am the proudest man in England tonight,” Matt Busby said, on the victory as he made a Phoenix rise from the fire that was Munich. Following the triumph at Wembley Busby retired from management and took over as Director of Football at Manchester United, he was also awarded with the Knighthood for his services to the sport. After losing his battle with cancer Sir Matt Busby died, on 20th January 1994, aged 85. Two years after his death he was immortalised in a Bronze statue at Old Trafford It was followed by the Statue of the Holy trinity of George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton.
– Viral Ashra