Hi everyone, I am just like all you really except a lot older!
Coming from Salford near to The Docks, I first saw Manchester United play in 1954 at the age of seven, therefore, seeing The Busby Babes develop. It was just a walk over the Old Trafford Road swing bridge (which turned when boats were on their way!) and there was the Theatre of Dreams. I was at both their title successes, had the Munich tragedy to face as an eleven year old, which still lives with me today, knew George Best when he was sixteen, finished up writing in the club programme for five years in the early 1980’s and had quite a few books published on the club and its players.
For the past couple of years been proud to write for Barney in the brilliant Red News, now equally proud to let you know my thoughts on the greatest club these islands has ever seen, MANCHESTER UNITED.
In this world of massive social media with everyone happy/unhappy by the minute of every game, can you imagine Manchester United appointing a manager who has just been the star player for/of Manchester City and Liverpool?! Well, Matt Busby was that man when he joined as United manager in February 1945 but it was the October of that year before he took complete charge due to the ending of the Second World War.
The 67 years of the existence of Manchester United prior to Matt Busby’s arrival, firstly as Newton Heath from 1878, then Manchester United in 1902, had seen two League Championships and one FA Cup triumph. There had also been success in the Second Division, although in 1934 United nearly were relegated to the Third Division, only a vital victory at Millwall saving them. The final position in 1934 was 20th, still the lowest Manchester United have ever finished thankfully. Those early years had seen the club indebted to John Henry Davies a local business man, with his replacement, James W Gibson being the man who brought the club back from the brink and brought Matt Busby to Old Trafford. Easy to forgot, but all followers owe these two men a great deal of thanks.
Busby had been a fine wing half for City and Liverpool but the war years brought to an end his career and he knew he wanted to be a manager, with Liverpool very keen to employ their ex player in that role. Walter Crickmer, another name who should never be forgotten, was secretary of United and he and James Gibson moved quickly for Matt when they realised he might be available. Matt, in turn, had also pinpointed a right hand man during his war time service, a man called Jimmy Murphy. These two, then relatively, young men, took over the running of the Manchester United. Others to be recruited were Bert Whalley and Ted Dalton as coach and physio, so Manchester United were ready to roll.
When football returned in the 1946/47 season, Busby and Murphy soon realised they had a very fine side, albeit one which was not a young team. That was, of course, a problem for all clubs with players having seven years of their careers wiped off due to the war. The team that started that season with a 2-1 ‘home’ victory at Maine Road over Grimsby Town was; Crompton, Carey, McGlen, Warner, Chilton, Cockburn, Delaney, Pearson, Hanlon, Rowley and Mitten. The goals came from Rowley and Mitten which set United off on the right foot.
The next five years brought a League title in 1952, a famous FA Cup success in 1948 when United beat Blackpool 4-2 after being 0-1 and 1-2 down and four runners up spots. There was one problem on the horizon though, which was highlighted by Jimmy Murphy to Matt Busby at the end of that first 1946/47 season. Matt asked how many players would be coming through from the reserve side which had won the Central League title that first season back. Jimmy said, ‘There is not one player who could take up a first team spot’ Matt paused, and replied, ‘well, we will have to find our own then’ That short statement put into action the wheels which would transform Manchester United, they got a team of scouts, led by Joe Armstrong, and scoured the entire British Isles looking for young football talent. Many of them were in Manchester United colours by 1953 a year after the league championship was won. That is when Busby went to the board and said fasten your seat belts we had an aging side, but have all their replacements. It is going to take two or three years though for them to come to fruition. Again, as I said at the start of this, how would they have gone on with today’s social media?!
What was a great boost to Busby and Murphy’s dream was the arrival of the F.A.Youth Cup from the 1952/53 season. All the players that had been found around Britain, such as Duncan Edwards in Dudley and Bobby Charlton in Ashington, joined local lads like Eddie Colman from Salford and Wilf McGuinness from Manchester. In fact, I remember seeing all four of them playing in a youth tie against Plymouth Argyle at Old Trafford in 1955 on a Saturday morning, with the reserve side playing in the afternoon. United won the match with Plymouth 9-0, inside the month, Duncan Edwards was making his full England debut against Scotland at Wembley Stadium.
Other youth ties that stood out were against Bexley Heath the following season, when the roles were reversed and the reserves played in the morning and the youths played in the afternoon before a crowd of 22,000 seeing the youths win 11-1, Bobby Charlton scoring five! The final of the competition that season saw United play Chesterfield winning over the two legs 4-3 to retain the trophy they eventually won the first five seasons on the trot What was really interesting in the Chesterfield games was that Charlton was at number nine for United and a certain Gordon Banks in goal for Chesterfield. Ten years on the pair of them won the World Cup for England
Going to Old Trafford in those days was a part of life for me. I could easily remember the team, Wood, Foulkes, Byrne, Colman, Jones, Edwards, Berry, Whelan, Taylor, Violet and Pegg far easier than my school work. When you arrived at Old Trafford, you were met by, mainly, a wide open stadium. Both ends behind the goals were sheer kops, no cover, only the old scoreboard at one end, the Stretford End just stretching back. The main stand side was where the teams came out at the half way line, with a standing paddock in front of about 2,000 seats. Opposite, was a mass standing area with a cover of sorts about a quarter back and covering about three quarters of that side. You could walk around three sides, changing ends at half time to stand behind whichever way United were attacking.
One very early memory for me was seeing the League Champions of 1954/55 season Chelsea, arrive to play the last league game of the season against Matt Busby’s young side, who not only won the match 2-1 to secure a league double over the new champions, but also to set their mark of what they would be doing the next couple of years themselves. I was nearly eight and went to the game with my late father. After the match he took me around to the players entrance, which was where the Munich tunnel is now, and said ‘Wait here’ whilst he got onto the Chelsea coach with my autograph book. Suddenly, the coach, my dad on it, started going up towards the concourse and I was thinking, how do I explain to my mum, dad has gone back to London with the Chelsea team! Thankfully, he got off at the top of the road and came back with all the autographs of the new league champions. That was the first time Chelsea had won the league, it would be another fifty years before they did it again thanks to Roman’s millions.
The year after, I went to the match with Blackpool which was to seal Manchester United’s league championship. I went with an uncle, and there was thousands trying to get in, estimated 10,000 locked out, very few all ticket matches in those days. We eventually did get in at the Stretford End, but was right at the top, right at the back of this massive open end, no way a little nine year old could see a thing. So, on the day United won the league title, I had turned round and watched the Glovers Cables work team play a match on the pitch which was there in those days. I did go to the next match against Portsmouth though and saw the title presented. What was also very interesting in those days was that attendances fluctuated madly, For example, the Blackpool match was a lockout 62,000, and the Portsmouth match was slightly under 40,000.
Winning this championship put Manchester United into the European Cup, much to the annoyance to the Footballing authorities who had stopped Chelsea from competing the previous season. Matt Busby was not for changing though and he was determined to take his young, brilliant side into Europe. I did not go to the first match against Anderlecht played at Maine Road as Old Trafford had no lights, but I remember it like yesterday. Then, Manchester had two evening newspapers, the Evening Chronicle and the Evening News. What I remember about the night of the game was that they had pictures of all the Anderlecht team including pen pictures of what they had and could do in the game. They sounded as though they had come from Mars!
United beat them 10-0!
I went to a couple of contrasting matches around that time. I saw Bobby Charlton make his first team debut against his namesake side, Charlton Athletic, scoring two goals as United won 4-2. The reason Bobby got his chance was that on the same day, England were playing an International and Byrne, Edwards and Taylor were playing for them. Bobby took over from Tommy Taylor, showing the strength in depth United had, but also showing how Internationals took precedence. No Sky TV, no mobiles, no Facebook, no twitter, Black and White TV if you had one. A different world…
Two weeks after, Bobby was in the side again due to injury as United played lowly Everton. United on a record unbeaten run, so imagine the surprise as Everton won 5-2 at Old Trafford! That was a truly amazing result. Later that season, United’s chance of a treble was blown away by the brilliance of Real Madrid in the semi final of the European Cup and by the brutality of Aston Villa’s Peter McParland in the FA Cup Final. In later life I met Matt Busby a few times and he recalled the morning of that final. ‘I knew if all the team woke up fit and well on the day of the final there was no way we could not lift the cup, and so do the double, as we had retained the League Championship. Everyone did wake up fit and well, what I did not bargain for was McParland rushing at our goalkeeper Ray Wood and breaking his collar bone. Off he went, no substitutes in those days, so we played with ten men for virtually all the game and lost 1-2’
Matt Busby was even more confident that the following season that his young side would be virtually unbeatable. By the end of January 1958 they were in a good position in the league, in the quarter final of the European Cup and in the fourth round of the FA Cup. I went to that match against Second Division Ipswich Town at Old Trafford. It had snowed heavily around this time and I remember it being banked up in the paddock as I stood on the ledge to get a better view. Bobby Charlton had now got a permanent place in the side and scored both goals as United won 2-0 against the Alf Ramsey managed Ipswich side. Five of the side, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, Duncan Edwards and Tommy Taylor would never play at Old Trafford again…
A few weeks before this match, I had gone to Old Trafford to see United play Luton Town, Christmas Day 1957. Yes, Christmas Day! This would actually be the last time fixtures were played on that day, but until then it was regular feature of the fixture list. United won the game 3-0.
I lived close to Eddie Colman in Salford. Indeed, in later life his career is the story behind one of my books, ‘A Salford Lad’ You could get close to the players then, they trained at Old Trafford or The Cliff and you just went up to them, spoke to them, got their autographs. I can still see Eddie going down Trafford Road to Old Trafford with his boots over his shoulder. To show how you really got close, for one of my other books, ‘What a Game’ which I co-wrote with Fred Eyre, I interviewed a true Manchester United legend, John Carey. He recalled the night United won the 1952 league championship.’ We played Chelsea at Old Trafford and needed to win to lift the title. We duly did 3-0 and I even scored a rare goal! No floodlights those days so we kicked off at 5.45pm and after the game I had a bath, couple of beers, and then walked up Warwick Road, caught the bus home to Chorlton with the fans and when I got home my wife asked me to wash up whilst she put the kids to bed!’ So on the night John Carey lifted a cup he went home and washed some!
Times have changed, unrecognisable to people of my era really.
The reason those five players I mentioned from the Ipswich Town FA Cup tie never played at Old Trafford again, was of course, sadly due to the Munich air disaster. The week after that Ipswich cup tie, United played a famous league match at Highbury against Arsenal, winning 5-4 in one of the greatest games played by the team known as The Busby Babes. On that same Saturday, I was at Old Trafford with 19,000 others watching the reserves play Wolves. It was foggy, cold but watching United took all that away for a young lad. As I said earlier, you could walk around the ground which I did on that day standing behind the goals. United won a thriller 4-3, but for Geoff Byrne, Billy Whelan and David Pegg it would be their last ever match as they, like those other five players mentioned, would all perish at Munich a few days later. Two other players in the reserve side this day, Jackie Blanchflower and Johnny Berry would also never play again, as their injuries would not allow them to do so.
The death of arguably Manchester United, and Britain’s greatest ever side, The Busby Babes.
Young, unbeatable, made you proud.
This is part of a short series of feature articles to follow over the next couple of days by the esteemed author Roy Cavanagh MBE. You can buy his books on Amazon.