50 YEARS ON – Roger Byrne
“Captain Marvel”, “Captain Fantastic”, “Captain Reliable”. All accolades given to Captains of Manchester United during the last thirty years. United have had some great Captains at the Club down through the years and they have all left their own legacy on the Club’s history. Roger Byrne is certainly up there with the best of them, and he led by example on the field, and with quiet effective authority off it. He was certainly the buffer between the dressing room and the manager’s office.
Roger Byrne’s progression to Manchester United began at the Ryder Brow Boys Club in the Gorton area of Manchester. He initially played at inside forward and his wing partner back in those days was a person who was also going to go on and represent his country, but alas, at a different sport. That person was a certain J.B. “George” Statham who was to find fame and glory as a fast bowler with Lancashire C.C.C. and England.
Roger was never a schoolboy star, but he must have taken the eye in his performances with Ryder Brow for he was taken on at Old Trafford as junior, initially as an inside left. Again his progress was halted as he had to complete his National Service Service and he was enlisted into the R.A.F. It was quite amazing to find out that during his service time, he was considered as not good enough to play in the Station football team and so ended up having to play rugby! National Service completed, he returned to Old Trafford and it was then that his career began to progress.
He was a deceptive type of player and many outside of Old Trafford came to the conclusion that there would be no place for him in regular First Division football. There is a record of a scout’s report produced after one of Roger’s performances for the Reserve team which read as follows; “Heading – Poor; Tackling – Ordinary; Right Foot – Fair; Left Foot – Non-Existent; Overall Impression – Disillusioned.” The scout could not have got it more wrong, and fortunately for the staff at Old Trafford, they saw the real qualities in him and were able to bring those to the fore as he started to mature as a player. His chance came on November 24th, 1951 when he was selected at left back for the game at Anfield against Liverpool which ended in a 0-0 draw. He was to be ever present from then on in what was to be the first Championship winning team since 1911. He played on the left wing for the last six games of that season, scoring six goals in the process.
Although the 1951/52 season finished with him winning a First Division Championship medal, the following season saw him become discontented. To some people they saw him as arrogant with a big ego. Without doubt, Roger Byrne was very singe minded even to the point of being stubborn. The cause of his discontent was the fact that he didn’t like playing at outside left. He pointed out to Matt Busby that he was more at home playing in a defensive role and preferred the left full back berth. Busby unhesitatingly told him that he would play in whatever position that he was selected to play in and that there was no negotiating about it. There was an impasse between manager and player and Roger handed in a transfer request. Johnny Carey was the Club Captain at the time and he took Roger to task about the situation as did Allenby Chilton and Jack Rowley. They all pointed out that something new and exciting was about to be unleashed on British football from within Old Trafford. The three elder statesman explained to Roger that they were nearing the end of their careers and that a defensive position would be his for cementing if he buckled down to it, and that the young players that were beginning to emerge within the club from the junior teams would make Manchester United the team of the future. Fortunately, after being shown the error of his ways, Roger withdrew his transfer request. Busby had left him out of the team for a few games after his transfer request, but once it was withdrawn he put him back in – at full back, and he was to stay there for until fate curtailed his career.
Johnny Carey retired and Allenby Chilton was made Club Captain, and Busby’s man management skills showed when he made Byrne the team’s vice-captain. There was no doubt in the two years that followed, Byrne learned much from Chilton’s leadership and Busby’s management skills even though the former was very autocratic. He bridged the gap between those young players in the dressing room and Chilton, and was also their bridge to the manager. He truly blossomed as a full back and it wasn’t too long before he began to catch the eye of the international selectors with his displays. Byrne was extremely quick, and was never one for diving into the tackle. He was slightly built for a full back but had a very good tactical brain. It was unusual that he played in that left back role because his stronger foot was his right foot, but it never seemed to deter him. He would “jockey “ wingers into positions where he wanted them to be and was so adept at “nicking” the ball away from them. He was masterful at reading the game and had an uncanny sense of anticipating danger which was often seen when he came across to the middle covering behind the centre half whenever the situation was needed. Jimmy Armfield was given the tag of the first full back to start the “overlapping full back” ploy. This is nonsense. Roger Byrne was the first full back to be seen to do this regularly in games. As a player with the experience of having played on the wing, he was always very comfortable at getting forward and supporting attacking play.
Even today, Roger Byrne is probably one of the quickest defenders I have ever seen. His recovery speed was phenomenal and many was the time as I watched games, wingers would have thought that they had “skinned” him, only to find that he was there in front of them again. On April 3rd 1954, he made his debut for England against Scotland in the cauldron that was Hampden Park and shone in an England victory by 4-2. This began a run of 33 consecutive international games for his country. Quite phenomenal back then when players were in and out of the team at the whim of selectors. Billy Wright, the blue eyed golden haired man from Wolverhampton Wanderers was the England skipper, but I’m sure that Byrne would have succeeded him in that role. To be honest, in my opinion, Wright was past his sell by date from the mid fifties onwards, and was very fortunate indeed to amass 100 caps.
At United, the “Babes” were starting to emerge. In 1955 Chilton retired and Busby appointed Byrne as the Club Captain. It was the only choice because Roger was a born leader in reality. He kept the “kids” in check and was never afraid to take them aside and have a “quiet word” if he thought that they were transgressing or that their off the field activities were beginning to affect their form. He wasn’t autocratic as Chilton had been but he had this calm, confident manner that players respected and his authority never came into question. His relationship with Busby deepened and I am sure that in Roger Byrne, Busby saw the man who would eventually take over the mantle from him as Manager of Manchester United.
The “Babes” were a wonderful set of young men led by an exceptional Captain. They were different in that they were all big friends even away from the playing side of their lives. Roger met his future wife Joy when he enrolled on a physiotherapist’s course at Salford University. Joy was on the same course and their relationship blossomed as the course progressed.. He was the only United player at that time to own a car, not that he was a prolific driver! Shortly after he had obtained a permanent driving licence, Busby was at home in King’s Road, Chorlton cum Hardy one evening, when there was an almighty crash outside of his home. On going out to investigate, he was confronted by the sight of Roger in his car half way down his front lawn after having crashed through the garden wall!
Success came to the “Babes” in that 1955/56 season when they won the First Division Championship with the youngest team ever and by the largest difference in points from the team finishing second. I can recall racing across the Old Trafford pitch from the “Glover’s side” at the conclusion of the last home game of that season against Portsmouth on April 21st 1956, to see them presented with that wonderful old Championship Trophy. The crowd was huge in front of the old main stand and player’s tunnel as Roger led his young team up a makeshift stairway and podium to be handed the trophy by Joe Richards, the Football League Chairman. Those young boys mounted the platform at the top of the stairway and their smiles and exuberance told such a story. As Byrne brought the trophy and his team down the stairway, they were happy to talk to the fans, show their medals and allow fans to touch the trophy before they disappeared up that tunnel and into the sanctity of the dressing room. No laps of honour back in those days!
The following season, Roger led his “Babes” into Europe, and his performances were inspirational. He led from the front and on the field he could also be a “minder” to some of the younger players. I can recall a game against Aston Villa at Old Trafford in September of 1957, when the Villa left half, Stan Crowther (who was to join United later that season on the night of that first game after Munich against Sheffield Wednesday) was giving Billy Whelan a turgid time physically – in fact he was lucky to stay on the field. Byrne had a word with Crowther and got no real response. He bided his time and it came in the form of a long high ball dropping towards him as Crowther moved to close him down. Roger was quite deliberate in what he did and he met the ball full on the volley with his right foot. It went with the speed of a bullet and Crowther could not get out of the way as the ball hit him full in the face knocking him out. He was taken off the field with concussion and never returned to the game. Roger let no one take liberties.
He and Joy had married in early 1957 and had settled down in Flixton. Life was good apart from the away trips into Europe which kept them apart. United retained their title in 1956/57 and narrowly failed in their first European quest, as well as falling valiantly to Aston Villa in the F.A. Cup Final. Despite being on the end of the most violent premeditated act of violence that I have ever witnessed on a football pitch which left his team a man short for most of the game, the mark of Roger Byrne the man, was shown after the final whistle in the match had blown. Despite the bitter disappointment of losing at Wembley in the Final, and despite the nature that alluded to that loss, Byrne gathered his young team mates around him, and as Johnny Dixon, the Villa Captain, arrived at the top of the Royal Box, Byrne led his young charges in applause for the victors of the day as they received the famous old trophy. I could never envisage anything happening like that in this modern era. I will always recall a newspaper headline from the morning after that Final which said; “Villa Get The Cup But United Get The Glory” – never were truer words ever written.
The following season, 1957/58 was looked forward to so much. The word “treble” was now in the football vocabulary, and this was United’s aim that season. They started out brightly enough but had a mid season “blip” and going into February of 1958 they were second in the League table just 6 points behind Wolves, who were scheduled to play at Old Trafford on February 8th. After losing a League game to Chelsea on December 14th 1957 by 1-0, Busby decided to freshen up the team. He went out and bought Goalkeeper Hary Gregg from Doncaster Rovers for a British record transfer fee for a goalkeeper of 23,500 pounds. For the game against Leicester City on December 21st at Old Trafford, he left out Wood and introduced Gregg, and also left out Berry Whelan and Pegg, introducing Morgans, Charlton and Scanlon. The side that was then ever present for the next 11 games leading up to that fateful afternoon in Munich hit a rich vein of form. In those games in all competitions, they won 7 and drew 4, scoring 34 goals and conceding 16 in the process. They were back on track led by their inspirational Captain.
In Belgrade in the evening after the game against Red Star which had seen the team ease into the European Cup semi-finals, spirits were high at the reception that followed the game. Formal speeches were made and Byrne led the players in a rendition of Vera Lynne’s famous old wartime song of “We’ll Meet Again”. Sadly that was never to be. He again showed the other side of him as some of the younger players grew restless and impatient as midnight approached. They wanted to leave and visit a watering hole. Roger wrote a message on a napkin and passed it up to the top table where Busby was sat. The message on that napkin read “You promised the boys that they could leave once formalities were over. Permission to go?” A simple nod of the Manager’s head acquiesced to the request, and the young guns were away to enjoy themselves.
We all know the tragedy that was Munich and at what cost it came. Roger died instantly in the carnage of the disaster and Harry Gregg found him on the tarmac with not a mark upon him and with his eyes wide open. Even today, Harry sadly regrets not closing his eyes. Roger was just two days short of his 29th birthday. The biggest sadness was also that he was not to know that Joy, his wife was pregnant, and that he was never to see his son Roger junior. Roger’s body, together with those of his colleagues was flown home to Manchester and they rested initially in the gymnasium underneath the main stand at Old Trafford. The young policeman who had the duty of guarding the gymnasium door that night recalled that it was the longest and saddest night of his career. After a funeral service at Flixton Church, Roger was laid to rest.
United lost not only a great skipper that sad day, but also a man of great integrity, a born leader. He was certainly a man that exuded class and was full of charisma, whose sense of fair play and leadership, gained him the respect of not only his team mates, but everybody who came into contact with him. His tongue could be sharp at times, but those young kids accepted him and his discipline without question. He was simply their Captain.
Rest in peace Roger. I can still see you even today, leading those “Babes” out of the tunnel, tapping the ball up twice into your hands then kicking it up into the air towards the Scoreboard End goal. So many memories of a wonderful human being.
Roger played 277 games for United scoring 19 goals. He also made 33 consecutive appearances at international level for England.