This was written for Red News shortly before I left for my visit to Manchester.
They Were My Heroes
1958 – 2008; a period of some 50 years. To some, it may seem like an eternity in time. However, for myself, and for thousands of Mancunians just like me who emanate from my era; on Wednesday, 6th February 2008, when we close our eyes in the silent minutes of quiet recollection and remembrance; that period of time will be crossed in just a fraction of a second. The kaleidoscopic myriad of memories of an era that is long since past and for the most part forgotten, will come flooding back to us all, and I expect it to be a very bitter-sweet and moving experience.
For Manchester United fans, wherever they may be throughout the world, the date of February 6th 1958 is firmly imprinted upon their hearts. It is a date which they remember just as easily as they do their own birth date. If you were to ask any one of them what the significance of that date is, the answer will come back at you faster than a bullet fired from a high velocity rifle. It is of course the date that a tragic accident involving the aircraft which was carrying the Manchester United party back home to Manchester from Belgrade in Yugoslavia, happened. It occurred at the Reim Airport, which was (it is no longer there today) situated in the beautiful Bavarian city of Munich, then in West Germany. The day upon which a legend began, and even today, still surrounds the young Manchester United team which was decimated in just a matter of seconds at the end of a slush covered airfield runway, on that dark, grey, snow filled, February afternoon.
7 Manchester United players were amongst the fatalities that afternoon, as was the Club Secretary, and 2 of the Club’s Coaches. 8 of Britain’s finest sporting journalists also lost their lives, as well as 1 traveling supporter, 1 passenger who had hitched a ride for that journey, and two members of the aircraft crew. Another player was to lose his life as a result of his injuries 15 days later. There had been 44 persons on board that aircraft when it had left Belgrade that morning – only 21 survived the accident. Of a total of 9 players who did survive, two would never play soccer again due to the horrific injuries which they received in the accident and only 4 of the remainder would go on to have careers in the game which had any real substance.
At the time of the accident, I was just a 13 years old schoolboy living in inner city Manchester. I had been growing up in the immediate austere post war years. The inner city areas of Manchester which surrounded the city centre back in that time were not hospitable places in which to live, and in today’s world, many of the dwellings in those areas would be condemned immediately by the local health authorities as uninhabitable. It was certainly a harsh existence for people who had been trying to rear families in those conditions. Most of the people who lived in those areas were unskilled and therefore were not privy to any kind of work that would pay a decent wage. Many were immigrants, but in the vast majority, were just honest to goodness hard working families whose parents just wanted to provide an escape for their children from the appalling conditions in which they had to bring them up.
Hours were long at work and even a Saturday morning back then was, for many thousands of people, a half working day. The majority of men found release in going to watch sporting activities – football in the autumn, winter and spring, and cricket during the summer months. It was not unusual, especially on Sunday mornings or afternoons, to see a few thousand spectators gathered around the touchlines of a football pitch in the local parks, standing there supporting their local amateur team. For children like me, it was much the same albeit it was playing instead of watching. Most of our waking hours were spent outdoors. For adult and child alike, football was a huge release and in Manchester, it meant that you were either a “Red” or a “Blue” meaning that you either followed Manchester United or Manchester City. The allegiance to these clubs was normally handed down through family generations. Ours was no different, and it was my Grandfather who had nurtured into me a love of Manchester United, and their history.
I had first started going to Old Trafford in the 1950/51 season, being taken there by my older brother Peter, to watch the Reserve team play. It was to be the beginning of a love affair which has lasted until today, and no doubt one which will carry on until the time comes that I draw my very last breath. I saw my very first senior game on September 1st 1954, and following United has been a roller coaster of a ride ever since that Wednesday evening. Periods of triumph, periods of disappointment, and at times, dark despair. However, also a period of tragedy and mourning, which even today, as I have entered my old age, still deeply affects me.
I was not to know when I attended that first senior game back in 1954 that I, along with thousands of my contemporaries, were to witness over the period of the next three and a half years such a pivotal period in Manchester United’s great history. On the last day of October of 1953, Busby’s hand had been forced more than a little by injuries to some of his senior players, and he fielded a team against Huddersfield Town, in a Division One game, that contained 6 players under the age of 21. The game finished 0-0, and Alf Clarke, the dapper little sportswriter who worked for the Manchester Evening Chronicle and reported on United’s games, led with this headline in his match report in the “Football Pink” that evening: “Busby’s Bouncing Babes Keep All Town Awake”. Little was Alf Clarke to know as he had penned that headline, just how affectionately the fans, and indeed the whole of Britain, would embrace the naming of the team “Babes.” Almost overnight, the press and the fans began referring to them as “the Busby Babes.”
To be in Manchester and following Manchester United in the 1950’s was a wonderful experience. Matt Busby had imposed his own personality upon the Club from the minute that he had taken up his appointment. He’d arrived when there had been no ground for his team to play upon, when training facilities were non-existent, when money to play in the transfer market was much less than adequate, and the players in the team which he had inherited, had lost six years of their young adulthood to a little matter called the Second World War. Undaunted, he had met the challenge head on, and as the years had passed the club fast became a family unit. Busby embraced everybody into that family; players, at whatever level within the club they were playing; staff; ground staff; scouts; tea ladies; laundry ladies; and even the fans. He made people belong. Remembering his first tentative steps as a young professional player arriving in Manchester in the late 1920’s to play for Manchester City, he was to tell that wonderful writer, Arthur Hopcraft; “I wanted a far more humane approach in a club than what I had found when I had first started out playing the game. Back then the younger lads were left to fend for themselves and were just left on their own. The first team players hardly recognized any of the younger players that were playing in the teams below them. There never seemed to be enough interest taken in them. The manager sat at his desk and you probably saw him once a week. From the very start, I wanted even the smallest member to be, and believe to be, a part of Manchester United.” That he was able to do that is beyond repute.
It was in this kind of atmosphere that my own love, and also that of the Manchester United fans, for the team so affectionately called the “Busby Babes” was kindled. There was at that time, such a close proximity between the Club and the local community. Nobody was “too important.” On the field, the “Babes” developed and imposed their own magnificent style on the game. Yes they had setbacks along the way, but they continued to stick to the principles, methods and styles, that Busby, Jimmy Murphy, Tom Curry, and Bert Whalley, had worked so hard to instill into them on the training grounds.
The club was so vibrant with youth and vitality. It was such a wonderful place to be around. Everybody was so approachable. The “Babes” captured the hearts and imagination of fans wherever they played. They were perfect ambassadors in everything that they did, and were such a credit to their club, the countries for whom they played for at international level, but mostly to themselves. They were stars, yes, and they knew it. But their feet were firmly planted on the ground. No big egos, no pretentiousness, no arrogance, just a huge love for the game of football, and for the club that they played for.
The years between September 1954 and February 1958 were years that gave me so much un-abandoned pleasure. I grew up alongside, and watching all those young boys and young men as they were maturing. I shared their highs and lows – laughed when they won, and was heartbroken whenever they lost a game. The future looked so bright for Manchester United because there was so much talent flowing through along the conveyor belt from the junior teams. The strength in depth was phenomenal. The successes came – 2 League Championships, an appearance in the F.A. Cup Final, and two consecutive seasons playing in the European Cup. It seemed as though the Club would be able to dominate English and maybe European football for at least the coming decade. Whatever was there to worry about?
I can still recall with great clarity that late Thursday afternoon in Manchester when the news began filtering through that there had been an accident at Munich. That memory never leaves me. The news that there had been fatalities was when I experienced for the very first time in my life, that awful, gut wrenching, churning feeling of loss. For me, one who was still so young, it was so incomprehensible that I would never again see the young boys and young men who had become my idols. The sense of shock and loss is just so hard to describe. It has stayed with me throughout my life time and I would imagine it is the same for my contemporaries. Even now as I have entered my old age, I still get so emotional about those dear young people. I have suffered loss and also tragedy in my lifetime, and I’ve been able to cope with it. However, the loss that was suffered at Munich is still there, it never goes. That sad gut wrenching feeling whenever I think back to that sad day will never go away.
In my possession here at home I have a video about the lives and careers of the “Busby Babes”. There are often times, now that I am in the twilight of my life, especially when I am on my own, when I’ll sit down and watch it in quiet reflection. It takes me back to those days and years of such carefree happiness. There are some wonderful moments in it that bring the memories flooding back. Memories of a wonderful set of young people who had time for everybody. Players who caught the bus on match day and would happily sit there joining in the banter with the same fans that were going to watch them. Players who gave their time and their energies willingly to the community. Players who always remembered from where they had come from. Players who never became detached from who they were and where they came from. Players who just loved the game of football and would have played every day if they could have. No moans about tiredness or fatigue or the number of games that they had to play – they just wanted to get out there and perform.
Sir Bobby Charlton tells of his time as a young boy when he was just starting out in the game, and how he was embraced in friendship by Tommy Taylor and David Pegg. Those two were already big stars by then, but the three of them were inseparable. Bob tells the story of how they would walk from their "digs" in Stretford, and on into Manchester city centre, to go and catch a movie at the cinema. They walked into town because as Bobby described it; "we found it boring to go on the bus." Can you imagine the pampered star players doing that today? Charlton also tells about the very first time that he accompanied them on one of these trips. "I thought that I'd better behave like a professional player. As we got to the cinema kiosk, I pushed forward and said "I'll get these lads - where are we sitting?" Tommy Taylor just grinned and said "just get three in the best Bob" which I did - only to find that practically all my first week's wages had disappeared!"
There is some footage showing Eddie Colman, Wilf McGuinness, and Bob Charlton leaving the old Players Entrance at Old Trafford. Wilf reflects as he goes onto say; “We were just ordinary, everyday fun loving lads who played football. Yes, we were the "Busby Babes" but to us, it wasn't like that at all - we didn't feel like "Busby Babes." We were just a team of pals who shared a great love of life, and football." He tells of how Eddie Colman was the fashionable, cheeky one and that he was the first of the players to wear "drainpipe trousers" and "winkle picker" shoes which were all the rage in men’s fashion wear at that time.
Dear Marjorie English, who was Eddie Colman's girlfriend, tells of how they would all gather around the piano in The Bridge, on Dane Road, on some Saturday evenings. Eddie used to have a favourite song – Frank Sinatra’s "Pennies from Heaven" - and he really fancied himself as a pianist/crooner. He adored Sinatra. The guy with the singer's voice, from what Marjorie says, was none other than Bobby Charlton! There is a lovely picture somewhere out there of Eddie at the piano, surrounded by Duncan, Bobby, Tommy, David, Wilf, Billy - all the single lads! A pint, and a sing-song, with their girlfriends, after a hard Saturday game. Superstars, certainly, but with their feet firmly on the ground!
The guy who was Eddie's closest friend recalls nights out with Eddie, and how, when Eddie was asked by girls what he did for a living, he would just tell them that he worked in Trafford Park, that he was a Docker, or his favourite line; "I'm a painter and decorator!" He really was a little imp and he had a devilish sense of humour which at times tested the patience of both Roger Byrne and Jimmy Murphy.
Brian Hughes MBE (who has written some wonderful biographies of some
of the "Babes") and is a really down to earth Collyhurst lad, tells of the atmosphere that abounded throughout the city in those heady days. As he said, some people used to say it was down to religion. Nothing of the sort - it was a religion alright - but the Manchester United religion. As he said, in those days you didn't need drugs – the biggest narcotic that you could get was "the Babes" - the city, and to some extent, the whole British sporting public, fed off them. He recalls a place that used to be in Livesey Street, Collyhurst, named "Harry's Barbers." This barber used to have pictures of all the United players up on the wall, and people would walk in and ask for a "David Pegg" or a "Tommy Taylor." They would then have their hair done in the same style as the named players.
Jimmy Saville makes an appearance in the first part of the programme, and passes opinions about "the Babes." He applauds himself for being the first to realize that the United lads were the first megastars outside of pop. I actually take issue with this, because I am more than certain that although Jimmy Saville was around in Manchester during that era, and was certainly the D.J. at the old Plaza Ballroom on Oxford Street, I am more than certain that he had little or no direct connection whatsoever with those lads.
Part Two of the video concentrates on United's first entry into Europe, and it's interesting to listen to Bill Foulkes, Bobby Charlton, Wilf McGuinness, and the late Ray Wood, talk about how it was perceived by the players at that time. They said that there was always excitement at the thought of playing against the foreign teams. Bill Foulkes makes some good points by pointing out that up to and including the first European experience, most of those foreign clubs were just names to the players. Just like the majority of the fans, they knew very little or nothing about them at all and never ever saw any of the teams play before they actually stepped out onto the field to compete against them. In the middle fifties, there was very little coverage at all of foreign football. Travel was very limited - people from Manchester traveled great distances to Blackpool, Morecambe, Southport, Rhyl etc for their holidays! Package holidays were unheard of in those days, and Spain was some hot country a long, long, way away!
Wilf tells of the day they traveled to Bilbao, in northern Spain for the first leg of that famous quarter final tie. The flight over to Bilbao on was horrendous. Bill Foulkes had been sat with his feet up pressing against a bulkhead in front of him. Unknown to him, his foot had hit a handle that regulated the passenger cabin heating and had switched it down to the lowest level. The Chairman, dear old Harold Hardman almost froze. Both Duncan Edwards and David Pegg who hated flying, sat for most of the journey with their heads buried in a sick bag! All of them had been expecting to deplane from the aircraft and step into blistering sunshine, but when they arrived it was throwing it down with snow and was bitterly cold. Eddie Colman stepped through the doors of the aircraft and on seeing the dark grey scene that lay before him immediately uttered the words; "Caramba! Just like Salford!" The morning after the game, they had arrived back at Bilbao Airport to find the aircraft covered in ice and snow. Together with the crew and the Press lads, they pitched in, took a hold on brooms and shovels, and cleared the ice and snow from the wings and fuselage of the aircraft. How ironic when you consider what just a year on in time would bring.
There is some wonderful footage of the actual game in Bilbao - footage that I had never ever seen before. I knew that the game had been played in atrocious conditions, but I didn’t realize just how bad it was until I saw this video. Today that game would never have been started. There is a wonderful clip showing Billy Whelan scoring United’s all important third goal. I knew the story behind it. How he had run from the half way line, beating man, after man, before firing the ball home from just inside the area. When I actually saw this, it's amazing that after 85 minutes, and in conditions
that were ankle deep in mud, just how he summoned up the strength and determination to go on that run, and then have the power to hit the ball so hard (and this was the old leather ball) and accurately into the top right hand side of the net. For me it is one of the all time great moments in United's history, because that goal gave those lads the belief that they could still go on and win the return game and make the semi-finals. Bob Charlton relates the story of the second leg. He was doing his National Service at the time, and couldn't get away to attend the game. That is, until an erstwhile Sergeant Major mentioned that he would love to see the game and that if Bobby could get the tickets, he would make sure that they got time off to go and see the match. Again some wonderful footage of the return game - for me, the most memorable game that I have ever attended in my whole lifetime, and the memory of that game will live with me forever.
Frank Taylor (who wrote the book "The Day a Team Died") talks about the relationship which the players had with the Press Corps. As he said, there were times that the players were criticized, but never, ever, did they take it to heart. However, as he pointed out, in those days criticism always tended to be constructive, and the press lads reported about football. Private lives were private, and as far as the press lads were concerned, they were out of bounds. Henry Rose, who was a lovely guy, and wrote for the Daily Express, once wrote a piece attacking Duncan Edwards for what Henry thought was over-robust play. A day or two after the article appeared, United were leaving for Dortmund in Germany, and Henry cornered Duncan in the airport lounge and told him not to take the article to much to heart. Duncan stopped him dead in his tracks; "Never even read it Henry" he told him. "You have your job to do, and I have mine - that's fair enough by me." Henry was gob smacked. Frank talks about how all the players and the press lads gelled on the European trips, and the fun that they had together. To them all, it was a huge great adventure. He tells of how the likes of little Eddie and Tommy Taylor used to plague the life out of Tom Jackson (M.E.N.) and Alf Clarke (M.E.C.) Ray Wood tells about how, when they had first traveled into Europe, they were all worried about the foreign food, so they took bags, and bags, of boiled sweets and chocolate with them. Bill Foulkes laughs when he recalls Johnny Berry taking a primus stove with him on every trip because he didn’t want to starve if the foreign food wasn’t up to scratch!
The third and last part of the video relates entirely to the accident and both Bill Foulkes and Harry Gregg relate their memories. It’s when I see this part of the video that my own hurt really begins and it floods back.
I can never ever forget the pall of mourning that affected Manchester on that afternoon and evening, and then carried on over into the next few weeks. Seeing the curtains of people’s houses closed for a week as a mark of respect. Pictures of the team also put up inside those same windows. Adult men and women weeping and showing their grief so openly in public places. I’ll never forget the exact moment when I heard that big Duncan had passed away or the hurt and sadness that hit me so hard again.
There was a tidal wave of sympathy which built up in the immediate aftermath of the disaster and it’s been said by many a misinformed journalist that because of this, Manchester United were able to expand their fan base dramatically. I personally do not agree with that. Yes, gates rose substantially immediately after the disaster, and even into the following season. but between 1960 – 63, they dropped significantly and in those 3 seasons the average gate hovered around 32,000. The real fan explosion began with re-birth of the club after winning the F.A. Cup in 1963 and the glorious era of Sir Matt’s third team which included Crerand, Stiles, Best, Law, and Charlton. It was in 1967 that the gate average exceeded 50,000 for the first time since 1958/59. It is certainly my contention that it was at this point that the press first started to become aware of United’s expanding home and international support. The attraction of fans to Manchester United was the exhilarating style of football which they played, and the aura of Sir Matt – nothing more, nothing less.
Other clubs and their fans have used Munich as an excuse to criticize United - and still do. They used to say that the Club cashed in on the sympathy and would get special treatment from both the F.A. and the Football League. Nothing more was ever further from the truth. I have yet to see any evidence of that ever being produced. There was a lot of jealousy within the game and there were, in my opinion, certain clubs who would have reveled in the complete demise of Manchester United. Within weeks of the disaster, a number of well known clubs tried to lure Jimmy Murphy away from Old Trafford.
Colin Shindler in his book “Manchester United Ruined My Life” stated: “Manchester United used to be supported by people who lived in Manchester. But after Munich, United were supported by people who couldn’t find Manchester on a map”. That kind of statement always gets under my skin. The facts don’t support what he is saying. There is a whole lot of rubbish generated by journalists who weren’t even around at the time of Munich, who have picked up on hearsay stories and embellished them for their own ego. One even accused United of; “wallowing in the misery of Munich, and using the disaster as part of the branding of the club.” It’s just utter nonsense.
Fans from other clubs are just the same, and Manchester City fans are notorious for it. To give you some examples of the things that I have heard:
“When are United going to stop squeezing every last penny out of the air crash?”
“I don’t like the way that United ruthlessly prolonged and marketed the wave of sympathy that followed the Munich thing. You have to ask yourself honestly – did United benefit or suffer as a result of that disaster?”
This is utter nonsense which has no real substance to it. If only people would only take time to check out the facts – but then again, that is too easy. It is like the proverbial rolling stone that gathers moss as it rolls along. These stories are always the same. Whether people like it or not, Munich is a part of Manchester United’s history. I would always argue for anybody to show me concrete evidence that the Club have ever exploited it commercially. If anything, the real truth is that the Club is always in a no-win situation – damned if they do, damned if they don’t – especially where the treatment of the survivors and their family dependants are concerned.
What it boils down to at the end of the day is jealousy – success does breed it. People should remember that in the 1950’s it was a regular occurrence that many United and City fans would attend each other’s matches. Fans just wanted to watch football. But in the 1960’s that culture began to change. Lancashire at that time housed over one third of the clubs in the First Division; United, City, Everton, Bolton, Blackburn, Burnley, Preston, and Blackpool and there was already a health rivalry between their fans. In the early 60’s there were new kinds of social freedoms that began to emerge especially with younger people. Young fans began a more vocal and identifiable allegiance to their clubs. The old culture of fan was replaced by a gradual culture of passionate one club loyalty and that has transcended down to the tribalism between fans that we see today.
I have to admit that personally I do yearn for those old days even though I know that they will never return. It’s why I am the nostalgic old sod that I am today. I enjoyed such happiness in those early years, such a sense of belonging and “being part of.” It was just such a wonderful and fulfilling experience, and one that I just wish with all my heart that our young fans could experience today. The club was tied by its umbilical cord to its grass roots support. Sadly over the years, that cord has been gradually severed, and I feel such a great sadness about that.
Whenever I return to the seat of my memories I remember the “Babes” with so much affection. They were my first love, and always will be. As Sir Matt once remarked to Michael Parkinson when asked the question; “if they had survived, what do you think they would have achieved?” I can recall watching the great man as he paused to give his answer. His face betrayed the feelings that welled up inside of him and there was the hint of a small tear in his eyes. Emotionally he responded; “I think that if they had entered it, they’d have even won the Boat Race.” I agree with that statement because believe me they would have taken some stopping.
At the end of that video, Harry Gregg comes out with some wonderful words about the boys that he played with for just so short a time:
“They say that they were the best team that we have ever seen. Well – maybe.
They say that they may have gone on to be the best team that we have ever seen. Well – again, maybe.
However, there is one thing that is for certain – they were certainly the best loved team that there has ever been.”
Such a powerful statement, and that love came from those dear boy’s humility; sportsmanship; the way that they lived their lives; the respect that they gave to their opponents whilst never fearing them; and from the way that they endeared themselves to the fans. They never considered themselves anything special and as Wilf McGuinness said; “just a great bunch of pals who happened to play football.”
I recall with emotion the last time that I saw them play against Ipswich Town in that F.A. Cup tie on January 25, 1958. After the game I had waited outside the main entrance to collect autographs for a friend of Jean Wyman’s the lady whom I had my little job with. I can remember so well the players coming out and signing. But the one thing that will always stay with me is the memory of little Eddie Colman coming out through the doors with a few friends. He was so happy and chirpy, almost impish. His personality was so infectious. He stood there laughing and joking with the kids and never left until the last piece of paper had been signed. Then he just walked away into the darkness with his friends - and was gone.
I miss them just as much today as I did when I was first aware of the real horror of what had happened on that sad, fateful day. Whenever I return to Old Trafford, I sit in my seat before a match. I close my eyes, and I can still see them. It is so easy for me to see Roger Byrne leading them out from the old tunnel, taking two taps of the ball up into his hands and then ballooning it up towards the Score Board End goal. I see Big Dunc’ emerging taking two giant leaps as he strides onto the pitch, heading an imaginary ball. I see the big smile of Tommy Taylor as he fires in balls at the goal and the triangle of little Eddie, Mark Jones and the big Fella’ moving the ball around in triangles in front of the popular stand. Those memories will never leave me.
On February 6th 2008, there is no other place in the world that I would want to be other than at Old Trafford. To be there to pay my respects to a wonderful group of people who gave me, and thousands just like me, so much happiness and pleasure, and who lost their lives pursuing not only their dreams, but also our dreams as well. Sleep on in peace dear boys. Your memory and legend will never die and you will always live on as the definitive heartbeat of our great club.