50 Years On – “The Wizard of the Wing”
He was the smallest, the oldest, and the vice - captain of that great “Busby Babes” team of the 1950’s. Born on June 1st 1926, in the Hampshire town of Aldershot, he was considered as being “too small” to make a career in football with the “Shots.” How wrong could people have been! So when he left school, he took a job as a trainee cinema projectionist. He played his formative years of football with local amateur teams. In 1945, shortly after he began his National Service, he was sent to India, and it was whilst he was playing out there for the British Army team that he came to the attention of a man named Fred Harris who was the Birmingham City Captain. After being demobbed in 1947 the man I am writing about signed for Birmingham City, first as an amateur, and then later as a professional. That man is Johnny Berry.
Johnny had a fairly productive time at St. Andrews and spent just 4 years there. His journey to Old Trafford came after he had destroyed United in a First Division league game in Birmingham, a performance that Matt Busby never forgot. With Jimmy Delaney having left a few months earlier for Aberdeen, United needed a fast, direct winger who had experience to help with their push to achieve their first championship win since 1911. So it was then that in August 1951, United paid Birmingham 25,000 pounds for the diminutive little winger. He had an immediate impact and United duly achieved their aim, being crowned Champions at the end of the 1951-52 season for the first time in 41 years. Berry’s debut game came on September 1st 1951, at Burnden Park in front of 52,239 fans, in a game against Lancashire arch rivals, Bolton Wanderers, which United lost 0-1. United’s team that day was; Allen; Carey, Redman; Gibson, Chilton, Cockburn; Berry, Pearson, Rowley, Downie, Bond. His first goal for the club came just two weeks later on September 15th at Maine Road in a 2-1 victory for United – a nice start to his “derby” career! He made a total of 36 appearances that season scoring 6 goals, and collected his first Championship winner’s medal.
Johnny was extremely quick and would run at defenders with pace and could move the ball with either foot which enabled him to go either inside or outside of his marker. He was an exquisite dribbler and was a nightmare for a full back to mark. His crossing was deadly accurate with either foot and United’s strikers benefited a tremendous amount from the service that he provided. He was also dangerous in that he would also drift into the middle and suddenly arrive inside the penalty area unsuspected and would be there hammering the ball into the back of the net. For a little fellow, he packed quite a shot, again with both feet. He was a delight to watch especially when he was in full flight. That he only won 4 caps for England is again one of football’s travesties in my opinion. You have to remember that occupying the outside right berth in the England team during those years was a certain ageing, Stanley Mathews. The national team was also picked by a Selection Committee at that time which was made up of several League Club Chairmen – a sad state of affairs, and the reason why the England team was hardly consistent from one game to the next!
I often wonder how today’s fans would view Johnny Berry. To be honest, as they adore a certain young Portugese young man who wears the current number 7 shirt, I am more than certain that they would also have taken Johnny to their hearts. For all of his short stature, Johnny had the heart of a lion. He faced some of the toughest full backs in the game during his time at United, and was targeted for brutality on many occasions. This was a time when there was so much robust physical contact in the game and defenders could tackle from behind and get away with it. He had an unflappable temperament and was just so exciting to watch. Like Cristiano today, Berry could certainly get your arse on the edge of a seat – he completely baffled and bewitched full backs with his trickery, and this produced an awful lot of end-product!
As I said, his international career was so short. He went on the South American tour of 1953 and played in all three games. His next and last cap came some 3 years later in a game against Sweden in Rasunda which ended in a goalless draw. There was some tremendous wingers about during his time and no one could ever say that Tom Finney wasn’t worth his place in the team – but he operated mainly in the left wing berth, and there were many players who got caps during Berry’s time who were nowhere near as good as him. Stan Mathews, as Sir Matt once so aptly put it, loved to “play the Paladium” meaning he loved London and particularly Wembley, but he never liked playing at the likes of Old Trafford, Burnden, Hampden Park, Ninian Park, or Windsor Park!
Johnny reveled in seeing the young “Babes” being introduced around him. He was vice-captain of the team and had the nickname of “Digger” which referred to his powerful shot. As the “Babes” came to the fore – in that Championship winning team of 1956, only he and Roger Byrne remained from the team that had won the Championship some four years earlier. As United entered the new European Cup competition, he was paranoid about flying and certainly didn’t like it, which was the same for a few of the younger players as well. He was always suspicious of foreign food and used to take his own “goodies” with him on the foreign trips, together with a primus stove, which was often the source of merriment from the young lads.
He was an essential cog in that young team, and his form on the whole was so consistent. He also scored some very vital goals and amongst those that I can remember are the one against Bilbao at Maine Road that took United into the European Cup semi-final at their first attempt; the winner against Bournemouth at Dean Court in the F.A.Cup 6th round tie in 1957 that took them into semi-final; the winner in a crucial home League game against Blackpool at Old Trafford in April of 1956 which gave them a 2-1 victory that ensured the First Division title. He was also United’s spot kick expert for a number of years, having taken over the role from Roger Byrne.
Unfortunately for Johnny, in the middle of the 1957-58 season, Busby decided he needed to freshen up his team, and in the December of 1957, after a run of bad results he took action. He bought Harry Gregg from Doncaster Rovers for a British record fee for a goalkeeper of 23,500 pounds. On Saturday, December 21st 1957, Gregg made his debut against Leicester City at Old Trafford, consigning Ray Wood to the Reserves. Also left out of the team were Johnny Berry, Billy Whelan, and David Pegg, and they made way for Kenny Morgans, Bobby Charlton and Albert Scanlon. Sadly for those left out, none would ever play a competitive game in the first team again.
We all know that sad events of the tragedy, and it is amazing that Johnny Berry ever survived at all. His injuries were so horrific; fractured skull, broken jaw; broken elbow, broken pelvis, broken leg. When his wife Hilda arrived at the Munich hospital her first sight was one of him surrounded by packs of ice which was there to try and keep the swellings and bruising to a minimum. He was also in a coma and remained so for almost two months.
Sadly when he returned home to Manchester months later, he still had no clear idea of what had happened, and initially thought that he had been in a car crash. On the flight home from Munich he was accompanied by two nurses who had a bag full of tranquilisers should he have had any sudden flashback to the disaster. He was admitted into a Manchester hospital upon arrival and even then had to undergo the removal of all his teeth to help with the jaw injuries. His first knowledge of what had happened came when he picked up a newspaper which had a report of a United game on the back page, and when he saw the team line-up, he could not believe it. He badgered the nurse and she had to call a doctor who explained to him exactly what had happened. After Johnny asked about his team mates, the doctor went through the team name by name, and the doctor told him whether they had survived or not. Although he had been inside that ill-fated aircraft, he must have been the last person in the world to know it.
His injuries meant that he was never able to pursue his career in football again. He took a job with Massey Ferguson in Trafford Park but in 1960, United asked him to vacate their club house in Davyhulme to accommodate the signing of Maurice Setters. All I’ll say is that it was a sad state of affairs and one that made the Berry family understandably, very bitter. The family moved back to Aldershot his home town, and Johnny and his brother Peter opened a sports shop in the little village of Cove, close by. In 1963 I can recall that I was playing in a match at Aldershot, and needed some studs for my boots. I called in to Berry’s sports shop and it was John that actually served me. He spent great time advising me on what type of studs I needed and he actually fitted my boots with them for me. We spent time talking a little about Manchester but neither he nor I mentioned United. He looked a sick man even then. The sports shop business went on for 20 years, and Johnny spent the last few years of his working life as a storemean in a television retail chain warehouse. Sadly, he didn’t enjoy a long retirement passing away in March 1994 aged just 67 years.
Johnny Berry played 276 games in all competitions for United scoring 45 goals.