Lest We Forget

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By Matthew Jones

TODAY marks a significant day in the history of Manchester United Football Club.

56 years ago today will be remembered as the darkest day in United’s history. 56 years ago today was the Munich air disaster.

Out of the depths of tragedy though, something extraordinary arose. The spirit, mentality and style of the modern day United was born.

Fans this season are in danger of forgetting these core values that make up the DNA of our great club.

With the way things are going for United on the pitch this season, a campaign of huge transition and upheaval following the retirement of the club’s greatest ever manager (sorry Sir Matt) Sir Alex Ferguson, it’s easy to forget the club’s key motto ‘Believe’.

Many believe the Busby Babes would have gone on to dominate European football, were it not for that tragic, snowy evening in Germany on February 6, 1958, and that Duncan Edwards would have gone on to fulfill his mesmeric potential and become one of, if not the very finest player in United’s and even England’s history.

Of course, this is a nice nod to romanticism, but there’s no denying that Matt Busby’s Babes were a special and talented group of young men.

For example, recalling his memories of Edwards, a giant of a man who was equally comfortable playing at centre back, centre midfield or centre forward, Alex Ferguson said ‘I was lucky enough to see Duncan play for England Under 23s against Scotland – he scored a hat-trick. I trust Bobby Charlton’s opinion without question, and when he says Duncan, at just 21, was the best he ever played with, that tells you everything’.

Most people know the basics about Munich, but for those who don’t, the crash claimed the lives of 23 of the 44 people on board.

United were flying back from a European Cup tie against Red Star Belgrade and the team plane had stopped in Germany to refuel. The first two attempts to take off from Munich were aborted and, following a third attempt, the plane crashed.

21 of the people on board died instantly. Aeroplane captain Kenneth Rayment died a few weeks later from the injuries he sustained while Edwards – one of the eight players to die – passed away 15 days after the crash.

Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor, Geoff Bent, Liam Whelan and Edwards all died, along with club secretary Walter Crickmer, also Sir Matt’s predecessor as manager, trainer Tom Curry and coach Bert Whalley.

Of the others that died, there were eight journalists – Alf Clarke, Tom Jackson, Don Davies, George Fellows, Archie Ledbrook, Eric Thompson, Henry Rose, and Frank Swift, who poignantly was a former Manchester City player. Plane captain Rayment perished, as did Sir Matt’s friend Willie Satinoff. Travel agent Bela Miklos and crew member Tom Cable also died.

Most people are aware that United, under Sir Matt, went on to win the European Cup in 1968, 10 years after Munich, and were the first English club to do so.

If you’re not a United fan or are a young football fan, however, you might not realise just how good the United team under Sir Matt were before Munich and how the structure of United sides today, with a commitment to playing a brand of exciting, attacking football with flair and with a concentration on youth development and home grown players in particular, was first blueprinted by Sir Matt upon his arrival at Old Trafford in 1945.

Within two years, Busby had delivered United’s first trophy for almost 40 years, the 1948 FA Cup. United won the league title in 1952, but with an ageing team, the time was coming for Busby to bring young, homegrown players into his senior squad.

Roger Byrne became a regular at full back, and along with Jackie Blanchflower, they became the first two players to be called ‘Babes’. Centre half Mark Jones, who’d made a few appearances for 1952′s title winners, became a regular, as well as Eddie Colman and a boy in a man’s body – Edwards, who made his first team debut aged just 17.

United ran away with the 1955/56 title, with the average age of the team just 22.

Busby wasn’t satisfied with domestic domination alone tough and sought a new test in the shape of the European Cup. United entered for the first time in 1956/57, without the blessing of the Football League.

They demolished Belgian club Anderlecht 10-0 in the home leg of the preliminary round, and went on to beat Borussia Dortmund and Athletic Bilbao, before exiting at the semi-final, losing 5-3 to Real Madrid on aggregate.

On the home front, they retained their title, with Charlton scoring twice on his debut.

Despite the European disappointment, thoughts turned to capturing a third title in a row and another assault on Europe. With Busby paying a world record fee for a goalkeeper to bring in Harry Gregg, the 1957/58 season unfolded much like the previous two with smooth progress both domestically and in Europe.

After a thrilling 5-4 win against Arsenal at Highbury to open February, United headed for Belgrade and the European Cup quarter-final second-leg trip against Red Star.

Player Profiles:

Full back Roger Byrne (28) made 277 appearances for United, scoring 19 goals. He was described as an ‘aristocratic footballer, majestic in his movement’ by Sir Matt.

Another full back, Geoff Bent (25), who only made only 12 appearances due to Byrne being ahead of him in the pecking order, stayed loyal to United and was ‘good enough to hold a regular place in any team’, according to Sir Matt’s assistant Jimmy Murphy.

Colman (21), a half back who scored two goals in 107 appearances, was called ‘a terrific player who pushed the ball – never kicked it – and jinked past players’ by former United manager Wilf McGuinness.

David Pegg (22), a forward, played 148 games, scored 28 goals, and was described by Sir Matt as ‘very, very clever. Our best left winger by a mile’.

Half back Mark Jones (24), scored a solitary goal in 120 games and was renowned for being ‘a tough nut, who nobody took any liberties with on or off the field’ by fellow Babe Bill Foulkes, who died recently.

Jimmy Murphy said of half back Duncan Edwards (21), who had already made 175 appearances for United by February 1958, scoring 21 goals, ‘when I used to hear Muhammad Ali proclaim to the world he was the greatest, I used to smile. The greatest of them all was a footballer named Duncan Edwards’, while teammate Charlton said he was ‘the only player who ever made me feel inferior’.

Forward Tommy Taylor (26) scored a remarkable 128 goals in 189 games for the Reds, with Foulkes recalling ‘I rate him as one of the all-time best centre forwards in the game, and he had yet to realise all his potential’.

Another striker, Irishman Liam ‘Billy’ Whelan (22), scored 52 goals in just 96 games. ‘Billy was a magician with a ball at his feet. I really don’t think he knew how good he was and how much better he could have become. A world class forward. There is no doubt about that’ according to Albert Scanlon, a Babe who survived the Munich crash.

Remarkably, after Munich, United played a rearranged FA Cup fifth round tie against Sheffield Wednesday just 13 days later, with a patched up and new look side. Survivors Harry Gregg and Bill Foulkes played, alongside a mixture of other United players and new signings. Amazingly they won, 3-0. Even more magical was their fairytale run to the final, where one last bit of stardust eluded them as they were beaten 2-0 by Bolton Wanderers.

Charlton, who also came back to play before the end of the season, recalls ‘we had to pick ourselves up. It was our quest that Manchester United win the European Cup because if it hadn’t been for that accident we would have done it that year – of that I’m certain’.

Of course, they did eventually win the European Cup, beating Benfica 4-1 at Wembley, with Charlton scoring, as did another Manchester lad, Brian Kidd.

On the eve of the 50th anniversary in 2008, record United appearance holder Ryan Giggs, still playing at 40 and also a coach under Moyes, said young and foreign players coming into United today are taught about Munich and how it is a vital part of the club’s history and how important it is the squad learn about what happened. ‘Not only about the crash itself but also the success United had before it and how the team moved forward in the aftermath’ said Giggs.

What do surviving Babes such as Charlton, now a United director, make of the current United? What would the Babes that perished in Munich have made of today’s United?

A United very much resembling a new born foal, trying to find its feet under the stewardship of David Moyes, the first new manager the club has appointed in almost three decades – during which time the club has gone onto to prolong the Busby legacy with distinction and enjoy the most glittering era of success in its illustrious history.

Safe to say, they would not have been, or are not impressed.

But perhaps they would be or are more concerned with the way the legacy they helped create is starting to become forgotten by many fans, a matter of months into the new era.

Fans are becoming disillusioned with Moyes. They’re beginning to lose faith in the players and the team. Some in the Old Trafford crowd are beginning to become vociferous in their disapproval of the ‘decline’ of the club, and hoards are taking to forums, message boards and social media to voice their fears, anger and even contempt for the new regime.

A minority have even detached themselves from the club, or are threatening to – and not all of them are the plastic glory hunters, to whom failure and seasons without trophies and domination is alien.

I think, more than anything, this is what the Babes are or would be concerned, even shamed, by.

Aged 30, I am of the generation that has known nothing but Sir Alex at the helm and an era of stunning success, but I’m a dedicated fan and season ticket holder. United is in me and I absorb myself not just with supporting and watching the club, but immersing myself in its rich history. I’m not happy with the way the season has gone, of course I’m not, but I’m not ridiculous or spoilt enough to think that success can exist without failure and disappointment.

Of course, as one United following friend of mine pointed out, there’s a difference between being a spoilt brat and a genuine fan concerned at the direction in which David Moyes is taking the club.

It’s harsh to portray Moyes as leading us to our impending doom. No-one wants him to succeed more than himself. But the United job was not labelled the hardest job in football for no reason.

He should of course be given a reasonable amount of time. Fergie was given four years before he won his first trophy. With the way the game has evolved over 28 years, it seems unlikely that Moyes will be given a similar time frame in which to work his magic. Even to this hardcore fan and Moyes loyalist, I don’t think he can survive four barren years.

We all have differing views of what that ‘reasonable’ amount of time should be. In my opinion, he can’t be sacked before the end of this season. It’s February now but we all know already, come May, that this will have been a steep learning curve for Moyes. In the summer, he needs to build on the promise he showed in January by attracting Juan Mata to Old Trafford. Come the close of the summer transfer window, he and Ed Woodward will have had ample opportunity to stamp their own brand on the squad.

I would then give Moyes until the end of the 2014/15 season to shape United into his own mould and then judge him. Reasonably, if we’re out of the two domestic cups, needing a miracle to win the league and dreading having only a European trophy to play for (depending on if we’re in the knockout stages of any continental competition that is) – essentially being in the same position as we are now – then I can feasibly see him being sacked then.

We can cope with one season of not qualifying for the Champions League, although it will still be hard to swallow if we don’t. Financially we’ll cope. But if we go two seasons without qualifying for the top European competition, then Moyes will be dismissed. I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that. My feelings would depend on whether or not we’re making clear progress under him.

Say we didn’t qualify for the elite Champions League competition but perhaps won either the League Cup or FA Cup and, for argument’s sake, win or go far in the Europa League (should that be all we qualify for this season), then I would make a case for keeping him on. Again, any scale of success/failure will have to be measured against how the team are developing under Moyes.

All of this is fanciful right now and there are a lot of ifs and buts ahead, and I know that in this increasingly combustible and fractured world that the beautiful game exists today, time is a luxury most owners and chief executives are not enamored with. However, I urge patience and calm. Two commodities not readily available in United fans these days.

For now, and returning to this day, February 6, we remember the Munich air disaster. Those who survived but especially those that died. 56 years ago today, Manchester United experienced its darkest day.

So, for those fans thinking things are or have been bleak this season, those upset at our sudden, so called ‘decline’, those wanting this and that player sold and signed, those labeling David Moyes a failure, an embarrassment and calling for him to be sacked, and those who’ve only ever really experienced success and trophies, I hope this article has at least provided you with a little bit of perspective.

*While this article is written by my own hand, I have lent some stats, quotes and memories from the comprehensive and poignant tribute to the people that perished in the air disaster which is available on United’s official website today, which you can visit at Munich Remembered

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One Response to “Lest We Forget”

  1. Great read again, Matthew.

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