When football recommenced across the land after the war effort in 1945, little did people know that one particular football manager would strive to create a footballing utopia that could exert dominance for a sustained period and oversee a period of unmatchable hegemony.
Enter Matt Busby. His philosophy was to launch a visionary concept that would leave opponents awe-struck and dumbfounded by the quality available at his disposal, his imprint would have a lasting effect and would be ingrained into the Manchester United mantra as a vision that surpassed all that had gone before.
Back from the war in 1945 he had this notion of recruiting boys straight from school and teaching them while they were still of an impressionable age to play the game out of the Busby coaching manual, with severe weight placed on artistry, creative attacking freedom of expression. Busby saw football as something that should be exciting and, while he accepted that the foundation of the team must be a solid defence, he certainly didn’t limit his players to rigid tactics or defensive plans.
His boys quickly adhered to his viewpoints and they won the FA Youth Cup for five years running from its inauguration in 1952. Then he was ready to put his masterplan into action. He swept away the old boys, most of whom had seen service like him during the war and had won him the FA Cup in 1948 and the league in 1952, to set the Busby Babes free.
They didn’t let him down. They won back-to-back championships with a team that had an average age of 22, but it was in Europe that the Busby Babes turned heads and really made a name for themselves. In their very first home tie in the European Cup in September 1956, played at Manchester City’s Maine Road ground because Old Trafford didn’t have floodlights, they masterminded a sensational 10-0 victory against Anderlecht.
The Busby Babes possessed players with a fearless attitude, hunger to succeed, impressionable personalities due to their tender ages, and skill and creativity which belied their fledgling statuses as so-called rookies. These qualities not only left a lasting impression on domestic football, but saw England at the height of their powers.
Now suddenly the nation had a team looking capable of not only potentially challenging the best in Europe, but also supplying enough players to restore the England team to its former glory. For a start there was Duncan Edwards. He was only 21 when he died from massive injuries in Munich’s Rechts der Isar Hospital 15 days after he had been dragged clear from the runway carnage. But already he had more than made his mark with the promise of so much more to come for club and country. He had already won 18 caps and after captaining the England schoolboy team and the Under-23 side, he was regarded as the most gifted footballer to have ever wore the colours of Manchester United and England. The world was Edwards’ oyster, tragically his story is only legend and no-one will know just how far the boy would have gone, he could possibly have been recognised as the greatest ever footballer.
Edwards and Charlton have both been attributed with transforming the fortunes of British football, and both have been inaugurated into the Football Association’s distinguished hall of fame.
Even though the spirit of the Busby era was epitomised and encapsulated by Edwards’ vibrant attacking wing-play and colossus though he was, United were certainly not a one-man team. They had a balance and equilibrium that was quite bewitching with a fierce competition for places and an infectious work ethic typically associated with aspiring footballers. They had an attack oozing goals, led by the dominant Tommy Taylor who had scored 16 goals in 19 appearances for England. The United manager was spoilt for choice at inside-forward with the likes of Billy Whelan, Dennis Viollet, John Doherty and the emerging Bobby Charlton. He had a dazzling array of wingers in David Pegg, Albert Scanlon, Johnny Berry and Kenny Morgans. He could choose between the subtlety of Jackie Blanchflower or the rugged Mark Jones for centre-half. He had the mesmeric and captivatingly talented Eddie ‘Snakehips’ Colman to balance the power of Edwards in the half-back line. He had what Sir Alex Ferguson these days would describe as ‘great options’ and ‘strength in depth’.
In stark contrast to the modern day footballer the ‘get rich quick’ variety who drove to the game in their brash, flashy cars, the players would turn up at Old Trafford with boots in brown paper bags or rushing to the ground from the coal mines where they worked in the case of Bill Foulkes. Some were seen having a cigarette walking to the ground! They would walk into Old Trafford, signing autographs for the fans as they came in, super heroes who were ordinary lads nonetheless just living the dream.
There can be little doubting that but for that fatal third failed take-off, that Manchester United side were destined for anything they set out to achieve. They were leaving opponents in their wake as they tore apart teams on the domestic and global spheres. They captured the imagination of the country and certainly propelled England to new lofty heights combined with turning United into a all-mighty footballing juggernaut, their blueprint was clear for all to see but could be matched by no-one. Their legacy prompted envious casting glances from those inferiorly placed in comparison, which is why the grim reality that wrecked an unprecedented footballing class had the entire nation on mourning.
The legacy of the Busby Babes was so profound that the profile of Manchester United, that is still prevalent decades after the atrocity, is largely associated with that crop of talented youngsters. Our overriding desire to not allow such stars to become obliterated from our unique and prestigious history is emphasised by the Munich memorial tunnel, commemorative placards of those whose lives were savagely taken away and rare memorabilia that effectively means those Busby Babes are immortalised despite the travesty.
The scale of devastation Munich created was matched only by the grandiose renaissance of a football sleeping giant, as Busby’s recreation of the initial mould against all the odds rebuilt to claim the European Cup 10 years after the untold despair. The team’s recovery was nothing short of miraculous after Munich devastated Manchester United. With fans still singing ‘Hello, Hello, We are the Busby Babes’ from the Stretford End during home matches, they still carry the immortal aura that will forever associate their name with football.
Which is why today, on the 55th anniversary of the accident, take a moment or two to think about where Manchester United would be today had it not been for the genius of Matt Busby, a man who was on death’s door and had his last rites read more than once. His striking vision was the breath of fresh air English football desperately craved, and was very much the cornerstone and the catalytic dynamic required to ensure Manchester United left their print on the footballing map.
Lest we forget… The flowers of Manchester, the Busby Babes.