22 men stepped out on the consecrated Wembley turf. In a bid to declare their supremacy upon the other and to send a slow, albeit impactful message to the rest of the technologically-deprived footballing world, these 22 men would take part in a match that change the way football was perceived in one of the countries. Amidst a raucous atmosphere – over 105,000 watching fans, England played Hungary with the precedent making the result unpredictable. The “originators of the game”, England, had never lost to foreign opposition on home turf in their history except for a Republic of Ireland side in 1949, which largely consisted of English-based players, and Hungary, were the Olympic Champions, having reigned supreme in Helsinki in 1952 and the best team in the world at the time.
This complex narrative was sure to create an interesting encounter, one year prior to the 1954 World Cup finals in Switzerland. A friendly that would not be played as one, both sides wanted to take this opportunity to show off their mettle and prove their credentials. Hungary were quintessentially a group of amateurs as many in their side served in the local army, while England, a side that was supposed to be well-organised and dominant on and off the pitch, were almost at the same level of their counterparts, only participating in the sport around matchdays and failing to maintain good health. Nevertheless, it was still a meeting that was set to serve its purpose of sporting entertainment of the highest quality.
An hour in, and the match was done and dusted. Hungary, were the sharpest of knives as they stabbed straight through the heart that was England and English football. Their knife deeply pushed into the naivety that the WM formation possessed and fashioned a difficult watch for the paying audience. It was the perfect murder. The first half was just the honing of the knife shrewdly planning the kill, while the second was the most brutalist of stabbings and subsequently vile thrusting. It was the death of English football, as its rise was proven to be just being a mere sugar-coat of what they were lacking. The autopsy revealed that England were using outdated tactics and lacked the strategical nous to change into what they aimed to be or challenge the elite of the ‘50s. Over the course of the game, they were outplayed by their supremely clever Hungarian counterparts, but luckily for them, change was right around the corner, but not before the burial in Budapest in the following year with an emphatic 7-1 defeat.
Around the time Hungary won gold at the Olympics, England were going through some huge changes of their own in their domestic football. Matt Busby, the former Liverpool and Manchester City footballer was leading the football revolution in post-war England, although it was aptly ignored, despite winning a league title. Busby was leading the charge with his brilliant, young Manchester United side who decided to develop and promote from within rather than depend on imports and set the norm for the club for generations to come. It all started at Anfield in 1951, where Busby’s Manchester United, featuring several of their young players took on a Liverpool team featuring Bob Paisley and Jimmy Payne amongst other notable names. The game finished 0-0, but it was the performance from players like the debutants Roger Byrne and Jackie Blanchflower that caught the eye and prompted Manchester Evening News journalist Tom Jackson to nickname the side as the ‘United Babes’, and later, the ‘Busby Babes’.
Matt Busby would prove to be one of the key catalysts for change in the English game, and his Manchester United side would revolutionize English football in the ’50s. He changed the way coaches were in the British Isles, and its effect would be felt on the city and the football club. Pre-war, managers and players were almost two separate aspects of a football club as the men at the helm being more comfortable setting up their team while seated comfortably behind a desk, but Busby followed none of that. He brought along the now-popular concept of the “tracksuit manager” and worked with his players during training sessions. It was this sort of mentality that was needed to change the way the sport was treated, and Manchester United were lucky to have a person that would bring reforms.
Whether his players liked him or not, he was respected throughout his managerial spell in the northwest of England which lasted 24 years between 1945 and 1969. In the 2011 drama-documentary, United, largely told from the Bobby Charlton perspective about this era, there’s a scene that involves Busby’s assistant, Jimmy Murphy, telling a young, aspiring Charlton to keep in mind and play for the joy of the hard-working Mancunians who paid their well-earned money to watch their football team play over the weekend. It later goes on to show Murphy asking Charlton to practice using both his feet in a smog-laden alley and although the film isn’t a wholly accurate depiction of the golden era (it was apparently Wilf McGuiness who worked with Charlton in reality), it is what Busby demanded – hard-working attitudes and maximum, effective work with a football.
Johnny Carey, who was a former captain of the club and witnessed the transition from pre-war to post-war, tasted a first-hand experience of the changes Busby brought to United. “When I joined United in the 1930s, Scott Duncan (former Manchester United manager in the late- ‘30s), with spats and a red rose in his buttonhole, typified a soccer manager. But here was the new boss playing with his team in training, showing what he wanted and how to do it. He was ahead of his time.” Football in England was changing, and Manchester United, led by Matt Busby and inspired by his young, hungry army, were at the centre of it.
In the game between England and Hungary at Wembley, none of Manchester United’s title-winning side of 1951/52 featured, instead, it was built largely with Blackpool and Tottenham players, who were also the dominant forces at the time. Manchester, a city known for its industrial prowess, was shifting away from its tradition and more people started paying attention to its football, with Manchester United being its pride. The effects of the Second World War were felt on the city and the football club, and the latter helped people in this period of gradual, albeit proud transition. Attendances at games started to grow, going from around 600,000 pre-war per season to over 800,000 per-season after it and at the peak of their powers, and these young shoulders that would ideally feel the pressure of having to entertain and represent a whole city, played like they had the whole world in the palm of their hands.
The club’s rise coincided with the ascent of social and cultural proceedings in the country, post-war. Not only was it football matches that saw attendances rise, but also film, theatre and higher education that saw an increased interest. Over 40 million people watched various sports per year and that number only continued to grow after 1948, and with that, wages for athletes all over the country continued to grow as they earned equal or more that dockers and miners. United, meanwhile took full advantage of the situation, as they growth and subsequent success helped the club off the pitch as well, as turnstiles were constantly crowded and long queues at ticket offices.
After winning the title in 1952, their first in 41 years, with Jackie Blanchflower, Roger Byrne and minimally Johnny Berry, who were the original ‘Babes’ they added David Pegg, a flyer down the left flank to their ranks in the same year, and further improved in the following year (where they also won the inaugural FA Youth Cup) through the additions of Duncan Edwards, Dennis Viollet, Liam Whelan and Tommy Taylor, the latter, just like Johnny Berry, was purchased, not home-grown. Central to Manchester United’s hopes was the Manchester United Junior Athletic Club (MUJAC) that was formed in 1937 by then club secretary Walter Crickmer and Chairman James Gibson in the hope of developing young footballers. The Youth Team flourished before the war and won the Chorlton Amateur League in 1939 amassing a sensational 223 goals in the process and providing great hope for the future.
Roger Byrne, having made his debut for the team in 1951, proved that he was the obvious choice for captain in 1953, at the age of 24 following the retirement of his predecessor Johnny Carey. It was the reward for years of hard work by the players, and while Matt Busby can take a lot of the credit for the success of his young squad, similar praise must be heaped on his assistant, Jimmy Murphy, who was an equally knowledgeable man, owning sufficient capabilities to mould his coal into diamonds. Busby and Murphy met in a training match while serving their country in Bari, Italy during the second World War, and both are equally responsible for shaping the course of this struggling football club and making Manchester United the force it is today.
It was the spring of 1945, where Jimmy Murphy was delivering a fine speech about football to a group of troops. In attendance was Matt Busby, slowly, carefully convincing himself that he was looking at the man to support him in his task at Manchester United. In the early 1950’s it was Murphy that displayed the model to his players. While Busby was the innovative ‘tracksuit boss’, his assistant was the revolutionary right-hand man who implanted the mental responsibility that was required to take this club to the next level. Every young footballer needs a guiding hand and as Matt Busby told his players what he expected of them, Jimmy Murphy made it certain that they were up for the task.
So, here’s a group of footballers, many playing the game they love for their local team and almost single-handedly changing the course of subculture and pop culture in this historically great city. The club, born less than a century prior to this magnificent era were now heavily involved in giving its hard-working people something to cheer away from their intense working lives, while also lifting the spirits of the city following severe destruction during the Second World War. They won league titles in 1956 and 1957, as Matt Busby’s young men took the dominance away from London and the West Midlands and brought it to the North West of the country.
The early ‘50s, apart from United’s success in 1952, was dominated by the two North London clubs, Tottenham and Arsenal as well as Chelsea, although their success was brief. From the West Midlands, it was a brilliant Wolverhampton Wanderers side that was arguably the best team in the world at the time, while coastal Blackpool, led by the great Stanley Matthews, had a great influence on England and the England national side. Manchester United’s rise brought seismic shift to the state of English football, and despite being in existence for a long time, it could be argued that this signalled the true arrival of the industrial towns in the football picture.
Between 1952, Matt Busby’s first league title and 1956, his third title, the squad went from strength to strength, adding the likes of Wilf McGuiness, Albert Scanton, Eddie Colman and one Bobby Charlton to their ranks. The Busby Babes were now ready to take on the world. Long gone were the days where work in the cotton mills was followed by drinking nights at bars, or street brawls with goons as evenings were spent watching glorious football under the Old Trafford lights. The progress of the Manchester United and Manchester United Junior Athletic Club teams drew large audiences as the senior side would benefit from this astute promotion model. Despite objections from The Football League, they would become the first English side to participate in the fascinating European Cup in 1957, recording their biggest-ever win against Anderlecht by a 10-0 score line, and despite failing to make it past the semi-final stage, losing to eventual winners Real Madrid, it was a season of pride for the city.
Duncan Edwards would be the epitome of Matt Busby and Jimmy Murphy’s ideology, for he was their best player. Having made his first-team debut aged 16 and later his international debut at 18, he was the most gifted of the lot. A player that was good enough to play anywhere on the pitch, he combined his power with his skills on the ball and was given the respect that he deserved at such a young age. His development was far different from the others, standing at less than 6 feet tall, his pictures from his days playing in the Youth Cup in his early teen years made a parody of his age, as he was a giant of a man. A person destined for greatness in a team that would change the norm, but just like that, he along with seven others were aboard a fatal flight in Munich in 1958 and would never play again.
It could be argued that he was Manchester United’s greatest-ever player, but for him and several others, it was a case what more they could possibly have achieved. Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Matt Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor, Liam Whelan, Bill Whelan and Duncan Edwards passed away, the latter, 15 days after the tragedy, while Johnny Berry and Jackie Blanchflower, the first batch of ‘Busby Babes’ ended their careers in the same year, both due to injuries suffered from the crash – the former even going through a brief period of amnesia. The greatest club in England lost its brightest stars and the city that suffered so much a decade-and-a-half prior to the incident were in mourning again. They truly were the flowers of Manchester, and for Matt Busby, who suffered extreme injuries as well, it was another rebuilding job which was a testament to his determination. Luckily for him, he had an old friend to help him out and bring the club back on its feet and allow him an easier transition back into the game.
Jimmy Murphy, who was given the task of leading Wales to the World Cup in 1958, came back to Manchester United as caretaker boss and commendably led an inexperienced side to the FA Cup Final, where they lost to Bolton Wanderers. For a man who had honed the skills of so many of the club’s players, it was heart-breaking for him to lead the club into this new era under a dark cloud, but he displayed the tenacity that made him and the club so famous in the decade and took his new-look team that included several youngsters and also featured a few players that survived the crash in Munich just three months prior including Bobby Charlton and Harry Gregg and earned them the honour of playing at Wembley in a Cup Final, which under the circumstances, was as big as any other achievement they enjoyed in the previous years. Murphy embodied the spirit of Manchester and followed the precedent that was set by the Chairman, Harold Hardman, in the club’s first game, just 13 days after the crash:
“Although we mourn our dead and grieve for our wounded, we believe that great days are not done for us… Manchester United will rise again.”
Matt Busby was back on his feet and over the next few years, he would combine his tradition of developing and promoting from within with some famous buys that would alter the course of the club. Denis Law, Paddy Crenard, George Best and the trio that came from the ‘50s – Bobby Charlton, Bill Foulkes and Harry Gregg – were central to the club’s success, with the trio of Charlton, Best and Law creating the ‘Holy Trinity’, as all three went on to win the prestigious Ballon d’Or – Law in 1964, Charlton in 1966, and Best in 1968. Powered by chief scout Joe Armstrong who would now become the catalyst for United’s success, they would go on to win league and Charity Shield in 1965 and 1967 and an FA Cup in 1963 – The ’65 title in particular was sweet, with the trinity being at their sparkling best and pipping Leeds to the championship on goal difference. Trophies now came in quickly and giving the club the honours it deserved for decades of hard work, they just needed the holy grail to cement their status as one of football’s greatest team’s, and that came around in 1968.
10 years after that fateful day in Munich, Matt Busby led his Manchester United side to the European Cup Final at Wembley. Possessing the best players in the world on their team, they came up against a Benfica side spearheaded by the legendary Eusébio. Bobby Charlton, one of two survivors from the crash who were starting the final, scored the opener and the last goal of the game, and George Best and Brian Kidd made Jaime Graça’s equaliser to be a mere consolation on the end of the night as they went on to seal a wonderful 4-1 win. It was worthy reward and the perfect way to describe Matt Busby’s 24-year spell at Manchester United: grit, determination and success.
Manchester United were different. They had the history, the tradition and the tragedy to inspire them. Whether they were loved or hated, their European Cup success gave them the respect and sympathy they deserved and were central to the rise of English football, with the national team winning the World Cup just two years prior to their win over Benfica. Football, both on and off the pitch, was on the rise in Great Britain, as the arrival of Match of the Day on British television sets gave fans a greater insight and access to the sport around the country, and London, was going through a rise of their own. Tottenham dominated the early ‘60s and were successful on the domestic and European fronts having won the league, cup and Cup Winners’ Cup. West Ham and Liverpool were able to take over with further successes on both domestic and continental fronts, but Manchester United’s grand winnings on both fronts throughout the decade was meant to be, for they had the best players and were led by the most driven manager.