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Everytime a successful Manchester United side comes along; comparisons are invariably made with the historic side of the 1950s famously called the 'Busby Babes'. The Red Devils were led by their legendary manager Sir Matt Busby, who lead a hugely gifted squad of young players. Their lack of experience was never a drawback as they unleashed their cavalier style of attacking football. They were set to dominate English, and maybe even European football, for many years to come, but fate struck a cruel blow as their careers ended before they even reached their peak. The Munich disaster killed eight Manchester United team members and injured many more. The poignancy of Sir Matt rising like the phoenix from the jaws of death along with the will of survivors Bobby Charlton, Billy Foulkes and Harry Greg laid the foundations for modern Manchester United.
Sir Matt built an extensive scouting system to foster the development of youth at the club as he chose to breed new players instead of making expensive purchases. Most of the players in that golden age were brought to the club under the age of 20, and developed together to form arguably United's most talented side ever.
Matt Busby took over the reigns at Manchester United in 1945, a job he took up while serving for the army during World War II. The Board at United were keenly aware that they needed a new man in charge once the war ended. Scout Louis Rocca was handed with the responsibility of finding the right man for the job and the Italian wrote to his old pal Matt Busby fully aware that Liverpool had already offered Matt Busby a job as their manager. But Rocca made Busby an offer he just couldn't refuse and so on the 19th of February, 1945 Busby took over a club that did not have a stadium or a training facility.
Busby wanted complete control over squad selections, training and transfers from the start and the club reaped its benefits pretty soon. Busby had immediate success as he helped the club put an end to a long-running barren spell, pushing the club to second-place in the league in 1947, 1948, 1949, and 1951, and along with it winning the FA Cup in 1948. In 1952, Manchester United won the English first division after 41 years, at which time Busby felt the need to transform the gradually-aging side.
However, Busby refused to fall into the trap of big-money signings like the other clubs and instead invested in youth. Jimmy Murphy, whom Busby met during the war in Italy, was his trusted assistant manager while Joe Armstrong headed the scouting department as the Chief Scout. The trio along with scouts Bob Bishop and Billy Behan brought in young gems such as Bill Foulkes, David Pegg, Dennis Viollet and Duncan Edwards. Over the next two years United added further young talent in the form of Tommy Taylor and Bobby Charlton as United won the first five editions of the FA Youth Cup (1953-57).
Their first taste of success on the big stage came in the 1955-56 season as the team with an average age of just 21 won the League by a 11-point margin. The young side were the talk town for their bold style of football and the famous moniker "Busby Babes", which was actually born in 1951 when Manchester Evening News journalist Frank Nicklin coined the phrase while reporting on United's game against Liverpool, rang around England.
Europe was a frontier that intrigued Busby and he set upon accomplishing success at an international level in 1956. Against the wishes of the Football Association, United became the first English team to participate in the European Champions' Cup. United's first game in Europe saw them register a 2-0 victory away at Anderlecht. The return leg was actually played at Maine Road as Old Trafford didn't have floodlights as the Red Devils hammered Anderlecht 10-0, with Viollet scoring a hat-trick.
United proceeded to reach the semi-finals, beating the likes of Borussia Dortmund and Athletic Bilbao along the way. They went into the semi-final against a mighty Real Madrid side comprising of Alfredo di Stefano, Francisco Gento and Raymond Kopa as the underdogs and they duly got beaten 3-1 at the Santiago Bernabeu in the 1st leg. The return leg happened to be the 1st floodlight match at Old Trafford, but it wasn't an auspicious beginning as United drew 2-2 to go out 5-3 on aggregate.
But on the home front, United sealed yet another title, wrapping up the League with three games to spare. They even made it to the FA Cup final, where they lost to Aston Villa. The team were expected to fare even better the following season, having gained experience against continental teams, and maturing as footballers themselves. The Busby Babes were aiming to become the third side ever to win three successive English league titles and also better their previous performance in Europe.
United made another bright start to the season and were only six points behind leaders Wolves with 14 games to play. On the European front, they had just beaten Red Star Belgrade 2-1 in the 1st leg of their quarter-final. Two days before their 2nd leg, they beat Arsenal 5-4 at Highbury in an enthralling game of football. Manchester United decided to charter a plan to Belgrade after experiencing huge problems on a similar trip to Prague earlier in the season. United qualified for the semi-finals for the 2nd year running after they drew 3-3 in the 2nd leg. What happened next not only decimated an entire team, but also ripped through every football fan in the land.
Flight 609 stopped to re-fuel in Munich, but then had problems during its first two attempts to take off due to a boost surging in the engine. The pilots, trying to avoid delaying the journey, tried taking off again a third time, by when it was snowing, leading to slush forming at the end of the runway. The plane hit the slush, lost velocity and crashed into a fence and then a house. By the time rescue teams arrived at the scene, seven players, including club captain Roger Bryne, Eddie Colman, and Mark Jones were already declared dead. Liam Whelan, David Pegg and Tommy Taylor were also pronounced dead sometime later.
Duncan Edwards was taken to the hospital in a critical condition while Matt Busby was also fighting for his life in the hospital. There were numerous other causalities including club officials, journalists and crew members with the total causality count standing at 23. Edwards died in the hospital 15 days later while Busby somehow managed to pull himself out in spite of receiving his last rites twice. Jackie Blanchflower and Johnny Berry survived the crash but were never able to play again. Charlton, Foulkes and Gregg carried the torch for United as they tried to recover from the wreckage.
A supremely talented side was ripped apart in its prime as football lost some of its most distinguished players. Edwards made his England debut at just 17 years and held the record being the youngest debutant at both the League and International level. Taylor, nicknamed the 'smiling assassin', scored an astonishing 112 goals in 166 games while local lads like Byrne and Coleman were also laid to rest. Jimmy Murphy held the side together until Busby returned to the helm next season and he even led them to the FA Cup final in 58', but they lost to Bolton at Wembley.
Busby started laying the seeds for his next great side as he built a new Manchester United from the rubble of the crash. Legends like Dennis Law, Paddy Crerand, Nobby Stiles and George Best were brought in over the next few years as they won multiple league titles, and more importantly for Busby, a European crown in 1968. The famous night at Wembley in 68' went a long way towards healing the wounds of 10 years ago and Busby stepped down from the post a year after achieving his greatest triumph.
One is left to wonder what heights the Babes would have reached if not for the tragedy. The team, still in its youth, was already winning trophies on a regular basis. They had reached 2 successive European semi-finals and were primed to capture the mighty trophy. They had their whole careers ahead of them, only to be cruelly halted by fate. Yet, the Busby Babes live on as part of United folklore, as probably United's greatest side ever.
England's finest football team it's record truly great,
It's proud success mocked by this cruel turn of fate.
Eight men will never play again who met disaster there,
The flowers of English football, the flowers of Manchester.
Photos Courtesy: Kurt Nielsen Â© Scanpix [Public Domain}
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