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date: 15 August 2020

Busby Babesfree

(act. 1953–1958)
  • Michael Crick

Busby Babes (act. 1953–1958)

by unknown photographer, 1958 [Busby Babes (act. 1953–1958) [back row, left to right]: Duncan Edwards (1936-1958), Bill Foulkes, Mark Jones (1933-1958), Ray Wood, Eddie Colman (1936-1958), and David Pegg (1935-1958) [front row, left to right] John Berry, Billy Whelan (1935-1958), Roger Byrne (1929-1958), Tommy Taylor (1932-1958), and Dennis Viollet]

© Popperfoto

Busby Babes (act. 1953–1958), footballers, were a group of talented young players assembled by Sir Matt Busby at Manchester United during the 1950s. They formed one of the best club teams in the history of English football, and twice won the Football League championship, but the side was effectively destroyed when eight players were killed in an air crash at Munich on 6 February 1958.

The Busby Babes first won the Football League championship in 1955–6 with a record eleven-point margin over the runners-up, Blackpool. In the following season, 1956–7, they won the league again and came close to the elusive double, but lost the FA cup final 2–1 to Aston Villa after the United goalkeeper was injured early in the game. They were also the first English team to compete in the new European cup, and astonished Europe by beating the Belgian champions, Anderlecht, 10–0 in only their second game in the competition. They were knocked out in the semi-finals by the formidable Real Madrid side which won the European cup every year between 1956 and 1960.

It is believed that the term Busby Babes was first used by the Manchester Evening Chronicle Saturday night edition, the Football Pink, after Matt Busby had fielded several promising youngsters in a league game at Huddersfield Town on 31 October 1953. 'Busby's Bouncing Babes Keep All Town Awake', the paper proclaimed after a goalless draw. Busby himself disliked the term, as it gave the impression of callow youths whereas he felt that he had made them into mature players at a far earlier age than most of their contemporaries at other clubs. Nor does Busby deserve all the credit. The origins of United's youth policy can be traced back to the 1930s, and particularly to the formation of the Manchester United Junior Athletics Club in 1938, well before Busby's arrival at Old Trafford at the end of the war. Busby was also greatly assisted in finding and developing his teenagers by his assistant Jimmy Murphy, chief scout Joe Armstrong, and the United coach Bert Whalley.

The Busby Babes epitomized English football at the end of the era before money and television came to dominate the game. English players were still limited to a maximum wage of £17 a week during the season and £14 in summer (a restriction which was eventually abolished in 1961). In 1957, for example, the most successful year so far in Manchester United history, the captain Roger Byrne [see below] earned only £1189, including bonuses. Even allowing for inflation, most of the team earned less money in their entire careers than some of their Manchester United successors would be paid in a single week. Few of them could afford cars, and so they regularly used public transport. It was quite common for United supporters travelling to matches by bus to find themselves sitting next to one of the players they were about to watch.

Matt Busby's reliance on grooming his own players proved highly effective: between 1951 and 1957 the club bought only three recruits from outside. Apart from being extremely talented, they also benefited from their great team spirit; they socialized together and were all good friends. Typical young men of the 1950s, the players spent much of their time listening to the latest rock and roll records in each others' homes, which in most cases were lodgings, or ‘digs’ arranged by Manchester United. One legendary club landlady, ‘Ma’ Watson, looked after several of the Babes in her large house near to the Manchester United ground.

The Babes would frequent Manchester cinemas, snooker halls, the dog track at Belle Vue, and on Friday and Saturday nights the Locarno Ballroom in Sale or the Plaza dance-hall in Manchester, where managers happily gave their celebrity guests free admission. After going to the pictures in the evening they would often return to Ma Watson's and devour cornflakes and milk sitting round her kitchen table. Mrs Watson's United contract was ended, however, one December when she found her husband in bed with a maid, and reacted by serving the whole household Spam for Christmas dinner instead of turkey.

Many of the Babes learned outside trades—Duncan Edwards [see below] as a joiner, for example. And like all young men of that era, they were also obliged to complete two years' national service in the armed forces. Professional footballers, however, were excused many of the military duties of other national servicemen and spent much of their time on physical training and football practice. The authorities would usually release them to play for their clubs, on the understanding that they were also available for the British army team, which therefore reached a very high standard. In Duncan Edwards's case, with his commitments to the United first team, combined with army games, England matches, and other representative fixtures, he played more than 180 serious games in his two years as a soldier.

One of the Babes' finest performances was when they beat the London club Arsenal 5–4 on Saturday 1 February 1958. In the following week they travelled to Yugoslavia for a European cup quarter-final with Red Star Belgrade and drew another exciting game 3–3 after being 3–0 ahead at one point. On their way home the following afternoon, Thursday 6 February 1958, United's charter flight stopped to refuel at Riem airport in Munich in freezing weather. Twice the pilot aborted take-off half-way down the runway. On the third attempt the plane barely got off the ground, crashed through the fence at the end of the airfield, and crossed a minor road before hitting a house and a tree. Seven players (Byrne, Bent, Colman, Jones, Pegg, Taylor, and Whelan) died immediately and an eighth (Edwards) later that month.

Byrne, Roger William (1929–1958), the captain, was born at 15 Mitchell Street, Gorton, Manchester, on 8 September 1929, the son of William Henry Byrne (d. 1974), clerk to a furniture dealers, and his wife, Jessie, née Barlow. After attending Burnage grammar school, Byrne played for Ryder Brow youth club before signing as a professional for Manchester United in 1949. He made his first team début in November 1951 at left back, his normal position though he often played at outside left, and won his first league championship medal in the following April. He became United captain in 1954, played 280 competitive games for the club, and scored twenty goals, of which thirteen were penalty kicks. After winning his first cap for England against Scotland in April 1954, he played in every subsequent England match up to the time of his death in 1958, and won thirty-three caps in total. Byrne was known for his speed, his quick reading of the game, and his overlapping runs. He was not a great tackler, but according to his colleague Bill Foulkes, he just had to show opponents 'that he was twice as fast as they were and they would be panicked into making a hasty pass' (Roberts, 40–41). He married Joy Weatherall Cooper (b. 1932/3), a physiotherapist, the daughter of Arthur Cooper, a cinema manager, at Droylsden parish church on 15 June 1957.

The reserve full-back Bent, Geoffrey (1932–1958) went to Belgrade only because of last-minute doubts about Roger Byrne's fitness. He was born at 2 Stott Lane, Salford, on 27 September 1932. One of the four Munich victims who came from coalmining families, he was the son of Clifford Bent, a colliery surfaceman, and his wife, Clara, née Dunning (d. 1972). He attended St John's junior school, Swinton, and Tootal Road Grammar School, Swinton. On 27 June 1953 he married at Pendlebury parish church Marion (b. 1930/31), a typist, the daughter of Harold Mallandaine, an engine driver. Bent played just twelve times for United, but would have enjoyed a regular first team place at most other clubs.

Colman, Edward (1936–1958) was born at 9 Archie Street, Salford, on 1 November 1936, the son of Richard Colman, a general labourer, and his wife, Elizabeth, née Purcell (d. 1971). A small, cheeky lad, who often wore a flat cap and duffle-coat, Colman was brought up in Archie Street, which was later used as the model for the famous ITV soap opera Coronation Street, and attended Ordsall council school. The England captain Billy Wright described Colman as the 'creative genius of the team' (Arthur, 34). Supporters called him Snakehips or Swivelhips because of his distinctive dribbles, ball control, and body swerves. He was buried at Weaste cemetery, Salford.

Jones, Mark (1933–1958) was born at 21 Elliott's Terrace, Wombwell, Barnsley, on 15 June 1933, the son of Amos Jones, a coalminer, and his wife, Lucy, née Fox (d. 1957), and attended Darfield Foulstone Modern School. The United centre-half, he was regarded as the team's rock in defence: with blond hair and broad shoulders, he stood 6 feet 1½ inches tall and weighed 14½ stone. He would almost certainly have played for England one day. Jones, who had a wife, June, was known for his slight eccentricities: he had smoked a pipe since he was eighteen, wore a trilby hat, owned more than fifty budgerigars, and loved shooting rabbits in the countryside.

Left-winger Pegg, David (1935–1958) was born at 11 Market Street, Highfields, Adwick-le-Street, Doncaster, on 20 September 1935, the son of Thomas William Pegg, a colliery surface worker, and his wife, Jessie, née Day. He was educated at Highfields modern school and Doncaster technical school. Famous for his accurate crosses and strong left-foot shot, Pegg gained a solitary cap for England, though at the time of Munich he had lost his place in the United side through a dip in form. Cocky, cheerful, and good-looking, he was famous for mixing with girls.

The centre-forward Taylor, Thomas (1932–1958), like Jones and Pegg, came from a south Yorkshire mining background. He was born at 4 Quarry Street in the village of Smithies, near Barnsley, Yorkshire, on 29 January 1932, the son of Charles Joseph Taylor, a coalminer, and his wife, Violet, née Hodgkins. After attending Raley secondary modern school, he played for Barnsley between 1949 and March 1953, when he signed for Manchester United for a new British record fee of £29,999a pound was knocked off to avoid the pressure of being the first £30,000 player. Of strong physique, and an accurate header of the ball, he was 6 feet tall, had black, wavy hair, and always seemed to be smiling. At the time of his death he had a fiancée, Carol. Taylor scored 131 goals in 191 games for United, the second highest ratio for any player in the club's history, and sixteen times in nineteen appearances for England.

The Irish international forward Whelan, William Augustine (1935–1958) was born at 28 St Attracta Road, Cabra, Dublin, on 1 April 1935, the son of John William Whelan (d. 1943), a labourer, and his wife, Elizabeth, née McGuirk, and attended St Peter's School, Phibsboro, Dublin. Signed from the Dublin club Home Farm, Whelan was known for his dribbling, accurate finishing, and his trick of pushing the ball through opponents' legs. 'He had everything', said Bobby Charlton, 'except an extra bit of pace' (Roberts, 124). At the time of his death he was engaged to Ruby McCullough.

By common consent the finest footballer in this team, and one of the greatest players of all time, was Edwards, Duncan (1936–1958). The only child of Gladstone Edwards, a metal polisher, and his wife, Sarah Ann, née Harrison, he was born at 23 Malvern Crescent, Woodside, Dudley, Worcestershire on 1 October 1936. On leaving Wolverhampton Street secondary school, Dudley, he joined Manchester United in June 1952 despite determined approaches from his local team, Wolverhampton Wanderers, and several other first division clubs. Edwards made his first team début against Cardiff City in April 1953, aged only sixteen and a half, and won a regular place the following autumn. He also captained the Manchester United teams which won the FA youth cup in 1953 and 1954. Edwards first played for England in April 1955 at the age of only eighteen years and 183 days, and remained the youngest England international of the twentieth century until Michael Owen broke the record in 1998. Edwards usually played at wing-half, what would later be called midfield, but was famous for filling any position; he often appeared at centre-forward, and once scored four goals for the England under-23 team against Scotland. Weighing 13 stone, he was powerful in appearance and described as 'a tank'; he was surprisingly gentle in temperament, introverted and shy, and yet did not seem to suffer any nervousness before a game. Busby described Edwards as the 'most complete footballer in Britain—if not the world' (Taylor, 131), while his team-mate Bobby Charlton once said that 'compared to Duncan, the rest of us are just like pygmies. He had the lot' (ibid., 10). Edwards's footballing talents included speed, tackling, ball control, heading, passing, shooting, and leadership qualities. In 1957 he came third in the poll for European footballer of the year. Edwards played 177 games for Manchester United, and scored twenty-one goals; he also won eighteen caps and scored five times for England. The multiple injuries which he suffered in the crash would probably have killed most men much sooner. Doctors at the Rechts der Isar Hospital in Munich were astonished at Edwards's stamina and will to live, but he died after fifteen days on 21 February 1958 and was buried at Queen's Cross cemetery, Dudley.

Two other players, half-back Jackie (John) Blanchflower (1933–1998) and winger Johnny (John) Berry (1926–1994), were so badly hurt that they never played professional football again. Fifteen other passengers and crew also died in the crash, including the former England and Manchester City goalkeeper Frank Swift (1913–1958), who had travelled to Belgrade as a journalist for the News of the World. The dead also included three Manchester United officials: club secretary Walter Crickmer, trainer Tom Curry, and coach Bert Whalley.

Matt Busby spent more than two months in hospital recovering from serious injuries. He returned to England to see the hastily reconstructed Manchester United lose 2–0 to Bolton Wanderers in the 1958 FA cup final, but it took Busby five years to restore his side to their past glory. Manchester United then won the FA cup in 1963, the league championship in 1965 and 1967, and in 1968 became the first English club to win the European cup.

Among the young players who survived the crash was Sir Bobby Charlton (b. 1937), who was a member of England's 1966 world cup-winning team, won a then record 106 international caps, and scored a record forty-nine goals for England. Other survivors included the Northern Ireland goalkeeper Harry Gregg (b. 1932) and the defender Bill Foulkes (1932–2013).

The skill, entertainment, and innocent enthusiasm of the Busby Babes captured the imagination of the general public in the 1950s. Manchester United's improvised, swashbuckling football often produced high scores; the team earned huge affection well beyond traditional Manchester United followers and drew huge crowds wherever they played. The great tragedy was that they had yet to reach their full potential, and might easily have succeeded Real Madrid as the dominant side in Europe. Byrne, Edwards, and Taylor would all have been leading members of the England team for many years, joined possibly by Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, and David Pegg. Without the missing United players the previously promising England side failed even to reach the quarter-finals of the world cup played in Sweden in the summer of 1958.

The Babes are also remembered as symbols of Matt Busby's two pioneering policies: putting extra emphasis on grooming his own young players, and taking English clubs into Europe. Both would be adopted with equal enthusiasm and success by Busby's most prominent successor as Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson (b. 1941).

The main memorial to the Busby Babes is a plaque on the wall of the east stand at the Manchester United stadium at Old Trafford. Seven of the players are commemorated in street names on a small housing estate in Newton Heath, east Manchester, not far from the site where Manchester United was originally founded (as Newton Heath) about 1878; and two blocks of flats in Salford are named after Duncan Edwards and Eddie Colman. There is also a small shrine in the Kirchtrudering district of Munich next to the now disused airfield where seven of the Busby Babes died.

Sources

  • J. Roberts, The team that wouldn't die: the story of the Busby Babes (1975)
  • F. Taylor, The day a team died (1983)
  • M. Arthur, The Manchester United aircrash (1983)
  • E. Dunphy, A strange kind of glory: Sir Matt Busby and Manchester United (1991)
  • M. Busby, Soccer at the top (1973)
  • G. Dykes, The Manchester United alphabet (1994)
  • I. McCartney, Roger Byrne: captain of the Busby Babes (2000)
  • I. McCartney and R. Cavanagh, Duncan Edwards (1988)
  • I. McCartney, Duncan Edwards: the full report (2001)
  • B. Hughes, The Tommy Taylor story (1996)
  • R. Cavanagh and B. Hughes, Viollet: the life of a legendary goalscorer (2001)
  • J. Kennedy, Tommy Taylor of Manchester United and Barnsley (1994)
  • W. Foulkes, Back at the top (1965)
  • H. Gregg, Wild about football (1961)
  • b. certs.
  • m. certs. [Geoffrey Bent; Rober William Byrne]

Archives

  • Manchester United, Old Trafford, Manchester, archive and museum
  • Dudley Leisure Centre, Duncan Edwards memorabilia
  • TNA: PRO, official papers on the cause of the Munich crash

Film

Likenesses

  • photograph, 1958, Popperfoto, Northampton [see illus.]
  • bronze statue (Matt Busby), Manchester United football ground, Old Trafford, Manchester
  • photograph (David Pegg), Hult. Arch.
  • photograph (Thomas Taylor), Hult. Arch.
  • photographs (Roger Byre), Hult. Arch.
  • photographs (Duncan Edwards), Hult. Arch.
  • photographs (Mark Jones), Hult. Arch.
  • stained-glass windows (Duncan Edwards), St Francis Church, Dudley, Worcestershire
  • statue (Duncan Edwards), town centre, Dudley

Wealth at Death

£1493 11s. 1d.—Geoffrey Bent: administration, 15 April 1958, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

£9073 1s. 1d.—Roger William Byrne: administration, 16 July 1958, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

£2294 17s. 6d.—Edward Colman: administration, 15 April 1958, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

£4368 9s. 6d.—Duncan Edwards: administration, 7 Aug 1958, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

£800 3s. 7d.—Mark Jones: administration, 23 April 1958, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

£2250 4s. 0d.—David Pegg: administration, 21 April 1958, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

£3549 13s. 5d.—Thomas Taylor: administration, 20 May 1958, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

£1210 3s. 10d.—William Augustine Whelan: administration, 7 June 1958, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Podcast

Hulton|Archive, Getty Images, London
British Film Institute, London, National Archive
Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]
National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London