REVIEW: Only One United

The Busby Babes line up for their final match, February 5th 1958

Skiing in Zell Am See three years ago, I walked into a bar one Saturday afternoon to watch a live soccer game. The place was heaving with fans, and I turned to one bloke, asking, “What time’s the United game on?”

The chap was a Geordie, and he broke into a broad smile.

“What is it with you f**kin’ Mancs,” he asked, “Where we’re all serpozed ter know yer talkin’ aboot your lot?”

There is only one Manchester United, and last night on BBC2, the dramatic reconstruction of events surrounding the 1958 Munich Crash, United, showed why that is for so many of the club’s longstanding supporters. If you’re a United fan aged over 55, there is a Bible with BC and AD just like the real thing:  we old stagers refer simply to ‘the Crash’ and ‘the  old team’. In our minds, nothing can ever replace the original Busby Babes, because – as the saying goes – age did not wither them. There is a New Testament dominated by Sir AlexFerguson, but the Old Testament remains the basis of the club’s culture.

The facts in a nutshell – brilliantly portrayed in the BBC film – are these: United manager Matt Busby took United into what was then the European Cup – against the insular wishes of the Football League. In order to get back from a Belgrade tie against Red Star in time for the next home game (and avoid a points deduction) Busby chartered a plane to be free of schedules. On February 6th 1958, the plane stopped to refuel at a snowy Munch Airport, but failed to unstick from the runway despite three attempts to take off. It left the airport site and ploughed through an adjoining field into a house. 22 players and officials were killed.

This left the club’s assistant manager Jimmy Murphy (despite his name, a Welshman) to build a makeshift side to complete the league and FA Cup fixtures. In an emotional run of pure adrenalin and not much skill, United reached the Cup Final, losing 2-0 to a far better Bolton side. Fittingly, the film put Murphy and the young Bobby Charlton at the centre of events. David Tennant bears not the slightest resemblance to the Welshman, but he was utterly believable in the role.

For me, the atmospherics of the film – dingy boardrooms, misty days, the players all smoking and drinking, the grief of Mancunians be the Red or Blue – were what made it special. As nearly always with Beeb historical drama, the evocation of an era was outstanding. Old Trafford was not in those days the Theatre of Dreams so much as a grisly, largely-uncovered standing arena suffused with the industrial smells of Trafford Park. Floodlights were an innovation at the time, and European Cup ‘night matches’ were played in what was called ‘the Floodlight strip’ – a slightly shinier red from head to foot, with a silver stripe on the shorts. Very flash for those days – and a typical example of Busby’s instinct for the drama of the game – it added a splash of bright colour to cold Manchester nights, when the thin air made the United roar almost visceral. In a grimy, smoggy world, United were young stars burning more brightly than any others.

What the film couldn’t do was recreate the sense of warmth in Manchester towards the Busby Babes. Sir Matt’s shrewdness was ever-present in nurturing the idea of a club that was rags-to-riches in nature (Old Trafford was a bomb-site until 1950) but still bedded firmly in the everyday community. All the players were obliged to join the Manchester YMCA, and visit boy’s clubs, disabled homes and other causes. There was no arguing about this: as Eamonn Dunphy described so accurately in his 1980s book  United, Busby gave himself a paternal image of softly-spoken Scottish charm, but he was as hard as nails with the playing staff.

The YMCA in the 1950s wasn’t the gay paradise of later years. It was a leisure centre attended regularly by the senior figures in the cotton business. One of these was my father – probably the only Catholic in the trade – but there were many others. After a session in the gym, or just a swim after the day’s training, the team – led by Roger Byrne, already at 23 the England captain – would go into the main lounge and sink more beer than was good for them with these local bigwigs. It may seem bizarre now, but the movers in the Cottonopolis were all on nodding terms with the players.

So when my Dad took me to see a Youth Cup game one Monday evening, and saw David Pegg and Geoff Bent sitting three rows behind us, he smiled, they smiled back – and I was encouraged to ask for their autographs. Ten days later, both players were dead. So too was one of Dad’s friends, the cotton merchant Willie Satinoff; along with Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, Tommy Taylor, Billy Whelan, a generation  of sports journalists – and of course, ten days later still, the incomparable Duncan Edwards.

There were just two small errors in the film. At one point, the goalkeeper Harry Gregg is shown with a ‘1’ on his back. Keepers in those days never wore a number. And for the league game tunnel-sequence shown, the teams are seen walking out onto the pitch together. This was an innovation brought in by the Premiership in the 1990s. Before then, the normal etiquette (except for ceremonial occasions and internationals) was that the away side came out first – to an inadequate, guttural shout from their travelling fans – and then the Home team to a terrifying noise. In 1957, I attended a Derby Game at the old Manchester City ground Maine Road, with 84,000 supporters crammed in. When City appeared, I literally almost peed myself with fear at the tribal gggrrrrr of their fans.

Much of the United legend will always be tosh. Busby was an inveterate gambler throughout his life (most ex-players were) and there is no question that, at times, his relationship with the then Chairman Louis Edwards was corrupt. As for the ‘they would’ve dominated the game for years’ stuff, the facts don’t bear that out. Over at Wolves, Stan Cullis was putting the finishing touches to a side which dominated the game for two years after 1958, following which Bill Nicholson’s ‘Super Spurs’ eleven were top dog for a good four seasons. Although United did go on to win the European Cup ten years later, the team was getting old by then. If you look at what happened to only mildly injured survivors like Albert Scanlon and Dennis Violet, they drifted into lower divisions of the game quite quickly after the disaster. Then along came Liverpool, and everything was changed by yet another Scot, Bill Shankly.

What nobody can ever deny, however, is that with a maximum wage of £20 per week, players were in the game for love and glory, not money….and the BBC2 drama captured this plebeian aspiration with unerring skill. The dead hand of Rupert Midas has surgically removed all that, and replaced it with foreign players, petulance, indiscipline, greed, corporate boxes – and an English side so poor it cannot compete on the World stage. One day the Premiership Bubble will burst – as will the Glaser family carpetbaggers at Old Trafford – and some features of the old sport will return. But then and now, there will only ever be one United.