Reunited with the spirit of '58 as Old Trafford performs
By Michael Parkinson
ONE WEEK I was madly in love with Barnsley, the next I had fallen for Manchester United. How's that for an example of the glorious uncertainty of sport? You might argue that such an easy seduction simply demonstrates my fickle nature. In fact, the circumstances were so designed that I had no choice.
I reported the first game Manchester United played after the Munich air disaster. It was against Sheffield Wednesday at Old Trafford. On the park, the Sheffield Wednesday players might as well have played in ballet shoes so careful were they not to bruise their opponents or in any way offend the anguish of the multitude. It wasn't a football match. It was a demonstration of grief so profound and resonant it echoes still today. Outside Old Trafford, countless thousands massed in silence, muffled against the bitter cold, as if awaiting an announcement that there had been a terrible mistake and the disaster had not happened.
We didn't realise we were witnessing a resurrection of such consequence that it recruited devotees far afield from the city limits of Manchester and created one of the world's great sporting institutions.
Watching the game against Juventus on Wednesday, absorbing the passion of the crowd, observing the magnificent stadium, I found myself remembering February 1958 and how it all started. What Sheffield Wednesday learned on that occasion, and other teams were quick to understand, was that the odds and sods managed by Jimmy Murphy neither expected nor wanted to be handled like porcelain. More often than not, this message was conveyed by Stan Crowther, a hard man signed from Aston Villa for the purpose of dissuading opponents from any untoward display of sympathy.
Murphy's most significant contribution to the rebuilding of the team - apart from his own tireless energy and fierce will - was to sign Ernie Taylor from Blackpool. There wasn't much of Ernie Taylor. Nowadays he'd probably fail the medical. But what he possessed was the combative spirit of a fighting bull, the cunning of a cat burglar and the kind of skills with a football which made you gibber with delight. He was what used to be called "a ball-juggling inside-forward". Once upon a time, every club had one. Nowadays, they are as rare as wingers who can dribble.
His greatest ability was to unlock a defence with one pass. The distance didn't matter. Like Johnny Haynes, he had a range-finder in his toe caps. He was at the end of his career when he came from Blackpool but he had enough left in him to orchestrate a glorious finale. Some indication of the task facing Murphy and Taylor was that when the programme was printed for the first game after the crash, the Manchester United team consisted of 11 blank spaces.
Remarkably, the names Murphy fitted in around four of the players who survived - Harry Gregg, Bill Foulkes, Dennis Viollet and Bobby Charlton - took the team to Wembley. In all the history of English football, there is no story more inspiring than Murphy's achievement in getting United to the final of the FA Cup. Jimmy Murphy has never been given the accolade he deserved for enabling Manchester United's revival. He was destined to live in Busby's shadow but there is no denying the debt Sir Matt and the club owed him even though today he is sometimes forgotten by revisionist historians.
His mouthpiece on the pitch was Taylor. In his swansong, the player cajoled, bollocked and inspired the team to Wembley. Such was his skill and self-belief that while the club were battling for survival he would conduct a tutorial, standing with his foot on the ball, sending the front-runners on their way by pointing in the direction he wanted them to go. He told Bobby Charlton, who even then liked to drop deep to collect the ball: "When I look up, all I want to see is your arse disappearing up field. Give me something to aim at."
Manchester United lost at Wembley. Bolton beat them 2-0, Nat Lofthouse scoring both goals, one in controversial fashion when he bulldozed Harry Gregg and the ball into the back of the net. Next season - with Sir Matt back in charge - Albert Quixall arrived from Sheffield Wednesday and Ernie Taylor was on his way to Sunderland. He retired from the game in 1960 and died in 1985 aged 60. He was some player.
It was some team he took to Wembley. It is in the nature of things that we only remember the best of times. So whenever football fans discuss the great United teams, they generally agree there are four - three of Busby's, one created by Ferguson. There was the 1948 team who won the FA Cup and included Johnny Carey, Henry Cockburn, Jimmy Delaney, Arthur Rowley, Johnny Morris and Charlie Mitten. Then the Busby Babes of Roger Byrne, Tommy Taylor, Eddie Coleman and the incomparable Duncan Edwards. Next came the United team who won the European Cup in '68 and in Best, Law and Charlton possessed three of the greatest talents produced by Britain.
Busby thought the Babes the best. He had no doubt that the pre-Munich team were about to become the best side ever. It is a tribute to Alex Ferguson that he has continued the tradition and produced a team who, on their day, can play football the equal of anything yet witnessed at Old Trafford.
I think it is time that Jimmy Murphy's team were included on the roll of honour. They might have lacked the glitter of the others but it would be difficult to name another who so courageously battled overwhelming odds. More than that, they were responsible for the special link which exists to this day between Manchester United and a tribal following encircling the world.
I was once in the Arctic Circle making a documentary when a peasant guarding a herd of reindeer approached. "Manchester United," he said, nodding in my direction. I indicated that was my name. Satisfied I knew what he was talking about, he said: "Bobby Charlton. Number one." So when we talk about the future of Manchester United, let us remember the team who gave them a future to look forward to: Gregg, Foulkes, Greaves, Goodwin, Cope, Crowther, Dawson, Taylor, Charlton, Viollet, Webster.
IN HIS autobiography In My Way, Sir Matt said that after Munich he vowed to keep the name of Manchester United on peoples' lips. He said: "Our supporters who roared us on to Wembley immediately after the crash deserve nothing less." Even though the club now play in more elegant and perhaps inhibiting surroundings, the crowd have not stopped roaring.
Cynics argue their passion is merely a manifestation of wishful thinking. But since when has being a football fan been based on anything other than hope?
Which brings us back to the glorious uncertainty of sport and how I came to support both Manchester United and Barnsley. It is axiomatic that a man cannot love two football teams in equal measure. But he can love them differently. It is the difference between obsession and admiration. For instance, as I sit in front of my radio every Saturday at 5 pm, pen poised for the football results, I know that if Manchester United lose, I will be disappointed but if Barnsley go down, I am distraught.
Together they have given me over the years a fairly comprehensive experience of what it is like to be a football fan. I have travelled from Old Trafford and a city in mourning to an unforgettable night at Wembley and Bobby Charlton holding the European Cup on high. At Oakwell, where I could see the slag heaps in the distance when I was a kid, I saw a stripling youth called Tommy Taylor score a hat-trick and knew he was a good 'un before Sir Matt did. Standing on the same spot, I saw one of our players who had come straight from a shift at the pit take a throw-in and then turn around to pinch a chip from a man in the crowd. He was hungry so he had several. It was a kind of communion.
There is no cure to being a fan. Angry and disenchanted as I am at some aspects of the game, I am unable to give it up. Whether umbilical or adoptive, the link between fan and club is a special one, far too deep to be severed even by yobs who abuse the relationship or spivs who put a price on it.
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