Forty Years On: The Busby Babes
by Patrick Collins
Saturday, January 31, 1998
Forty years on and their names still spark memories of boyhood: Eddie Colman, Roger Byrne, Tommy Taylor, Liam Whelan, David Pegg, Mark Jones, Geoff Bent and the incomparable Duncan Edwards.
They had achieved extraordinary things in their short and crowded lives, but on the first day of February, 1958, they believed that the best was still to come.
Nothing seemed beyond them, everything was possible. Never before had English football produced a side which could raise its game, virtually at will, to a level which its contemporaries could scarcely imagine. Matt Busby had turned out a wonderful Manchester United team, and on February 1, London would recognise its quality.
Now the Arsenal of '58 was a useful collection of talent, but little more. They possessed a fine goalkeeper in the Welsh international, Jack Kelsey, a gifted wing-half in another Welshman, Dave Bowen, and creative attackers in the slim Londoner, Jimmy Bloomfield and, slightly deeper, Vic Groves, who had been purchased from Leyton Orient for £23,000 and was slow to justify his mountainous fee.
But by common consent, United were a class apart, and that feeling was reinforced when they led by three goals to nothing at half-time.
After 10 minutes, the man-child Edwards had driven a goal from the fringe of the area. On 30 minutes the winger Albert Scanlon had helped organise a goal for Bobby Charlton. Then, just before the interval, Scanlon and Kenny Morgans sent in Taylor.
Since times were different, 63,000 people cheered them from the field at half-time. Jogging off in United's wake was a young Arsenal forward named David Herd, and he could scarcely believe what he and his team had just endured.
'Stunning,' he recalls, 'just stunning. I hadn't seen an English side that could do the things they did. I mean, we were all attacking teams in those days; raiding wingers, two potential strikers and a midfield that tended to pour forward. That's the way we played. But United did it all at a different pace.
'In a way, I was almost enjoying it. I mean, when Bobby scored, he went into the box looking for space and couldn't find any, so he brought the ball out and just whacked it from 20 yards. And you knew it was going in!
'And I was pleased for Dennis Viollet. He was a good friend, I'd grown up with him in Manchester. Now he was performing at his peak. Then there was Duncan; what could you say about him? In a different class to everyone else.'
Herd tries hard to convey the depth of his admiration, the way the old football men do when they speak of Edwards. But, inevitably, he fails.
'You could play him centre-forward, centre-half, midfield, wherever you liked,' he says. 'And he'd still be the best player on the park. There was nobody like Duncan; never has been.'
You remember the advice of Jimmy Murphy, assistant manager of United and manager of Wales. Just before he sent his team out to play England in Cardiff, a distinguished Welsh inside-forward had inquired about the best way to cope with Edwards. Jim thought for five seconds. 'Just stay out of his ******* way,' he advised.
Yet Arsenal were ready to fight on this day 40 years ago, and it was Herd himself who started the revival with a goal on the hour. A minute later, Groves touched on a cross for Bloomfield to score. Another minute, and Bloomfield was hurling himself at the header which brought equality.
Herd has no illusions. 'I think they might have been kidding us along,' he says. 'They always seemed to need a challenge before they brought out their best stuff.'
The challenge was thrown down, and United responded with further goals from Viollet and Taylor. Derek Tapscott scored Arsenal's fourth to lend respectability to the improbable 4-5 scoreline, but everyone knew who had deserved to finish in front. 'Happy memories,' says Herd, capped five times by Scotland. 'Really happy memories for a good few days.
'Think about that crowd, for instance. Sixty-three thousand! I was watching Arsenal on the telly the other night, and they announced a full house of 38,000. It made me chuckle. Yeah, happy memories.
'Then everything changed. We were in a hotel in Leeds, ready to play a League match at Elland Road, when it came on the radio: plane crash, Munich, United players, lot of people dead. Everything changed.'
Three years later, Herd left Arsenal to join United. He helped restore the good times, the days of hope. He made his home and built his business in Manchester and became one of the most respected players at Old Trafford.
Yet even now he feels that he missed something by never pulling on the red shirt in the company of Busby's Babes. Of the 11 who played at Highbury, five young men perished just five days later in that frozen field: Byrne, Colman, Jones, Edwards and Taylor.
We all have our memories. I remember Busby's valour and Duncan's resistance. I remember the fine journalists who perished alongside the men of United, reporters who were known only by their work. I remember the feeling of quiet despair which settled upon the entire nation in the days and weeks that followed.
And I cherish especially an incident recorded in The Team That Wouldn't Die, John Roberts's matchless book on the tragedy and its aftermath. These were ordinary young men, distinguished only by their talent.
They earned £20 a week, the unmarried ones lived in digs, they wore chain-store suits, spent their Saturday evenings in dance halls and drove secondhand cars. Tommy Taylor was the best centre-forward in England who had scored 112 goals in 168 League games for United.
He was one of the most glamorous sportsmen of his generation, yet his closest friends suspected that, deep down, he was strangely unsure of himself. After his death, his sister-in-law went to his digs in Manchester to collect his things.
'We found two little black and yellow books,' she said.
'One was Teach Yourself Public Speaking, the other was Teach Yourself Maths. It broke my heart when I saw those. They showed just how much he wanted to improve himself.'
In this week of remembrance, the simple poignancy of that last story keeps spinning around in my head, for it conveys precisely why we cherish their memory with such affection.
to the Munich articles