69 years with Manchester United

Mohd Roger Ainsworth

It is more than 63 years ago that on February 6, 1958 the Munich Air Disaster occured in which eight members of the Manchester United team, the Busby Babes, plus three club officials, were killed. The plane crashed at Munich airport following a European Cup match with Red Star Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia. Many journalists, crew of the aircraft, and other passengers were also killed.

The plane had stopped in Munich for re-fuelling en route to Manchester after the 3-3 draw. The plane had tried to take off twice but failed, and after a short break in the terminal, tried again for the third time, but never managed to reach the necessary altitude.

Having left the runway, it crashed through the perimeter fence, went across a minor road and struck a house.

From the moment Manchester heard the news of the crash, a dark mantle of gloom hung over the city. Men openly wept in the streets – people could not believe it had happened. At first, there was no news concerning who had perished or who had survived, but as the evening wore on things became clearer and the list of casualties filtered through to the waiting crowds. There was no doubt that if not for this disaster, the Busby Babes would have dominated English football for many years. They had three England players – Captain and left backer Roger Bryne, centre forward Tommy Taylor, and legendary Duncan Edwards.

Edwards first played for United when only 16-years-old, and England at 18. Great players like Bobby Charlton, with over 100 caps for England, has said that Edwards was the greatest player he had ever played with for the legend could play in any position on the pitch. It was a high praise considering that Charlton shared the same era as Pele, Eusebio, Cruyff, Di Stefano, Puskas, Law, Best and Maradona.

Charlton and Edwards, considered by many to be two of the finest players ever to grace the game in England, were the fruits of a dynamic process of youth development at the club during the 50s.

Manchester United’s goalkeeper David de Gea warms up in front of banners marking the 63rd anniversary of the Munich air disaster which killed several Manchester United players before the start of an English Premier League match against Everton. PHOTO: AP

My support for Manchester United began in 1952, when at seven-years-old, my dad took me to Old Trafford to see the team play against Arsenal, in which United won 2-0.

I didn’t watch United again until 1956, to witness the newly-formed Busby Babes.

I was lucky to see a dozen or so games before Munich in 1958; and even went once to see United play at newly promoted Leicester City, travelling on the same train as the players from Manchester Central Station. United won 3-0, aided by Billy Whelan’s hat-trick.

In those days, I was also very lucky to see notable players from other clubs, including Tom Finney of Preston North End, who was very loyal to the club. He also played 77 times for England.

We lived in Longsight, near Fallowfield and Manchester City’s stadium on Maine Road. It was a rough area near Moss Side.

In 1956/7, United became the first English football club to play in the European Cup, and their first opponents were Anderlecht of Belgium. The home game (two-legged matches) couldn’t be played at Old Trafford owing to the damage following an air raid in March 1941.

My brother Maurice and I went. Since we were both so young, we stood behind one of the goals. United won 10-0, and could have scored more; instead, they spent the last 20 minutes trying to create an opportunity for United’s number 11, David Pegg, to score. This was the first European Cup game ever played in England.

It is worth noting that professional footballers in 1958 were only earning GBP20 a week; and often in the summer break they had to take on extra part-time jobs to supplement their wages.

As an adolescent ardent fan, I started to attend all United home games, standing at the roofless Stretford End, and occasionally, away games. I remember going to Newcastle when Newcastle United won 7-2; it was a long way home that night. I saw United at all the Lancashire grounds, Blackburn, Bolton, Burnley, Blackpool, Preston, Liverpool, and in Yorkshire at Leeds United, both Sheffield clubs, then at Aston Villa, Birmingham City and in London at Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Queens Park Rangers (QPR), Fulham, and Chelsea.

In March 1973, I was lucky to see George Best make his league debut at Old Trafford against West Bromwich Albion.

Best was truly brilliant, and would get into any World XI on the right or left wing. After Edwards, he is the best footballer I have ever seen; I can recall so many great individual goals. In those days, footballers didn’t have an agent, but Best set the trend which has been followed right up to the present day, whereby all top footballers today have agents to manage their affairs.

He arrived on the scene at the same time as the Beatles, and was often referred to as “the 5th Beatle”.

Another milestone for me came in May 1968, when Manchester United beat Benfica 4-1 at Wembley, in the European Cup Final, to become the first English club to win the prestigious European Cup; Liverpool have won it more times since then.

The admission prices at Wembley were 10 shillings to stand behind the goal, and the seats were GBP1-4. I was there, again with my brother Maurice, in the GBP3 seats, only a few rows behind a United Kingdom (UK) comic who was famous at the time – Des O’Connor.

We managed to get onto the pitch after the game. I kicked a camera packet into one of the goals, just so I could say I scored a goal at Wembley!

The game was marred in those days by much hooliganism. But fortunately, this was largely rectified by the introduction of all-seated stadiums. Those who want to return to standing behind the goals possibly don’t remember the safety hazards.

After 69 years of supporting Manchester United, people ask me why I have such loyalty to the club. I suppose like most people it was the club my dad first took me to watch as a small boy.

Some people say the “only real Manchester club is Manchester City”, but Old Trafford is in Stretford, Greater Manchester, which is good enough for me.

At get-togethers, I am often asked to name the Busby Babes – all 11 players – which I can do in less than three seconds.

As I reflect on the last 63 years since Munich, my over-riding memory will be as an 11-year-old boy waiting outside the players’ entrance at 10pm after an evening mid-week game at Preston North End for Edwards’ autograph.

All the other United players were on the coach, but Edwards stayed to sign all the autographs. Jimmy Murphy, United’s assistant manager, stepped out of the coach to call Edwards back on the coach for the trip back to Manchester. But Edwards told him they could go if necessary, as he had promised to sign autographs before the game (the team coach had been late arriving and no time for autographs), He wanted to keep his word and stay until all the autographs were signed. Yes, it was truly special memory of a great player and human being.