The Respected Captain
Born and raised in the south east Manchester district of Gorton, Roger Byrne was playing for Ryder Brow Youth Club when he caught the eye of United’s chief scout. The youngster joined the Reds in 1949 and worked his way through the junior sides for two years, before his national service interrupted. Byrne enrolled in the RAF and wanted to join his station’s football team. However, his abilities were called into question, and Byrne had to switch to rugby throughout his time in the services.
Byrne’s debut was against Liverpool in a 0-0 draw.
No such questions were being asked at Old Trafford, and in November 1951 Byrne made his debut for United; a 0- 0 draw against Liverpool. He would remain a near-permanent presence in the first team until his death; despite the fiery temper which had almost seen him sent home from the 1952 American Tour following an altercation with a rival team. During the 1951/52 season, Matt Busby decided to convert Byrne to the position of outside left. Despite the success of seven goals in six games, and a Football League Division One championship medal, Byrne was unhappy in the position.
Football League winners' medal presented to Roger Byrne in 1952.
After beginning the 1952/53 season on the left wing, Byrne crossed swords with Busby, and asked for a transfer. A dressing down from Allenby Chilton, and a swift return to full-back kept Byrne at the club, where he settled down and became vice-captain the following season. His calm and inspirational manner, coupled with his mental and physical agility, earned first the respect of the younger players, and then the captain’s armband.
Roger Byrne and Sir Matt Busby during a training session.
In his first season as skipper, Byrne led the side to another First Division championship, as one of the oldest players in the team now known as the ‘Busby Babes’. In 1956 United made history when they became the first English team to enter the European Cup, reaching the semi-final on their first try. Assuming the role of father figure, Byrne would frequently step in to protect his young teammates from the rough treatment of older opposition players. Further success in the League followed in 1956/57 season, whilst the side also reached the final of the FA Cup.
Byrne was also a regular on the international stage, making 33 consecutive appearances for England. He was a hot tip to replace incumbent England captain Billy Wright.
Roger Byrne's car insurance certificate. Despite being one of the first ‘Babes’ to own a car, Byrne was known to be an accident-prone driver, smashing into a lamp post in 1956 and driving through Matt Busby’s garden wall in 1957.
Byrne had already begun to make plans for his own retirement and enrolled on a physiotherapist course at Salford Royal Hospital. It was here that he met Joy Cooper, who would eventually become his wife. At the time of the crash, Joy was pregnant with their first child, although Roger was unaware.