The Babes’ last footballing act on British soil

Wednesday 01 February 2023 13:18

Whenever United go away to Arsenal, the next pages turn in a story already crammed with memorable passages. None are as poignant, though, as the chapter written on 1 February 1958 at Highbury. Penned in such joyous, vivid prose and crowned with an exuberant exclamation mark. There was, though, an unseen ellipsis portending a dark, unwelcome coda to come.

United have played away at Arsenal 113 times and counting, but match number 42 between the teams on Gunners territory is essential club history. The Reds travelled to north London that day as defending champions – defending double-champions, even. Matt Busby’s meticulously gathered and carefully nurtured seedlings had been growing in the hothouse of United’s youth system during the early 1950s. Senior debuts at precocious ages had blooded a host of generational talents, with Duncan Edwards – given a maiden taste of first-team action at only 16 in 1953 – the rose in United’s emerging flower garden. When Edwards and co finally burst into full, brilliant bloom, they stormed to the league title in the 1955/56 season, sensationally following it up with a second title triumph in 1956/57.

So a third consecutive title was one of the achievements up for grabs in 1957/58 – a feat only ever carried off twice before at that time, once by Huddersfield Town in the 1920s and once by opponents Arsenal in the 1930s – but come 1 February Busby’s boys had a catching-up job to do. A sticky September spell upset what had been a serene start to United’s title defence, and further blips meant that the Reds were in fourth place in the league table going into the Arsenal game, six points behind leaders Wolves (two points for a win at the time, remember), though still with 15 league matches in which to make up ground.

For their part, the Gunners – champions in 1952/53 – were having a middling-to-poor season under manager Jack Crayston, their fortunes having ebbed somewhat since that last title-winning campaign (and certainly since their 1930s golden era). They sat 12th in the table, the position in which they’d finish.

Blips notwithstanding, it couldn’t be said that United didn’t go into the match in form. In their previous league game, they’d thrashed Bolton Wanderers 7-2 at Old Trafford – no wonder there looks to be a spring in captain Roger Byrne’s step in the picture of him bounding out onto the pitch at Highbury a couple of weeks later (see above). There was a clever clue as to how the afternoon was about to unfold in that earlier scoreline v the Trotters: nine goals shared, in free- scoring United’s favour.
Duncan Edwards signed an autograph before the match at Highbury.
Precision passing

Let’s get the simple chronology of the goalscoring in order before we turn to the contemporary newspaper reports on the match to add the necessary layers of vivid colour. United went 1-0 up early (Duncan Edwards 10 mins) before turning that into a 3-0 lead by half-time (Bobby Charlton 34 mins, Tommy Taylor 43 mins). Then the Gunners offered a sudden three-goal salvo of their own after the break to bring the scores level at 3-3 (future Red David Herd 58 mins, Jimmy Bloomfield 60 and 61 mins). That stung Busby’s men into restoring a two-goal cushion at 5-3 (Dennis Viollet 65 mins, Taylor 72 mins) before Arsenal set up the proverbial grandstand finish with the ninth goal to make it 5-4 (Derek Tapscott 77 mins).

Remarkable stuff just when written through as a list, but it’s in the fulsome sports reports of the time that we bring to life an incredible game, a wonderful sporting contest and a monument to youthful exuberance.

The Times dated 3 February set the scene by describing how ‘the crowds fairly poured in, a 64,000 gathering filling to the rim of the stadium far up where it cut a grey sky’. It continues: ‘They were fairly repaid with a feast as the giants of yesterday and today fought out a chivalrous, wavering struggle. There were two heroic phases. It will take a month of Sundays to forget them.’

United’s opening goal from Duncan Edwards was recounted thus by Ben Brown in The Sunday Times, published one day earlier – ‘Edwards ran on to a pass from his outside-right Morgans and rolled the ball under Kelsey’s body’ – while Desmond Hackett in the Daily Express (3 February) painted a slightly more detailed picture, opining that United’s opener was ‘aided by Jack Kelsey making an ultra-rare mistake and misjudging a powered drive from Duncan Edwards’. (Perhaps Brown had been more generous to keeper Kelsey on account of himself having formerly been a goalkeeper.)

Albert Scanlon on the left wing was clearly having a blinder at Highbury. ‘Manchester United swept the field with movements based on precision passing,’ continued Brown, ‘and Scanlon, at outside-left, showed how he keeps international Pegg out of the Manchester team. Throughout the afternoon the Arsenal defence panicked before Scanlon’s subtle approach work. It was thus that Charlton scored from his pass and later Taylor nipped in and drove home a loose ball which had been parried by Kelsey.’

Hackett, too, praises Scanlon for his work in setting up Charlton’s second goal. ‘The cheers for this piece,’ he writes, ‘went to Albert Scanlon for an old-fashioned wing burst of 70 yards.’ The Times, meanwhile, describes the young Mancunian as showing ‘a clean pair of heels to everyone in sight’.
A young Bobby Charlton posed for a pre-match photo on the pitch.
Arm in arm

It was during a short, shock spell in the second period that the drama really ramped up. Describing the first of the two ‘heroic phases’ it had earlier hailed, The Times said: ‘In the bat of an eyelid – precisely two minutes and 30 seconds on the stop watch – Herd and Bloomfield (twice) put the ball into Gregg’s net three times to wipe out United’s 3-0 lead. That set a spark to the gunpowder.’

The excitable Hackett in the Express recreated the action for his readers with the help of sounds effects from the Highbury battlefield: ‘And whoosh! Manchester United, who had come out for the second half all set for a cosy siesta, found their lead swept away in three minutes that go straight into Arsenal history. Bash! David Herd scored. Slam! Jimmy Bloomfield scores. Wallop! Bloomfield made it 3-3.’

It was a scarcely believable triple-assault from the home side, which had the Highbury masses rocking. ‘It was no hallucination,’ said The Times. ‘Here was reality. Arsenal were level at three-all and Manchester had been taken by the ears. The crowd thundered like a turbulent sea.’

Suddenly in choppy waters, United reacted like the title-holders they were. ‘Now the champions changed gear,’ observed The Times, while Hackett (still not cutting Arsenal goalkeeper Kelsey much slack) in the Express framed what followed as ‘the switch’: ‘Those annoying experts from Manchester did the well-known switch from take-it-easy to get-cracking. Five minutes later it was Manchester United 4-3 by skilled permission of Dennis Viollet. It was 5-3 when Taylor belted one and Jack (“This is not my day”) Kelsey touched it into his own goal.’

There was still drama to be had when the Gunners got another goal back, but Ben Brown in The Sunday Times declared the final result – with United resisting the home side’s efforts to equalise – to be a fair one: ‘Though Tapscott scored again for the Arsenal and they pressed very hard, they could not quite close the gap. It was a pity, but it was just.’ ‘There was no breath left in anyone,’ reported The Times. ‘The players came off arm in arm. They knew they had fashioned something of which to be proud.’
Tommy Taylor and Kenny Morgans line up before playing Arsenal.
All-out attack

It was an extraordinary game of football, a pulsating encounter in which thirst for goals and devotion to entertainment triumphed over all. A validation of Busby’s philosophy and a vivacious valediction from the Babes.

‘Stumbling out of Highbury at the close of play, one took away two clear impressions,’ The Times mused. While the first related to Arsenal’s rekindled spirit, the second, in hindsight, reads like a fitting epitaph to the fearless young team that Matt Busby had moulded, which would tragically play together only one time further – four days later – and never again on British soil: ‘That Manchester United now appear to have committed themselves to all-out attack in their effort to overtake Wolves at the head of the championship. It matches the Hungarian outlook of four years ago and seems to say in so many words, “All right, if you score three, four or five, we will score four, five or six.”’
It was a fantastically free-wheeling, free-scoring and free-spirited victory over the Gunners.

Gunners’ touching tribute

Tragedy struck just five days after the game at Highbury, and by the time of the Gunners’ next home game, against Bolton on 18 February, the devastating extent of the accident that happened while United’s plane was taking off from Munich-Reim airport on the way back from the European Cup game against Red Star Belgrade had become clear.

Arsenal therefore included a ‘Tribute to Manchester United’ in their matchday programme for the Bolton game, warmly and respectfully paying their condolences, aware of the sad poignancy of the victims of the disaster having been at Highbury so recently.

‘The Manchester United team was not just a football team,’ reads one passage, ‘it was an institution which stood for all that was fine in the skill of the game, for all that was good in youthful athletics and for all that was commendable in British sportsmanship. An inspiration to every young Englishman.’

The tribute lists the seven ‘fine fellows’ who lost their lives – Tommy Taylor, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Billy Whelan, David Pegg, Mark Jones and Geoff Bent (Duncan Edwards is not among those names, still lying stricken in a Munich hospital and tragically soon to succumb to his injuries) and concludes by hoping for a future time when the United team ‘will again become our most beloved and most feared opponents’.

This feature first appeared within the February 2023 edition of Inside United magazine.


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