United's 1951/52 title-winning team.

Glory Days: How United won the 1951/52 title

Sunday 26 April 2020 11:00

On 26 April 1952, Manchester United routed our closest rivals Arsenal 6-1 to secure the club's first post-war league title in dramatic circumstances.

Matt Busby's maiden championship arrived, as did Alex Ferguson's, in his sixth full season in charge. And as with the case with his countryman and heir to the Old Trafford throne, Busby's landmark league triumph was delivered with a giant sigh of relief. 

The parallels are compelling. With one FA Cup success under his belt in 1948, Busby had briefly quenched the fans' thirst for silverware, but despite encouraging finishes in the league, the Reds were developing a reputation as 'nearly men', ending runners-up four times in five post-war campaigns, with Liverpool, Arsenal, Portsmouth and, finally, Tottenham pipping us to the crown. 

United's John Downie in action during a 2-0 defeat for the Reds against Hull City in January 1952.

The mainstays of Busby's first XI – Johnny Carey, Allenby Chilton, Henry Cockburn, Jack Rowley and Stan Pearson – were in their thirties and while their experience was invaluable, youth was needed to push the Reds to the top step of the podium.

The boss made a vital summer capture in Johnny Berry, a livewire 25-year-old winger from Birmingham City, while Roger Byrne, a promising full-back from the youth team waited for his chance. With 'Gunner' Rowley in rapid-fire mode, United made a fine, free-scoring start to the season. Rowley bagged an amazing 14 goals in the first seven games, including three hat-tricks, as the Reds kept with early pace-setters Portsmouth, Bolton and Aston Villa. However, five defeats in nine games dropped us down to seventh place as December rolled around. The festive season revived our scoring touch, though – 20 goals that month earned six wins out of seven – and we were top by New Year.

Pompey and Arsenal were still hot on our heels, mind you, and a New Year's Day win against Manchester City took the south-coast side back to the summit. Eventually, it was Arsenal who would provide the sternest challenge, us and them neck and neck throughout the spring. Now a tactical switch by Busby would prove decisive.

Byrne had made his debut in November and kept his place at left full-back, but the boss pushed him forward to the wing, from where he plundered seven goals in the last six games to keep us ahead in the run-in.

Bill Foulkes attempts to make a last-ditch tackle against Arsenal at Highbury, in 1952.

It seemed the title race would go to the wire, with Arsenal due at Old Trafford on the final weekend of the season. But it was effectively decided in the penultimate round of games: with the two protagonists level on points, United beat Chelsea 3-0 at home, while the Gunners lost 3-1 at West Brom.

That five-goal swing in the Reds' favour meant the Londoners needed a 7-0 win in Manchester. We were not about to let this chance slip. Rowley netted another hat-trick as Arsenal were routed 6-1, and the title was ours by four points. Where young Byrne led, more would follow, and the evolution of Busby's second great team was under way.

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