The men who saw the Babes
The Manchester United team decimated in Munich has become the subject of football folklore. Here, we take accounts from those who saw what made the Busby Babes so unique…
“United were the glamour team of the 1950s. Everyone knew all about them. I remember going to watch the European Cup tie against Athletic Bilbao at Maine Road in 1957, and that was just an incredible evening. United were 3-5 down from the first leg and won 3-0. The atmosphere that night was unbelievable.
“The only thing I can compare it to was the famous tie at Old Trafford against Barcelona in 1984, when Bryan Robson scored twice and we came from behind to win 3-2 on aggregate. That night at Maine Road against Bilbao was the same.There were so many superb players in Sir Matt Busby’s team, it was a thrill to watch them. Tommy Taylor, Roger Byrne, Duncan Edwards, these were England internationals, but there was an enormous buzz around the whole club at the time, not just the first team.
“I had a part-time job selling tea, coffee, Oxo, pies and so on at Old Trafford, and that wasn’t just for senior games; the club would ask me to come in for the Reserve team games as well, because there were so many fans coming along to watch, trying to spot the next stars coming through. I remember watching Alex Dawson, Mark Pearson and other lads in the Reserves, and then suddenly they were in the first team because of Munich.”
“I remember going along to watch the Babes play and it was such a thrill, both in terms of the atmosphere and in terms of the football on show. We take floodlit football for granted nowadays, but back then it was new and exciting, and the players reflected this in the way they played the game. I think the crowd reflected it as well because they were eager to get involved in the match. It wasn’t just a group of bystanders; the United fans at this stage became quite passionate.
“The supporters recognised it was a special time. They possibly didn’t realise the depth of the revolution, but they certainly knew it was something new, and that all started with Manchester United. It was reflected by the fans who regarded it as a journey. It was the same for the players. I remember Bobby Charlton telling me: ‘You’ve got to remember that European football was a big adventure for the players. It was something new, that’s why we got so excited about it.'For me, Duncan Edwards was the face of the Babes. He was the outstanding individual player who really looked the part. He had a physique that was like a superman. He played like a superman. He was so young when all this was happening to him, but he took it in his stride. It’s unfair to just single out one player, though, because it wasn’t just Duncan.
“That Busby Babes team was symbolic of what Matt Busby was doing at Manchester United, creating his own players in the image of himself, to play as he wanted them to play. The whole team was brilliant. Bobby Charlton was just coming into prominence, Dennis Viollet was a key part of it, Eddie Colman – snakehips – was brilliant, and the whole team was fantastic. They were all Babes, bar Harry Gregg who was bought in. It was almost entirely a homegrown team and it had the kind of loyalty and dedication that you often get with homegrown teams. I think that was one of the factors that made Matt build his career around developing his own players. He spotted them, signed them, brought them up and he made them into footballers. It was thrilling to witness that.”
Ken Ramsden, former Manchester United club secretary
“The Busby Babes signified something new in football, because up to that point, football had been played by men who were older. Roger Byrne and Johnny Berry were slightly senior, but for the most part this was a very young team, full of of local boys, so you could identify with them. You also saw more of them around Manchester. They’d travel to matches by bus or even on bikes, they went into local shops, so you felt as if you knew them.
“My mother worked in the laundry room at the stadium, so during school holidays I’d go down to the stadium to see if she was about so I could get in and get a drink, and I’d often see the players because they trained there in those days. They were always around, just so full of life and full of football.The world we live in now, we’d be looking ahead to the end of this season, next season, two years on and so on, but back then you really did live for the moment and you just enjoyed what you saw. Of course, we might have enjoyed it even more if we knew it was going to be so short-lived, but it was widely recognised that it was the start of something new and unique.”
This feature first appeared in United Review on 3 February 2018.