The birth of ‘The Flowers of Manchester’

Monday 13 February 2023 16:24

When United Review caught up with Mick Groves, the original singer of The Flowers of Manchester, he could hardly be further from his birthplace of Salford.

“I’m sitting on Waikiki Beach, Honolulu!” he beams down the phone line, just minutes after United have beaten Nottingham Forest 2-0 at a truly sodden Old Trafford. 

Groves, 86, is on holiday with family. But over the last week, the song he popularised, with his folk group The Spinners, has been heard from Manchester to Munich, as United fans marked the 65th anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster. 

“We were entering our first competition as a band, in London in 1958,” Mick recalls, “and there was this folk magazine, Sing, with the words to The Flowers of Manchester on the front page. I just couldn’t believe it, being a United fan. 

“The editor was a guy called Eric Winter from Ashton-under-Lyne. He eventually owned up to being the writer of the words. He’d published it anonymously and, after he died, his wife said he’d owned up to it.”
Mick (left of picture) and The Spinners pose with their many string instruments in 1976.
Having seen the words, Groves and his colleagues set out to put them to the melody of the traditional folk tune High Germany and a recorded version was released on the group’s Quayside Songs Old and New album in 1962. And in true folk style, the song has not stopped evolving or growing in stature since.

“Verses have been added about the other players who survived, but [initially] it just mentioned the eight that died. But that’s what we call the folk ‘process’. People like Harry Gregg did wonders, rescuing Bobby Charlton and others, which we found out about later.”

The Spinners were formed in Liverpool, but Mick’s Salford and United roots have remained firmly intact since he first watched the Reds play in 1946.

“By the end of the war I was 10 and I’d fallen in love with Man United. My dad was a City fan!” laughs Groves. “But he said: ‘I don’t mind taking you to Maine Road to see the United games, because that’s where City play,’ so he used to drop me on his shoulders on the big bank at Maine Road. 

“When United eventually got back to Old Trafford in ’49, I started going to see them there. The Salford lads always sat at the Scoreboard End, and the Stretford lads were always in the Stretford End.

“I started life as a teacher around ’56 in Liverpool,” he continues. l heard about it [Munich] on the bus when I was coming into Liverpool from Wallasey, on the [newspaper] hoardings. I just couldn’t believe it, like any fan. ‘My god, what’s happened?’ It was very, very painful. Particularly as I was just 20 at the time.”
But the song that The Spinners – and Eric Winter – created was able to turn that pain into something more positive: an everlasting paean to the Busby Babes. Mick has played it for Sir Matt Busby, Sir Alex Ferguson and even a full house at Old Trafford. And he still performs it around February time each year at his own solo concerts.

“Sir Alex invited me to sing it on the pitch and when I was living on the Wirral, I went to a dinner where one of the guest speakers was Matt Busby. I was taken aside by Matt into the boardroom of Tranmere [Rovers], while everyone was having their drinks elsewhere, and I sang him the song. He patted me on the head and said: ‘That’s a canny wee song, son.’

“The Spinners once sung at Wembley in front of 99,000 when Liverpool played Everton in the ’80s. Of course, the band was very chuffed, but I was more proud doing Old Trafford as an individual in 2008. I could see the crowd reacting to it and clapping, but the greatest pleasure was the ability to do it.
How fans marked the 65th anniversary of Munich Video

How fans marked the 65th anniversary of Munich

Watch all of the memorial event at Old Trafford, attended by Erik ten Hag, Harry Maguire, Marc Skinner and Katie Zelem…

And the song continues to live on powerfully, which gives Mick huge satisfaction, given that his memories of that dark day in ’58 are still so vivid.

“That day on the bus, going home through Liverpool and seeing all the signs, it stays with you, I’m afraid,” he admits. “The song has always meant so much to me, being a fan since 1946. It’s been like that ever since.

“I started singing it, the fans picked it up and then they started singing it outside the ground under the [Munich] clock, and they still do that to this day. It lives on, on the Stretford End, which is great.

“Now I’m down in Exeter, having divorced and remarried,” Groves concludes. “But I’ve started playing again, and I always sing it as my own little memorial in that February week. And I’ll be in mind of it this year, obviously, even though I’m here in the middle of the Pacific.”

This feature was first published in the Leeds edition of United Review, our official matchday programme.