Manchester United's domination of English football is inseparable from the legends that grew up round the club 40 years ago
THERE was silence. The Manchester United fans waiting for a tour of the team's stadium shook their heads, or looked away. Their guide, a genial former headmaster called Tony, had just asked how many managed to attend matches at Old Trafford. "A deathly hush," he noted. "There usually is."

Not surprising, really, given that pilgrims come from all over the world to the Theatre of Dreams, as the marketing men would like us to call it. The elderly man with a video camera was from Australia. The blonde woman in a wind-cheater was from Denmark. The small boy holding on to his father's arm was from Barnsley.

Yes, Barnsley. The Yorkshire town has a football team of its own, currently fighting relegation from the Premiership, but neither local loyalty or the War of the Roses seemed to mean much to Daley Wright, a 10-year-old boy in a replica shirt. His shy smile became a full beam when we were shown the home team's dressing room, and he was allowed to sit on the bench reserved for his hero, David Beckham.

"Posh Spice has never sat there," said our avuncular guide. Victoria Addams, the Spice Girl who wears little black Gucci dresses, has just got engaged to David Beckham, the latest young United heart-throb. "If you see an R registration Mercedes being driven by someone who looks far too young to drive, that's probably a player," advised Tony, with a chuckle. "If it's a Daimler with an out-of-date tax disc, that's probably David Beckham."

More youngsters with their fathers were in the Red Cafe, a new restaurant built into the North Stand of the stadium, and decorated with images of the great United players. Video screens replaying goals from the past offered a compelling alternative to the view through the window, which looked out over the industrial landscape of Trafford Park. United has inherited the wealth associated with industrial Manchester; its local rival, the First Division club City, is as troubled as Moss Side, the area near its ground. At Maine Road they must rely on the Gallagher brothers of Oasis for their glamour.

The Red Cafe's menu featured the silhouette of a player from the 1950s - Duncan Edwards, widely recognised as one of the greatest footballing talents England ever produced. When Edwards was in the United first team there was a pounds 17 maximum wage, although crowds of more than 60,000 people paid to enter Old Trafford each week.

The refurbished stadium holds 55,000, but players are now paid far more. Beckham bought his girlfriend a pounds 40,000 diamond engagement ring, but it would have taken him only two weeks to earn that amount. Two plates of scampi and chips in the Red Cafe will cost you more than Edwards' weekly pay packet, but his legend is an integral part of a global marketing campaign that has established Manchester United as one of the leading brand names, in any business.

The question is, how did an ordinary outfit from a battered city become enveloped in such well-marketed myth and romance that it can claim to be the most celebrated team in the world?

The answer begins at the main entrance to Old Trafford, where a bronze statue of Sir Matt Busby stands next to a clock that bears the name Munich, and the date 6 February. It was on that day in 1958 that a plane carrying United back from a European Cup tie in Belgrade stopped for refuelling at Munich airport.

The pilot made three attempts to take off, in sub-zero temperatures. At the third, his aircraft thundered off the runway, through a fence and into a house, killing 23 of the people on board and injuring many more.

There have been other sporting disasters - the Italian side Torino lost the best part of a championship-winning side in a plane crash in 1949 - but the events in Munich drew tears around the world. Eight of the dead were Busby Babes, members of a team assembled by Sir Matt and regarded by him as "potentially the best club side I have seen". People with no interest in football were deeply moved by the deaths of such promising and athletic young men.

The story of how Sir Matt conquered severe personal injury and built another all-conquering side of young entertainers provides the myth at the heart of Manchester United. For years, it was a burden. Now that the team is winning again, the businessmen behind the club are exploiting that legend for all it is worth.

Sir Matt took over as manager after the Second World War, when the club was in a mess. Formed as a team of railway workers in 1878, it had been on the verge of bankruptcy several times, and German bombing had destroyed half of Old Trafford. He won the league with a team of veterans, then started again with an aggressive youth policy that unearthed talents like Duncan Edwards.

They began to be successful at a time when football was still the game of the people - admission was cheap and crowds were huge. The Festival of Britain and the Coronation made England feel like the centre of the world in 1953, but the national side was in crisis. Already shamed by defeat against the United States, it was humbled by Hung- ary, whose stylish 6-3 victory at Wembley was the first by a team from outside the British Isles.

The Busby Babes learned the lesson well, and won the league with a panache that gave English football back its self-respect. They defied the footballing authorities to enter the newly established European Cup, and reached the semi-finals, where they lost to Real Madrid, a truly great side. By February 1958 they had retained their league title and were looking strong in Europe. Then came the crash.

"There isn't a day that goes by I don't remember what happened, and the people who are gone," said Sir Bobby Charlton, when he joined his fellow survivors at the European Cup Final in Munich last year. "The fact that the players are not here and are never going to be judged is sad. They'll never grow old."

Sir Bobby became a director of United in 1986, and since the death of Busby in 1994 he has been the club's most visible link with its past. On Friday he will be at a memorial service in Manchester Cathedral; on 24 February the former United captain Eric Cantona will return to Old Trafford with an international side to play a match in tribute.

Sir Matt Busby nearly died in the crash along with Tommy Taylor, Roger Byrne, Duncan Edwards and others of his team. It took him 10 years to assemble another side capable of challenging for the European Cup, and every neutral cheered on his behalf when United won it in 1968. It was an adventurous, skilful team containing players like Charlton, Denis Law and George Best, the Northern Ireland winger who achieved the same universal celebrity as the Beatles.

Against the odds, the dreadful tragedy of Munich had been given a happy ending, and television meant that it was watched by the world. Children from Surrey to Singapore ignored their local sides and fantasised about wearing the red, white and black and playing like Best.

IT WAS a shame for United that the story could not end there. Sir Matt retired but retained his influence at the club, cramping the style of successive managers. The great players were replaced by average talents. In 1974, the club reached a low point when it dropped to the Second Division. Worse, it was sent down by defeat to City, with a goal scored by a former United great who had been given away free: Denis Law, who did not celebrate, but turned away, unsmiling.

Nobody, it seemed, could live up to the legend of Sir Matt. Ron Atkinson was manager for five years - his sides never finished out of the top four, and he won the FA Cup twice, but even that was not enough for the board. When Alex Ferguson followed in 1986 it looked at first as though the Scot was out of his depth. Then the trophies began to arrive.

First there was the FA Cup, then the European Cup Winners' Cup and finally, in 1992 and with the help of Cantona, the league title. Ferguson won the championship four times in five seasons, and his side became the first to win the double of league and FA Cup twice.

At last, United had a side that lived up to its fame. The return of success coincided with a revolution in football: lucrative deals with satellite television brought new money into the game, and with stadiums rebuilt and hooliganism quietened, it became family entertainment again.

Football strips became a fashion item, and United was quick to see the potential, changing kits with a ruthless regularity that attracted criticism from parents. The marketing drive behind stars like Ryan Giggs, Lee Sharpe, Cantona and Beckham made the George Best phenomenon look like a car boot sale, but it was precisely because of past achievements that the new United had a story and a market to exploit.

Last year, United made a profit of pounds 27.6m. Sir Roland Smith, chairman of Manchester United plc, told the club's annual meeting in October that it was now "the biggest and most profitable football club in the world". Merchandising had brought in pounds 28.6m, more than television revenue and gate receipts put together.

Commercial success has only been possible since results on the pitch have attracted the devotion of a new generation of fans. Alex Ferguson has admitted that the pursuit of the European Cup could become "the albatross around my neck", but it is the last challenge left to him. His side - nicknamed the Fergie Fledglings - echoes the Busby Babes in its youth, and the team of 1968 in its style. Last season they reached the semi-final. If he won the trophy, nobody would again compare him to Sir Matt. In this, of all seasons, only victory will lay the ghosts to rest. Sport, Page 11, Section Two