Football: Fan's Eye View no 243 Munich Memories - Ferguson's United provide precious link with Babes of '58

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The Independent Online
Of all the 40 years that have passed since the tragedy of the Munich air crash, this year, 1998, is the most poignant anniversary. Generally 40th anniversaries are only middle-ranking stage-posts in life - outshone by the quarter and half centenaries. This one is different, because never before has there been quite the resonance between past and present; never again will it be so possible for the dwindling numbers of us who remember 1958 to give younger people a sense of loss. The link, precious and fleeting like all things living, is the current United team.

This is a personal story, though one whose broad pattern will be shared by other fiftysomethings who grew up in Manchester. I was 13. The lights from the windows of the back street barber's shop pierced the early evening gloom. I was getting the customary "short back and sides". Suddenly the door opened with an urgent jangle. In came a flat-capped man in cheap, baggy trousers. "The United plane has crashed," he blurted, banged the door shut and was gone.

I don't know who he was. Maybe he knew the barber, maybe he just had to find some way to come to terms with his own horror and dread and had stumbled towards the light. There was a pause, the handful of customers gazed at each other. I don't remember anyone speaking. The snipping resumed, though I was oblivious to it. Then, cycling home, my legs pumped the pedals as fast as I could to begin the evening's vigil by the radio.

I had been going to Old Trafford for five years, during which time the "Busby Babes" had filtered into the team. I remember a 1-5 home defeat against Bolton; men against boys, redeemed by an imperious Tommy Taylor header into the net in front of me. But there had been enough magic to hook me for life. I had the autographs, the pictures on the bedroom wall.

Forty Februaries on, another Scottish manager leads another young team high in hope of European Cup success, a year after semi-final failure. "Matt 50:50," I remember the headline in the Manchester Evening News. In terms of silverware Alex Ferguson is already more successful than Busby was as he lay in his oxygen tent. More importantly he has done things the Busby way, summed up in his cry from the touchline when the team was getting a kicking at Bramall Lane a few years back, "Keep playing football!"

The pre-Munich team were above all a team. More solid, more together as a unit on the field than their Sixties successors for whom the transcendent invention of Law, Charlton and Best obscured the limits of others. It is like the difference between Ferguson's first Double team - lit by Cantona, Kanchelskis, Hughes and Ince -and today's side.

Roger Byrne, the captain in 1958, had a modest, understated touch, like Denis Irwin today. His understudy, Geoff Bent, also died in the crash and was spoken of as a potential England international, a status already achieved by young Phil Neville. Eddie Coleman, like Paul Scholes, a Salford lad, had the ability to twist and turn in tight spaces, to get up the field and back again. Billy Whelan was one of those players who could do mesmeric things yet also dawdled out of a game. He had lost his place in the team as Charlton began to blossom. In contrast, the main striker, Tommy Taylor, the big money buy (pounds 29,000 from Barnsley) was a prolific scorer. On the left wing Albert Scanlon had won the berth normally filled by David Pegg, a pacy dribbler with a powerful shot. Duncan Edwards was a national hero at 21 in an era unspiced with heroes.

Next week, United entertain Barnsley at Old Trafford in the fifth round of the FA Cup, just as Sheffield Wednesday came - and lost 3-0- all those years ago. On that emotive night reserves and third teamers were bolstered by goalkeeper Harry Gregg, Bill Foulkes and two emergency signings, the diminutive midfielder Ernie Taylor, and Stan Crowther, a workaday left- half. They kept playing football.

The trauma of the crash froze my footballing emotions. I am forever a 13 year old, more so this year than any year since I had "short back and sides".