On the trail of the Babes

Former Manchester United player Tony Whelan has explored a golden era in the club's history in a new book
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The Independent Online

Whether you are a football fan or not, you cannot fail to be moved by the story of the Busby Babes. It was a snowbound afternoon in 1958 when a British European Airways Elizabethan plane hit Munich Airport's perimeter fence during its third attempt at take-off, killing 21 people. Among them were eight members of the young Manchester United team, flying home after their success in the quarter-finals of the European Cup. The team had all come up through the club's youth training scheme pioneered by Matt Busby.

Whether you are a football fan or not, you cannot fail to be moved by the story of the Busby Babes. It was a snowbound afternoon in 1958 when a British European Airways Elizabethan plane hit Munich Airport's perimeter fence during its third attempt at take-off, killing 21 people. Among them were eight members of the young Manchester United team, flying home after their success in the quarter-finals of the European Cup. The team had all come up through the club's youth training scheme pioneered by Matt Busby.

Current Manchester United Youth Team manager and former player Tony Whelan was six at the time. He was oblivious to the incident that sent a nation into mourning, and totally unaware that nearly 50 years later his MA thesis would explore the subject and lead to the publication of his first book, The Birth of the Babes. Launched this month, it is based on Manchester United Football Club's visionary youth policy.

In his book, Whelan not only examines the roots of Matt Busby's socialism and his approach to the care of his players, but illustrates the system of scouts, coaches and trainers that made Man U a prototype for the youth systems of today. The emergence of the Busby Babes was a social phenomenon. Not only did these young players receive expert football training, they were treated as part of a family; Manchester United became a home away from home.

Whelan says that he would never have had the confidence to write the book at all if it wasn't for the Open University. Born in Salford and brought up in Manchester, he left school in 1968 at 15 with no formal qualifications. He joined Manchester United as an apprentice footballer, having been spotted by a talent scout while playing for his local team. He signed full professional in December 1969 and went on to enjoy a 16-year football career with Manchester United, Manchester City, Rochdale and several clubs in the North American Soccer League (NASL) including the Fort Lauderdale Strikers and the Atlanta Chiefs.

"Throughout my playing career I always had an active mind," says Whelan. "My main passion was history and I used to sneak books onto the plane and hide them from the team because I wasn't sure how they'd react. Friends were always saying to me that I should read for a degree at university, but I didn't think this was attainable for someone without traditional qualifications."

When he stopped playing football Whelan embarked on a second career as an educational welfare officer for his local authority, where he got his hands on an OU prospectus. "Given that I had a job, family commitments and also coached part-time, it seemed ideal," he says.

He earned an OU diploma in European humanities, finally securing his BA in 1994 after eight years of study. He also gained a Certificate in Education (Cert Ed) validated by Manchester Victoria University. "I was able to fast-track my Cert Ed because of skills I had learnt during my OU studies," he says. The Professional Football Association (PFA) has a fund that ex-players can tap into, which paid two-thirds of his fees and for his books. "I was not on a big wage as a social worker, married with two kids growing up, money was tight so I'm extremely grateful to the PFA," says Whelan.

In 1990 Manchester United senior coach Brian Kidd invited Whelan to coach at the Manchester United Centre of Excellence, and it was here that the seed was sown for The Birth of the Babes. After coaching sessions Whelan would chat with a coaching mate. "He used to tell stories about what it used to be like when he was a young kid at the club and I was fascinated. One day I said to him, this is an important part of history, someone should write it down." Whelan's coaching mate just happened to be former player Nobby Stiles, OBE, a member of the victorious 1966 World Cup Team. "Nobby just said to me: 'Well, write it down then' and I thought, why not?"

Whelan found an MA course in Humanities and Applied Social Studies at Manchester Metropolitan University for research. "They assigned me a supervisor, Dr Ken Parsons, who was a sociologist, and off I went."

During his research Whelan spoke to many people from the era including Bill Foulkes, Munich survivor and a legend of the club; Wilf McGuinness former manager/player and coach; Albert Scanlon another Munich survivor. He also wrote about two of the most famous graduates of the system: Duncan Edwards, who died from his injuries after the crash; and Bobby Charlton who survived. "The fact that I'm a former Manchester United player made it easier for me to get to talk to people," he said. "Also the subject matter was very interesting to the people I was interviewing and they wanted to talk about their own experiences, it was an oral history project really."

Whelan was astounded by some of the memorabilia that people dug out. "Some of it was really valuable but they were just keeping it in old shoe boxes. They just hadn't realised how important it was, or just hadn't looked at it for a long time." He was shown programmes from the 1958 Cup Final, letters from former England team manager Sir Alf Ramsey, photographs that had never been published before. Thanks to Whelan some of these items are now in the Manchester United Museum or are being properly catalogued and stored by their owners.

It wasn't until after Whelan had shown his thesis to the people he had interviewed that the idea of getting it published occurred to him. "I just kept getting really positive feedback," he said. "There is also a lot of history that is not written down about that period and hopefully I have bridged the gap a little bit."

The road to becoming a published author was not easy. "I had all but given up when someone suggested Stuart Fish and Ashley Shaw at Empire Publications. They didn't bat an eyelid, they wanted to do it straight away," he said.

Whelan believes he could never have done any of this without the OU. "I owe The Open University a debt of gratitude," he says. "It is such a unique experience and only the people who have done it understand." He recalls taking a course called Culture and Belief in Europe 1450-1600. "The tutor was a guy called David Olive and he was absolutely superb. He brought the course to life for me.

"I don't know whether I was more proud to play for United and City first teams, or to turn up at my Open University graduation day at Preston, and pick up my degree with my wife and family, who had been so supportive." He remembers standing in his gown looking at all the other graduates. "I just thought - I know where they've been and they know where I've been, and the mutual respect that everyone had for each other gave me a great sense of pride and achievement."

Whelan is now deputy assistant academy manager at the Manchester United Football Youth Academy. Many famous names have come up through the academy during Whelan's time there - David Beckham, Gary and Phil Neville, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Wes Brown to name but a few.

Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has maintained and enhanced the principles upon which the Academy was founded, from the days of Sir Matt Busby and the Busby Babes to the more recent historic successes of Sir Alex. "He has been very supportive with regard to the book," said Whelan. "He told me he really enjoyed reading it, and as he wrote the foreword I guess he must have done."

The Birth of the Babes, Manchester United Youth Policy 1950-1957 by Tony Whelan, Empire Publications, £12.95, is launched on 17 May

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