Albert Scanlon: Busby Babe who survived the Munich disaster but never fulfilled his potential as a footballer

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Albert Scanlon was the most enigmatic of Manchester United's Busby Babes, the group of young, extravagantly talented athletes who were pushing back the boundaries of what was hitherto deemed possible on the English football scene when their world was shattered by the Munich air disaster.

Eight players lost their lives in the tragedy - which happened following a refuelling stop on the way home from a European Cup encounter with Red Star Belgrade in February 1958 - and two more were so maimed that they never kicked another ball.

When Scanlon survived, and recovered from his injuries to show coruscating form on his return to action on the Red Devils' left wing, it seemed certain that he, like Bobby Charlton and a handful of others who escaped death on that slushy German runway, would be a key bulwark in the stricken club's reconstruction. But somehow, after advancing to the fringe of full international recognition, with five appearances for the England under-23 side and one for the Football League in the wake of the crash, the brilliant but mercurial crowd-pleaser lost impetus and his career petered out in comparative anti-climax.

Scanlon was a fascinating character, streetwise and popular with his team-mates but possessing a wide whimsical streak, sometimes leading those who knew him best to suggest he hailed from another planet. In fact, he was a Mancunian born and bred, and the notion that he possessed the potential for greatness gained currency from his earliest days at the Old Trafford club, which began when he signed amateur forms in 1950.

Though markedly light in physical stature, the 15-year-old with the winsome air was never lacking in the crucial commodities of pace and skill, and although he found himself one of no fewer than 10 gifted wingers at the club, he duly progressed through the junior teams. Even at that age Scanlon was capable of embarrassing any opponent, no matter how accomplished, and after one practice match in which he was confronted by the ruthlessly formidable Bill Foulkes, a regular United first-team defender and an England international, he was informed gleefully by coach Bert Whalley: "You're doing well, young Albert. You had Bill in two minds - he didn't know whether to kick you over the stand or into the dressing room."

Off the pitch he made an impact, too, enthralling his contemporaries with lurid tales of a tearaway existence, such as how a steering wheel had pierced his stomach after he and his friends had crashed a stolen car - and he had the scar to prove it. For all this bravado, though, some saw him as insecure, an essentially shy young man in need of constant reassurance.

Most importantly to the United manager Matt Busby, Scanlon - or Joe Friday, as he was dubbed, after the slick-talking hero of the contemporary TV detective series Dragnet - continued to impress as a footballer, turning professional in December 1952, helping to win the FA Youth Cup in two successive seasons, making his senior entrance against Arsenal as a 19-year-old in November 1954 then finishing that term as the first-choice No 11.

However, there was a black cloud on the Scanlon horizon, and it went by the name of David Pegg. During the two championship-winning campaigns of 1955-56 and 1956-57, and for the first half of 1957-58, the Yorkshireman's enchanting input relegated Scanlon to the sidelines.

The two left-wingers offered a contrast in styles: Pegg was an intricate manipulator of the ball who would befuddle defenders with his trickery and who tended to drift inside, while Scanlon was piercingly direct, a specialist at leaving his marker for dead with searing acceleration before dispatching a cross. When his confidence was soaring he could scorch past opponents as if they barely existed, and he could shoot powerfully with either foot. The fans loved his verve, his high-velocity, panic-inducing dashes, but he was inclined to be unpredictable, and there were days of intense frustration when he lingered infuriatingly on the contest's fringe.

Still, his basic quality was undeniable and his chance came again in December 1957. The side had suffered a collective slump and Busby dropped Pegg and three others, the replacements including Scanlon and the emerging Charlton. It was a typically bold stroke by the perceptive United manager and the Red Devils embarked on an 11-game unbeaten run immediately before the Munich calamity. Throughout that exhilarating interlude – which included the starring role in a remarkable 5-4 victory over Arsenal at Highbury, the Babes' final game on English soil – Scanlon lifted his game to a new level, now seemingly a fixture for the foreseeable future.

Then came the accident, in which Pegg perished. Scanlon escaped with a fractured skull and a broken leg, but with profound psychological scars which would remain with him for the rest of his days.

While his physical wounds healed, he missed the depleted United's emotional progress to the FA Cup final, where they lost to Bolton Wanderers, and even when he was passed fit to resume his duties, he was reluctant to do so. Somehow it didn't seem right to pull on the red shirt without his fallen friends. Busby's inspirational assistant Jimmy Murphy convinced him to resume his career, however, and in 1958-59 Scanlon produced the most spellbinding football of his life.

Operating on the left of a prolific attack which also included Warren Bradley on the opposite flank and the sumptuous inside trio of Albert Quixall, Dennis Viollet and Bobby Charlton, he was ever-present and struck 16 goals as a patchwork team confounded the pessimists by finishing as title runners-up to Wolverhampton Wanderers. Representative honours followed but his prospects suffered an unexpected setback in the spring of 1960 when Busby, seeking to maximise the still-developing genius of Charlton, switched the England man to the left flank. Suddenly Scanlon had been marginalised, and in November 1960 he was sold to Newcastle United for £18,000.

Pundits who had seen him as part of the nucleus of Busby's reconstructed team were astonished, though they might have been less so had they been privy to difficulties the player had been experiencing away from the game, personal matters of which the manager is said to have taken a dim view.

He was still only 25 at the time of his transfer and much was expected of him on Tyneside, but he never settled, perhaps overawed at joining a squad of 53 professionals. There followed a brief, unhappy stint with Lincoln City and a slightly more fulfilling one with Mansfield Town, but Scanlon's skills did not flourish in the League's lower reaches and in 1966 he departed the first-class game, poignantly unfulfilled.

Later he took jobs in bakeries and a bolt factory before finding a happy niche as a stevedore on Salford Docks, where he relished the sense of community, and he was bitterly upset when that way of life disappeared in the early 1980s. There followed more than a decade as a security officer in Manchester before retirement.

There might have been a flaw in his make-up which prevented him from attaining the glory his ravishing ability appeared to warrant, or he might have been a victim of the trauma of Munich. But the personable Scanlon always remained a Red Devil at heart, viewing his illustrious past with a singular mixture of sharp-edged realism and dreamy nostalgia.

He wasn't blind to human frailties or footballing shortcomings among his fellow Busby Babes, yet on an occasional Friday evening after finishing his shift at the docks, he would stroll to Old Trafford and fancy he could hear the roar of the long-ago crowd. Then, dipping into the squad of comrades who had perished at Munich, he would select his team for the next day's game.

Albert Joseph Scanlon, footballer; born Manchester 10 October 1935; played for Manchester United 1950-60, Newcastle United 1960-62, Lincoln City 1962-63, Mansfield Town 1963-66; married (several children); died Salford 22 December 2009.