Football: A colour snapshot of black and white heroes

Book of the week
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The Independent Online
The Busby Babes - Men of Magic By Max Arthur (Mainstream, paperback, pounds 7.99)

WHEN Duncan Edwards was arguably the best player in England, he sidled up to Jimmy Murphy, Manchester United's assistant manager, and asked: "Do you mind if I buy a bike?" He was given permission with the warning: "OK, but be careful".

Eddie Colman would travel up and down the train on away matches with a crate of ale for supporters, while Mark Jones, who loved his pigeons more than the the trappings of his fame, would always ensure spectators in wheelchairs had a good view before the kick-off of every game.

It seems ludicrous now. England internationals not only cycling to work, but also feeling the need to get clearance first. There was a working- class empathy between player and supporter then and perhaps that is why the legend of the Busby Babes endures. They are preserved by tragedy in an age of relative innocence.

Roger Byrne did not live long enough to grow fat and slow, Tommy Taylor's maximum wage ensured there were no rancorous pay disputes. Compare that to contemporary Premiership players, who can be millionaires before they reach 100 appearances and where respect for authority appears to be close to negligible and it does not take a vivid imagination to realise the appeal of the team that died. They are heroes of black and white simplicity set against the colour complexities of today.

After the acres of print and numerous radio and television programmes to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Munich air disaster, you could be forgiven for thinking there was nothing new to learn about the Babes, but Max Arthur's book, first published 15 years ago, manages it by letting the survivors tell their own story. You can never know the true characters of the deceased, particularly those who perished young, but here you get at least a snapshot.

Harry Gregg's heroic tale is well known, but others, like Dennis Viollet, give less familiar narratives. When Murphy's collection of reserves reached the 1958 FA Cup final, they felt they had paid their tribute to their colleagues and the match was almost an irrelevance. Bolton Wanderers won 2-0 that day and banqueted like losers in the evening. United had a massive party.

There is also a narrative with Byrne's widow, Joy, who knew her husband for three Februarys. In the first, he drove his Morris Minor into a lamp post and fractured his collarbone, and in the second he swerved to avoid another car and crashed into, of all places, Matt Busby's garden. On 6 February 1958, he died.