Football: Devils worship: Four of the finest

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The Independent Online

The backbone of Matt Busby's 1948 FA Cup-winning team that had beaten Stanley Matthews' and Mortensen's Blackpool was still in place. Johnny Carey's leadership and versatility (he played in every position except outside- left) was central. Now, however, young players including the defender Byrne and winger Berry were challenging. The blend brought the championship crown ahead of Tottenham and Arsenal. The experienced United half-back line of Carey, Chilton and Cockburn was the best since the war. Arsenal could have taken the title with a big win in the last game but it was United who achieved that, Rowley scoring three times in a 6-1 victory. Within a year, though, the team began to suffer collective ageing and went into a short slump. Busby said: "There is no deep cause for worry - we have pounds 200,000 worth of skill and youth in our reserves."


Busby's claim to have confidence in the club's youth was well founded but the purchase of the powerful centre-forward Tommy Taylor from Barnsley was fundamental. In defence Carey and Aston were replaced by Foulkes and Byrne and by 1956-57 when United won the championship and reached the European Cup semi-finals the team usually read: Wood; Foulkes, Byrne; Colman, Jones, Edwards; Berry, Whelan (or Jackie Blanchflower), Taylor, Viollet and Pegg. Bobby Charlton was also emerging. This was the absurdly called "Busby Babes" - no babes these but one of the hardest and most dynamic teams of mature youngsters ever produced in Britain. They were probably on the verge of becoming the dominating force in Europe as well as providing England with the core of the national team when in the winter of 1958 the Munich air crash destroyed lives and hope.


Youth was again the key as United at last achieved their ultimate goal, the European Cup at Wembley. A team Busby fielded against Liverpool the previous season had contained six players under 20. They also had glamour, notably in George Best, audacity in Denis Law, tenacity in Nobby Stiles and shooting power from Bobby Charlton. But by the time United reached the European final Law was absent, injured. Even so, Wembley has had few occasions to match that climax against

Benfica. Charlton gave United a lead early in the second half but after Benfica equalised it took all of the agility of Stepney to deny a rampant Eusebio. In extra-time Best confirmed himself a talent few in the world have equalled, scoring after a swerving run and casual finish. Kidd and Charlton struck two more and Charlton dragged himself up the steps to collect the huge trophy.


United's Double-winning squad inevitably drew comparisons with both the European Cup winning group of the Sixties and Busby's unfulfilled side of the mid-Fifties. It was an exceptional assembly of players with the security of Schmeichel in goal, the stubbornness of Bruce and Pallister in central defence, aggressive midfield strength of Keane and Ince, the unpredictable brilliance and goalscoring of Cantona, the pace of Kanchelskis, power of Hughes and the mercurial wingmanship of Giggs who brought occasionalmemories of George Best. They dominated the championship so much that only once in the whole season were they not top and they had a run of 22 unbeaten games. And though Chelsea did a league double over them, United took compensation in the FA Cup final, winning 4-0. Cantona was at his peak, scoring twice from the penalty spot.