Football: The day Highbury fell to its knees

Norman Fox recalls an adventure to see Busby's Babes win a classic against Arsenal
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The Independent Online
We Went on the milk train which left at 5.30am and stopped everywhere; but it was the cheapest way of getting to London. For a teenager isolated in a football- deprived corner of Kent where the best players you could see were mostly X-rated (ex-Gillingham, ex-Charlton, ex- Millwall) the trip to see Arsenal against Manchester United was a one- day ticket to Shangri-la.

Saturday, 1 February 1958. By 12.30 there were queues all around Highbury. We waited, and waited. We would not have given up our places even if someone had announced that the game was to be postponed for a fortnight. We were going to see the "Busby Babes", the team the "experts" in the Press said could soon become the best in Europe. What did reporters know? United were already the best in the world - even a schoolboy knew that.

The gates opened, we pushed through the turnstiles and ran down the terraces to stand pressed against the railings at the halfway line. The wait went on but eventually a fat policeman sang. No warm-up appearances for the players in those days. Nothing to spoil the theatre that was the arrival of the teams for a match that was to be all adventure and hero worship played out before a crowd of 63,578.

Within a couple of minutes the ball hammered against the low fence a yard from where we were crammed sideways and with the pitch virtually on eye level. Duncan Edwards retrieved it. You could even smell the embrocation. The great Duncan Edwards was hardly more than an arm's length away. Soon it appeared as if the whole Arsenal team were as much in awe as a youth overwhelmed and struck silent amid a barrage of sound.

Dennis Viollet sped through their fragile tackles, spread the attack with a pass out to Albert Scanlon who pulled the ball back to Edwards. His 25-yard shot slipped through even Jack Kelsey's safe hands and seemed, to young eyes, like some Herculean intervention: proof, for those reporters, that Edwards should be the powerhouse of England for years to come.

Arsenal recovered slightly but Harry Gregg saved from Vic Groves and sent Scanlon away again. The centre came and the 20-year-old Bobby Charlton, who only that season had secured his place, pounded in United's second goal with a force that was to become so familiar. Before half-time Arsenal were three down. Tommy Taylor took advantage of an accurate winger's pass from Ken Morgans and beat Kelsey who recalled later: "If I was on my knees most of the time, so were all the others."

Yet at half-time Arsenal decided that Derek Tapscott, a lost soul in the first half, should move to the wing and Groves go to inside-right - a simple alteration but, added to a rousing half-time talk by Arsenal's captain, Dave Bowen, it worked. Jimmy Murphy, Matt Busby's assistant, knew Bowen well and suspected that he would lead a mighty fight-back. Murphy was manager of Wales and Bowen the captain.

Bowen went on surging runs that suddenly had United looking to all of their best European form to resist him. He found David Herd with an exact pass. Gregg was given little chance by Herd's volley and had no time to compose himself before Jimmy Bloomfield was beating him again, and in only one more minute the game was level, Bowen again splitting the defence. A centre from Gordon Nutt and Bloomfield headed in. Three goals in less than five minutes - bedlam.

It was then that the full power, the hint of intimidation, the immense speed of counterattack and the unforgettable all-round magnificence of that United team gelled. Scanlon recovered his domination of the wing, crossed perfectly and Viollet headed in (four goals in seven minutes was worth five shillings of anybody's money). Taylor's imposing strength brought him another goal after a flickering exchange of passes between the inventive Eddie Colman and Morgans.

Once more Arsenal pulled themselves together. Yet again Bowen was inspirational, defending then attacking with equal effect. And in the end Tapscott tore through the United penalty area to become the player who brought Arsenal so near to closing the goalscoring gap. Arsenal won their deserved high praise but had lost 5-4.

Five days later seven of United's regular first team died in the Munich air crash. Edwards, who had conceded nothing on any pitch, battled for 15 days against his injuries but lost the fight.