In the wake of the Babes

Forty years after Munich, an old player recalls the emotions of a life spent following the deeds of legends
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ON the weekend before the Munich disaster, while the first team were playing their last, dramatic game in Britain against Arsenal at Highbury where they won 5-4, Shay Brennan took his customary place in Manchester United's "A" team. Eighteen days later, following the air crash, he was promoted to the hastily assembled first team for a delayed FA Cup fifth-round tie against Sheffield Wednesday at Old Trafford, was switched from full-back to left-wing and scored two goals in United's emotional 3-0 win. Brennan is never sure whether he wants to erase those few days from his memory or remember them forever.

Brennan's career was later to take him all the way to a European Cup winners' medal alongside George Best and Bobby Charlton and bring him 19 caps for the Republic of Ireland, but in 1958, as he recalls, "I was going nowhere". Manchester-born, of Irish parents, he had been a United supporter almost from infancy. When, at 15, he joined them on the ground staff, cleaning the boots, he was among the group of youngsters who were later to be called the "Busby Babes".

His closest pal was Eddie Colman, who was among those killed, but he was in awe of Duncan Edwards ("the greatest of them all"). He remembers that the underestimated youth team coach, Jimmy Murphy, who was Sir Matt's assistant and had to take over after Munich, always put on a brave face when anyone talked about the 1958 team. "But if Duncan's name was mentioned, you'd see tears in his eyes - and he had seen a lot of great players, Tommy Lawton, Dixie Dean... and so on," says Brennan. Being among such exceptional players was both pleasurable and frustrating for Brennan who was 20 before he made his extraordinary yet almost unwelcome debut. He felt there was no way he would ever establish himself.

"You have to remember that even Bobby Charlton had not long managed to get into the team and so had Dennis Viollet and Billy Whelan. My prospects were bleak, but I would have stayed at Manchester United as a grounds- boy. United were my team. If you played for them you knew that at the end of the day you could always move to a good club, but it would have been a comedown even to go to Real Madrid."

The circumstances of his debut destroyed what should have been a moment of hope and relief. On the morning after the crash Wilf McGuinness who, but for injury, would have been on the flight, telephoned to tell him who of their mates and heroes had been killed or severely injured. "It was just a terrible shock. We had to report to the ground the next day. It was horrible - Duncan, the boss and some of the others were still fighting for their lives."

It had not yet dawned on Brennan that a terrible irony had unfolded: out of tragedy would, eventually, come personal opportunity. "Even after the crash it was a big surprise to be asked to play. There had been a lot of speculation in the press. Players like Ernie Taylor and Stan Crowther had been brought in. I'd never been mentioned. It was only on the morning of the Cup tie when we were in Blackpool that I was told by Jimmy Murphy. I can hardly remember anything from the moment that Jimmy told me and running on the pitch. Everything went so quickly."

He does remember going into the dressing-room and realising that no one would attempt the familiar jokes or suggest it was "just another game". The atmosphere was like nothing any of this hotch-potch of bought-in veterans like Taylor and inexperienced staffers like himself, would ever experience again. "There was none of the usual banter. It was the biggest game I'd ever played. The only thing Jimmy said to me was that he had seen me play in a practice match against the first team and was impressed. He told me to play just like that...not the way I played most weekends. Although we won, it was the crowd that willed us to win. I suppose you could say I had a good game because I scored two goals, but I was the worst player on the park. One of the goals was a lucky one, direct from a corner, and the other was from five yards."

He recalls that suddenly he was the focus of attention from the Press who had hardly heard of him before. He found it difficult to cope. Really, all he wanted was to go home (he was still living with his parents). "It was the first and last time I was the centre of attention." The day on which he contributed to the victory that, it seemed, all Britain outside Sheffield wanted was not to transform his career overnight. "I played three or four games after that and in the replay of the semi-final against Fulham, but Dennis Viollet had come back and it was again difficult to get in the team. There was no resentment against the players who had come to the club after the crash - Ernie Taylor was a great character; he kept the spirits up."

Slowly he won his place as a tough-tackling full-back, whereas originally he was an inside-forward, and finally in the 1959-60 season he secured his position and held it for the next 10 years. An ever-present in the 1968 team who beat Benfica to win the European Cup, he made 355 first- team appearances before ending his career at Waterford. These days he is often asked to compare United teams of his era with the one now leading the Premiership. He says: "People forget that there have been four great post-war United teams. The Johnny Carey FA Cup winning side of 1948 was outstanding." He has good reason to remember them - as a kid he almost fell under the wheels of the bus parading them triumphantly through the streets of Manchester.