It is footage that is just over three minutes long but, through it, you can start to get a slight sense of why the subjects have been so revered for six decades. There’s a challenge by Duncan Edwards; a run by Tommy Taylor; a swivel from Billy Whelan.
The pictures are from Manchester United’s 3-1 win away to Burnley in April 1957, a mere 10 months before the tragedy of Munich. The Busby Babes are thereby captured at the height of their brilliant but brief life as a team but, even more exclusively and importantly, in full colour. That is thanks to the work of the much-loved local amateur filmmaker Sam Hanna, whose film (footage above) will be shown at an event at Manchester Metropolitan University on Wednesday, a day after the 60th anniversary of the disaster: ‘Munich: 60 years on - how British Sport Changed’.
It emphasises the magic of the team, as well as the magic of film. That is also the thing with teams like this, with stories like this. As brilliant as we know the Babes were, they almost become legends in the truest sense of the word, mostly known from the emotional words of those who actually knew them in person. This film brings them to life, and shows the legends for what they truly were: preciously talented young lads.
That is something that struck lecturer Vince Hunt in his preparation for Wednesday’s event, just how integral to local Manchester life these boys were, and not simply in the support for the club.
“What we are seeing is a team of footballers without frills, normal people who came out of the community, got on their bikes and rode down to Old Trafford to play football,” Hunt explains. “At the end of the day, they went to the local pub, the Quadrant, had a drink, and went to their families. And it does show you something in this digital age.
“It’s still possible to walk into that pub and start talking to locals about the Busby Babes, regulars who watched the team, played on the same park as Bobby Charlton. There was one of the locals who paid for the memorial, still sits in the same chair, in the same pub they would come in to. He would play football in Longford Park and one day there was a storm, so they all took shelter under a tree, only for Bobby Charlton to run over. ‘Bobby, are you sure you should be standing under that tree,’ they asked.
“Tom Curry the physio, who also died at Munich, lived one minute away. I actually went to the unveiling of a blue plaque for him yesterday, and he was one of those that was maybe a bit overlooked or forgotten about, and that is changing a bit.
“Players would go over to his house for cups of tea, slices of cake. They almost felt like nephews to these people, and that’s what I take away the most. They were the flesh and blood, the sense they were the clubs’ lads, and it didn’t matter whether you were local or a lad from Ireland like Billy Whelan who got a hat-trick in that Burnley game.”
That sense of the local is also emphasised in other ways, and particularly painful ways when it came to the actual day of the crash, given that this was long before globalised media.
“We’ve got stories of people hanging their washing out, and neighbours telling them have they heard on the radio the plane has crashed,” Hunt explains. “There were these nerve-racking waits for details, and this in the 1950s of a soot-blackened city.
“It was hit by these waves of grief, people just stunned. That is particularly true with Duncan Edwards, who stayed alive for 14 days, people looking at the Manchester Evening News for updates. Rivalries were set aside, people pulled together. This is the war generation. Tom Jackson was the football writer for the MEN who also died, a much loved figure who lived and breathed Manchester United. There were 1,000 people who came out for his funeral, and there was just this outpouring of community.”
It was a different time, and the essence of a very different team, something that will become all too clear on Wednesday.
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