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Football taught by Matt Busby

02/04/2018

For a few years at school I was into drawing. Although I wasn’t particularly creative so mainly ended up sketching cartoon characters or copying pictures from books. So when Manchester United brought out a magazine to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Munich air disaster in 1983 I was instantly drawn (if you’ll excuse the pun) to the picture on the front cover of a smiling Matt Busby overlooking various scenes from United’s past and present; Duncan Edwards, Bobby Charlton, George Best and Norman Whiteside were a few of the figures that stood out. It was cracking picture and I bought a large piece of card and tried to copy it with a view to sticking the finished product on my bedroom wall. I didn’t finish it though – it took me several weeks just to sketch Matt’s head and by the time I’d made a right horlicks of Norman Whiteside’s nose I gave up and for years the unfinished picture sat gathering dust at my mum and dad’s with all my United programmes and other memorabilia.

But what was of more significance is that it was only when I delved inside the magazine and started to read the various articles that I began to fully appreciate the scale of what happened on that Munich airport runway on 6th February 1958. My dad had been due to go to his first United match the Saturday after Munich and although he never saw the Busby Babes in action he still recalls his giddiness at the prospect of seeing the likes of Duncan Edwards and Eddie “Snakehips” Colman in the flesh. Whilst my own first United match was only nineteen years after the Munich disaster (the same as the gap back to the treble season now) for an eight year old it might as well have been ninety years ago.

So the enormity of the tragedy didn’t really sink in until the day of the 25th anniversary when, lying on my bed, I read through the magazine cover to cover blubbing my eyes out well before I got to the end. Being an out of town fan our football-daft school playground was full of kids that supported Liverpool and Forest and as they seemed to be celebrating a trophy or two almost every season, whilst United won nowt, I’d be lying if I said that there weren’t moments when I had more than a few doubts about this team that my dad had saddled me with.

But that Munich commemorative magazine changed all that and made me begin to appreciate the glorious, yet tragic, history of this football club. Learning for the first time about how Matt Busby had built a team brimming with youthful talent and how he had defied the Football League and taken United into Europe, the first English side to play in European competition, filled me with pride. But there was overwhelming sadness too at how a group of young players with so much to look forward to never got the chance to fulfil their undoubted potential. Eight of that team, the pioneering champions of England, died in the Munich disaster and Busby himself was so badly injured that he was given the last rites at one point before eventually recovering.

Which makes it odd that after expunging that teenage self-doubt thirty five years ago that I now spend Saturday afternoons watching a different football team. Although they also play in red and have Manchester and United in their name. Whilst many FC United of Manchester supporters no longer go to Old Trafford there remains a red thread that connects us to Manchester United and back to the Busby Babes like a footballing umbilical cord. That’s why on their way to the match at Nuneaton on Saturday a group of FC United supporters visited the cemetery in Dudley where Duncan Edwards is buried and, as they have done in previous seasons whenever FC have played in the West Midlands, paid their respects to Big Dunc. And it’s why some FC United supporters have travelled out to Munich this week to join hundreds of other Reds in remembering those who lost their lives in that plane crash sixty years ago. And why those of us stood on a cold, damp terrace in Warwickshire on Saturday were singing songs about football taught by Matt Busby. And why too that the superb 1878 Manchester United nostalgia magazine, it’s latest issue devoted entirely to the Busby Babes, is sold at FC United home and away matches as well as at Old Trafford. Two United’s, one soul.

As I headed home from Nuneaton on Saturday night and boarded a Northern Line tube train at Euston on the last leg of my journey I couldn’t help noticing the two clear plastic bags that the young couple sat opposite were carrying which appeared to include a small black book with the words “The Flowers of Manchester” on the cover. I pointed to one of the bags and asked if they’d been to the United match and whether I could have a quick look at what was inside.

They said that yes they’d been to Old Trafford, passed one of the bags over and as I flicked through the book and the commemorative programme (which had been given out free to all supporters attending the match, the closest United home match to the 60th anniversary of the Munich disaster) there followed one of those oddly asymmetrical Saturday night conversations that I’ve grown familiar with over the years; them telling me about the match at Old Trafford, who scored, who played well, what the atmosphere was like before asking me which league FC United are in. After briefly informing them that we’re five divisions below United and had lost to Nuneaton Town today I think they decided to take pity on me and offered me one of their commemorative packs.

They explained that one was enough for the two of them and that they would be happy for the other one to go to a good home. To be honest, I was a bit taken aback by this kind gesture, reduced to gibbering “are you sure?” and “that’s very kind of you” several times before getting up to leave the train at my station with an unexpected plastic bagged gift. I have a tendency to generalise about many of those who go to Old Trafford these days which is a shame as most of the match going United fans I’ve met in London over the last decade have been sound.

Later on as I sat with a brew flicking through the slim black Flowers of Manchester book and the commemorative programme that had been very generously given to me I realised that sometimes, just sometimes, the football club that I adore but ultimately parted company with as a result of its overbearing commercialisation can still get some of the important things right. Opening the programme (the first time I’ve browsed a copy of the United Review in many years) the repetition of the Glazer name in the section informing supporters of the names of the directors of the club undoubtedly jars but both publications are well presented and a wonderful tribute to the memory of those who died at Munich. As is the smart pin badge adorned with a picture of the Old Trafford Munich clock that was also in the plastic bag. And giving them out for free, as a commemorative pack, to all supporters attending the match was a touch of class.

So as we commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Munich disaster this week and remember the twenty three people who lost their lives (including eight of the Busby Babes) I hope that there are more than a few young United supporters reading through that small black book that they picked up at the match on Saturday and, perhaps with tears in their eyes, learning about the proud history of their football club and the football taught by Matt Busby. RIP the Busby Babes. We’ll never die.

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