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The History of Manchester United - Part IV
by Andrew Embling

Part 4 - 1951-1971 - To Triumph from Adversity

Following the death of the devoted James Gibson, Harold Hardman was appointed Chairman of Manchester United in September 1951. Mr Hardman had been a player for a number of years, and had even had a spell playing for United themselves. It had been thought that James Gibson's son, Alan, would follow in his father's footsteps and become the new Chairman, but his wife Aileen was ill and he declined the role to look after her. 

Despite having won the First Division in 1952, many of the team were reaching the end of their careers. By the start of the 1954/1955 season many of the players had retired and United were near the foot of the table. The shareholders were beginning to become more than a little concerned. It became clear that new blood was required. Fortunately for United, manager Busby had decided to continue to promote the youth policy started by James Gibson and Walter Crickmer in 1937, and the youth structure was again beginning to produce new players. Duncan Edwards had joined the club in 1953 and Eddie Coleman had followed. In October of 1953 Busby had experimented by bringing these two, plus the likes of Jackie Blanchflower and Dennis Violet into the team to play Kilmarnock in a friendly, a match that the youthful United won 3-0. It was to be the start of something special - the start of the Babes. 

Buoyed by a precedent of becoming the first team to run a coaching course for schoolboys, United won the inaugural FA Youth Cup in 1953, and went on to sweep the board, winning for the next four seasons as well. Duncan Edwards was the captain of this bright young squad, whose average age was just 21 in 1954/55. The team had potential, which began to be realised when they transferred their Youth Cup form to the First Division, winning the league in 1956/57. Had it not been for an injury to goalkeeper Ray Wood in the FA Cup Final against Aston Villa, United would have won the Double. With the introduction of European Football, who knew what the future would hold and how much the team could achieve with arguably their best years ahead of them. It looked like a bright future for the red half of Manchester.

The following season United continued to impress. The team were again in contention at the top of the league and were challenging in the FA Cup and the European Cup. It was in the later competition that they were drawn against Red Star Belgrade in the Quarter-Finals. They travelled to Belgrade for the second leg of the tie confident that they could progress to their second semi-final in two seasons. The team played well and a 5-4 aggregate victory saw them progress further in the competition - the last 4 beckoned. The question was could anyone now stand in their way of reaching the pinnacle of club football and becoming European champions? The answer was swift and devastating.

The day following the team's triumph in Belgrade - February 6th 1958 - United's plane stopped to refuel in Munich. The weather was harsh, with sub-freezing temperatures and an icy runway. Two attempts were made to take off with little success. A third, and final, attempt was made. The aircraft rose, only to fall again, crashing and bursting into a ball of flames. Team captain Roger Byrne, Eddie Coleman, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor, Liam Walsh, Geoff Bent and Mark Jones all died at the scene. Club secretary and former manager Walter Crickmer was also among those to perish in the crash. It was another devastating blow to the club to lose a man whose proudest moment had been steering the team back to the First Division in 1938. Duncan Edwards lay fighting for his life along with his manager, but did not survive. 23 people in total died. Others lay injured in a Munich hospital. Johnny Berry and Jackie Blanchflower were so badly injured that they could never again play football. It was the worst accident in football history, the darkest day in United's history, and a premature end to potentially the greatest team in British, if not world football at that time. 

The news stunned not only the people of Manchester, but the entire country and beyond. Messages of condolence poured into Old Trafford from throughout the world. With Matt Busby fighting another battle in hospital, the team's duties fell on assistant Jimmy Murphy, who had escaped the trip to Belgrade due to commitments in his role as manager of Wales. 

That week had been a difficult one for United. Only five days before the crash, director George Whittaker had died. The day after the crash the board met at the home of Alan Gibson - himself unable to travel with the team on the ill-fated trip due to a broken leg. Louis Edwards, a friend of Matt Busby, was appointed to the board, despite having previously had his election vetoed. 

In the period immediately following the crash the backroom staff at United worked quickly to try and bring in new faces to help out and replace those injured or dead. Jack Crompton, the goalkeeper in the cup-winning side of 1948, returned to United from his role as coach at Luton. Stan Crowther transferred from Aston Villa and Ernie Taylor moved from Blackpool, with further recruits drafted in from the United youth and reserve team squads. The Liverpool Chairman, Tom Williams, personally called Jimmy Murphy to see if there was anyone at Anfield who might do a job to help United under the circumstances. 

Thirteen days after the crash United played Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup Fifth Round. The team was depleted. Where the names of the players would have been in the programme there were eleven blank spaces. Bolstered by the support of the supporters the team defeated Wednesday, and continued to make progress in the competition, reaching the final itself, although they would eventually lose 2-0 to Bolton. The club had lost so much, but the memory of those who died would never be forgotten. Who knows what they would have achieved?

Matt Busby recovered. A new team had to be built. In the years that followed Munich United had little success. Off the pitch, Louise Edwards, along with Alan Gibson and Bill Young, formed a three-man sub-committee to deal with the club's financial affairs. At the same time Edwards, needing a total of 2000 to build a majority that would make him chairman, began buying shares in the club. By 1962 he had become the third largest shareholder in the club, whilst his brother-in-law, Denzil Haroun, was also buying shares. Edwards would succeed the late Harold Hardman as Chairman in 1965, and so begin his family's hold on the club.

Back on the pitch Busby signed Denis Law for 115,000. With the arrival of Pat Crerand from Celtic, United reached the 1963 FA Cup Final, defeating Leicester 3-1 to win the trophy for the third time. The following season a young Irishman made his debut - George Best. The team continued to improve. The First Division title was won in 1964/65, and again in 1966/67. The title victory meant that the following season United could make another assault for glory, not in domestic competition, but in the European Cup. With a combination of skill and fortune, including a fightback from 3-1 down in the last 20 minutes of the semi-final second leg away to Real Madrid, United reached the final of the competition, where they faced up to Eusabio and Benfica. Could United succeed Celtic as European Champions and become the first English cub to win the trophy? 

The final took place at Wembley. Vice-Chairman Alan Gibson attended the game as part of his honeymoon to second wife Anne, having been widowed 3 years earlier. His wedding was not the only thing he would be celebrating. United took the lead with a goal from captain Bobby Charlton, only for the Portuguese champions to hit back. Extra-time was required. United again took the initiative. Best scored their second, followed by a third from birthday boy Brian Kidd, just 18 and in the team as a replacement for broken leg victim Law. Bobby Charlton - a Munich survivor himself - completed the rout and a 4-1 victory. It was a wonderful moment for all those with United in their hearts; a dedication to the memory of those killed or injured at Munich.

The following year United attempted to win the unofficial world title by defeating Argentinian side Estudiantes in the World Club Championship. In a bad-tempered match over two spiteful legs, United were defeated. Nobby Stiles received his marching orders in the first leg, and Best was sent off in the second. 

The 1969/70 season saw a new man at the helm; Matt Busby retired as manager, with Wilf McGuinness taking over first team operations. The team, with ageing players coming to the end of their careers, did not perform well and McGuinness was relieved of his duties after only 18 months, hastened by a League Cup semi-final defeat at the hands of Third Division Aston Villa. For a short time after Matt Busby returned to managerial duties, as United searched for a long-term replacement to McGuinness. The man appointed was Frank O'Farrell, who joined in time to take control of first team duties at the start of the 1971/2 season. United lost only two of their first 23 games in his charge. The team's future looked bright once again.

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