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Old 28th February 2006, 22:25   #1
Join Date: Oct 2004
Location: Houston Texas
Posts: 1,537
Default The Wilderness Years

There has been lots of things written about Manchester United’s history down the years. Most of it about the "glory years," very little about the thirties, and not too much about that really dreadful decade between 1970 - 1980. However, I feel that nothing at all has ever been written in depth about the time that centred around those immediate post Munich years, 1958 - 1963. To me, those were really, really, important years. Years when a lot of things happened, and not too many people outside of Manchester noticed! After the tragedy, United were virtually written off by most people, even though they did finish second in the First Division in season 1958/59. It was understandable given the terrible things that had happened, and the enormity of the challenge that lay ahead for the Club. Even a large number of United's most loyal supporters had an attitude of pessimism. It's true to say, that within the world of English football at that time, there was echelons in the corridors of power that did not want to see United re-emerge as a potent force in the game. Even at club level, there was certain Chairmen at well known clubs, who deliberately tried to coax players, and management, away from Old Trafford, in a specific attempt to weaken the Club even further.

The task of rebuilding United from the debris that was left after that tragic day in February 1958, was, to most people, beyond comprehension. At that time, the concensus of opinion was, that it would take United at least ten, and maybe 20 years or more, to recover their status within the game. Sir Matt had been seriously injured, and a full recovery at that time, was by no means certain. How had the accident affected him psychologically? Would he want to return to management? These were pertinent questions that nobody had the answers to. Players like Jackie Blanchflower, and Johnny Berry, would never kick a ball again, so in reality, counting the players that were lost at Munich, United lost ten, and not eight players from that famous "Babes" team. Others like Kenny Morgans, Ray Wood, Albert Scanlon, and even Denis Violett to a lesser extent, were never the same players after the tragedy - in fact all of them over the next few years, were allowed to join other clubs - Morgans to Swansea, Wood to Huddersfield, Scanlon to Newcastle, and finally, Violett to Stoke City. So the rebuilding task was of enormous proportions, not only on the field, but off it as well. United had lost a first class Secretary in little Walter Crickmer, and two stalwart coaches in Bert Whalley, and Tom Curry. Key personnel within the structure at Old Trafford - where would the quality come from to replace them?

United were fortunate in that at the time, the Chairman of the Club was Harold Hardman, a tenacious little man, who lived for United. Like Sir Matt, he upheld, and implemented the traditions, and ways, that Manchester United had built over the years, and did this with tremendous vigour. A dapper little bespectacled man, he'd been an Olympic Gold Medal winner in the Games of 1912. Jimmy Murphy, by the grace of God, had not traveled to Munich for the European Cup tie. He was at the time of the tragedy, team manager of the Welsh National team, and had been on duty in Cardiff, with that team, for a World Cup qualifying tie against Israel, on the day that United had played Red Star in Belgrade. He was able to take over the running of the playing side of matters. These two men would be pivotal to the re-emergence of United.

Les Olive had been a goalkeeper at United, and had in fact made a couple of appearances in the first team during the early fifties. However, he had decided to hang up his boots, and at the time of the tragedy, was working in administration at United's Old Trafford offices. Hardman promoted Les to the post of Secretary. Jack Crompton, another goalkeeper, who had played in both the '48 F.A. Cup winning, and '52 Championship teams, had retired from playing, and was then Manager/Coach at Luton Town. The Hatters Board of Directors were gracious in allowing Crompton to return to Old Trafford. He took over as first team trainer/coach, and old Billy Inglis took over the task of looking after the Reserve team.

Jimmy Murphy worked a really punishing schedule during that first year after the tragedy, often sleeping in his office at the ground. The team had been carried along on a wave of emotion in the immediate aftermath, reaching the FA Cup Final. However, in their remaining league games of that 57/58 season, United won only once, and took some heavy defeats, both home and away. The FA Cup seemed to be a different matter. After the emotional night of the 5th round tie against Sheffield Wednesday, United were drawn away at West Bromwich Albion. They were losing at The Hawthorns with very little time left when Bobby Charlton scored a late equalizer, to earn a replay. Once again, the atmosphere for a cup tie was electric at Old Trafford, and it was a typical hard fought tie which looked to be going into extra-time. In the dying minute, Bobby Charlton somehow found the energy to make a surging run down the right wing, and crossed into the six yard box for Colin Webster to stab home the winner. In between the 6th round of the FA cup and the semi-final, United had the daunting task of playing AC Milan in the European Cup semi-final. The game at Old Trafford was once again played in a surreal atmosphere of passion and emotion, and United startlingly won the game 2-1. The tie in Milan though was played after a long rail journey across Europe - hardly the preparation for a game of such importance. United had departed on the Monday afternoon, and the game was played on the Wednesday evening. Not surprisingly, Milan triumphed convincingly by 4-0. In the FA Cup semi-final, United had been drawn at Villa Park against Fulham, Another emotional, and enthralling tie ensued with the game ending 2-2 thanks to two thunderbolts from Bobby Charlton. The replay was at Highbury the following Wednesday, and on a cold, foggy, damp afternoon, United ran off winners by 5-3, with young Alex Dawson scoring a hat - trick, and they had incredibly, reached the F.A. Cup Final when they would play Bolton at Wembley.

Munich seemed to affect players in different ways. Bill Foulkes was made Club and team captain, and he would be the first to admit that the burden weighed heavily upon him, and affected his performances. Bobby Charlton went completely the opposite way, he played like a man possessed, and made his full international debut at Hampden Park against Scotland, before that season ended. He scored one of the most memorable goals ever seen on that famous old ground - a mid air volley from some 20 yards that hit the back of the net before Tommy Younger, the Scottish 'keeper even moved. Denis Violett came back towards the end of that season, but he too, was a shadow of his former self. Harry Gregg put in some wonderful performances between the sticks, and but for him, some of the league defeats would have been much heavier. Ernie Taylor, Stan Crowther, and to a lesser extent, Colin Webster, brought their experience to bear on the team, but the rest were relatively young - Ian Greaves, Freddie Goodwin, Ronnie Cope, Alex Dawson, Mark Pearson, Shay Brennan. The Final was a non-entity, and Bolton won by 2-0. Jimmy Murphy had led the team out from the tunnel, and the club crest which was embroidered on the Cup Final shirts that year, was a large Phoenix rising from the ashes. Sir Matt was able to attend the Final, albeit having to walk with the aid of two heavy, walking sticks, and he took his place amid rapturous applause on the bench behind Jimmy. The emotion finally caught up with the team on that day, and after only three minutes, Lofthouse scored a fine opportunitist goal, after some sloppy defending on United’s part. Bobby Charlton did hit a post with a thunderous ground shot, only to see the ball rebound straight into the arms of a startled, but grateful Eddie Hopkinson. Controversy reigned over the second goal, and for the second Final in succession, United suffered injury to their goalkeeper. Denis Stevens (Duncan Edwards’ cousin) headed hopefully towards United's goal, but Gregg palmed the ball into the air. Turning to catch the ball, he felt the force of a full blooded charge in the back from Lofthouse, the impetus of which, took both him and the ball into the back of the net. Amazingly, the goal was allowed to stand. Notwithstanding that incident, United hadn't played well enough to win the game, and Bolton were worthy winners at the end of the game. The United players left the field that day drained, tired, disappointed, and emotionally spent. Once again though, just as their beloved predecessors had done, they had captured the imagination and hearts of the British sporting public. Everybody outside of Bolton wanted United to lift that old trophy, but it wasn't to be, and just as the "Babes" had been the year before, they were sporting in defeat as they stood and clapped as Lofthouse, and his Bolton team climbed those famous 39 steps, to collect the trophy, and their winners medals.

The summer of 1958 saw the World Cup Finals played in Sweden, and several United players were taking part for their respective countries. It was the last time that all four home nations participated in a major international tournament. Bobby Charlton was selected for England, Harry Gregg for Northern Ireland, and Colin Webster for Wales. Gregg and Webster figured prominently, but sadly, and for reasons only known to the England manager, Walter Winterbottom, and the FA Selection Committee (that’s how the England team was selected in those days) Charlton never figured in one single game. Brazil went on to win the Final by 5-2 beating the host nation Sweden in Gothenberg. England had been devastated by the losses suffered at Munich, plus the death of Jeff Hall, the Birmingham City full back. But for these events, it's highly likely that England would have pushed Brazil all the way, and may even have won that World Cup tournament.

In the summer of '58, Sir Matt was convalescing, and Jimmy was as busy as ever. Three players from the famous amateur club, Bishop Aukland, had arrived to help out - Bob Hardisty, a wizened old centre half, Derek Lewin, an inside forward, and a winger by the name of Warren Bradley. Initially, they had come to help out the reserve team, but Bradley made such an impact, he was a regular first team player within months of his arrival. Joe Carolan, a full back,from Home Farm in Ireland had begun to make his mark, Albert Scanlon was back in the fold, Wilf McGuinness had cemented a regular place, and had also forced his way into the England team. Midway through the 58/59 season, Sir Matt had started to ease his way back into the manager's seat, and his first move was to pay a British transfer record of 45000 pounds for Albert Quixall, the Sheffield Wednesday skipper. The team once again performed beyond expectations that season, and actually finished runners-up to the Champions Wolves, but they did score 103 goals in the process.

During the period between the end of the 58 - 59, and the start of the 59-60 season, Harold Hardman and the board, sanctioned the rebuilding of the Stretford End. Attendances had risen the season before, and again, there had been games that had resulted in lock outs. Being the astute man that he was, Hardman wanted the Club to cash in financially on this increased support. A large covered stand was built with a section for seating in the upper area. At the beginning of that 59/60 campaign, Sir Matt, who was firmly back in the "hot seat," signed a tough, uncompromising left half from West Brom, by the name of Maurice Setters. Setters had the reputation of being a "hard man", and with his short shaven, crew cut head, and bandy legs, he did look a little intimidating. The team did not perform well that season, and this was only to be expected really, considering the emotions, euphoria, and wave of sympathy that had been following the Club since the tragedy 18 months beforehand. Something, somewhere, somewhen, just had to give, and Sir Matt and Jimmy were well aware that this would happen. It affected a lot of the players eventually. Bobby Charlton, Wilf McGuinness, Ronnie Cope, Bill Foulkes, Harry Gregg, all suffered bad losses of form, and spent periods in the reserve team. It was during one of these periods that Wilf McGuinness suffered a horrific broken leg which was to end his career as a player. Burnley finished Champions that season, and a new force was on it's way in the form of Totenham Hotspur.

1960 - 61 saw the time when some famous names started to appear. Noel Cantwell a classy, cultured full back, was signed from West Ham, Tony Dunne, another classy, and speedy full back, arrived from Shelborne in Ireland,, Johnny Giles, Jimmy Nicholson, Nobby Lawton, and Nobby Stiles came through from the junior levels, and Busby produced a master stroke by converting Bill Foulkes into a centre half. The team didn't gell too well again that year, and there was some notable departures, namely Joe Carolan, Ronnie Cope, Freddie Goodwin, Kenny Morgans, and Albert Scanlon. It was also the season when United sufferd an inglorious exit from the FA Cup, losing 7-2 at home to Sheffield Wednesday in a replayed tie. They also suffered a 7-3 drubbing that season as well, away at Newcastle. The great Tottenham "double winning" team had emerged, and all the media focus was on them. The wheels were slowly beginning to turn inside Old Trafford, and the Busby-Murphy partnership, was quietly getting on with the job of the restoration of Manchester United. Little attention was being given to what was happening inside Old Trafford, and Sir Matt was happy with that. It was in that 60/61 season, that chanting started to become prevalent, especially from the hordes that used to stand on the Stretford End. The "swinging sixties" was well and truly on the way. Great social change was beginning to sweep through Britain, and it was the dawn of probably the fastest living decade of the 20th Century!

61/62 was another season of trying to find the right balance in the team. John Aston Senior, and Wilf McGuinness, were now taking a more prominent part in the Club's coaching policies. The main arrival that season was that of David Herd, the prolific free scoring centre forward from Arsenal. He was to prove over the years one of Sir Matt's more inspired signings. Sadly, it was the season that Denis Violett left the Club for Stoke City. His part in those years after the tragedy should always be recognised. He took over the captaincy from Bill Foulkes, and helped the club through a difficult period before Maurice Setters was appointed captain at the start of the 61/62 season. Even though he wasn’t the player that he was before the tragedy, he still managed to break the Club's league scoring record with 32 goals in the 60/61 season - a record that still stands to this day. Among others that left the Club that season were Warren Bradley, Ronnie Briggs, and Alex Dawson. The team never got going that year, and the surprise Champions came from the south-east, the rather unfashionable, Ipswich Town, managed by former England full back Alf Ramsey. It was also the season when a British Club won their first European trophy when the formidable 'Spurs team whipped Atleico Madrid 5-1 in the ECWC Final on a balmy night in Rotterdam.

1962-63 was really the start of the return to glory for United – but oh! it could so easily have ended in disaster! There was some notable happenings that year, two in particular. In the close season, Sir Matt had pulled off a coup in signing Denis Law from Torino in Italy. Denis had followed Albert Quixall in 1959, by becoming Britain’s most expensive player when he signed for Manchester City from Huddersfield for a sum of 55000 pounds. At the end of the 60/61 season he had become unhappy at City and followed Jimmy Greaves, and Joe Baker, to Italy. But the lure of the Lire, didn't make Law a happy man, and he soon became discontented, and homesick. Through the Italian agent Gigi Peronace, who was a good friend of Sir Matt's, he was tipped off that Law may be available, and Matt moved very quickly to sign him. He began his Old Trafford career on a beautiful August Saturday in 1962, and the opening home game against West Brom. Within minutes, his blonde head had risen to meet a centre and he thumped the ball home ferociously with his forehead, in front of the Stretford End, and then turned and wheeled away in what was to become an all too familiar pose, the hand and forefinger raised to the heavens above his head - the King had been crowned. The team though were not performing very well as a unit, and there was something lacking – a piece missing from the jig saw! In late 1962, Sir Matt and Jimmy finally solved the puzzle - they bought Paddy Crerand south, from Celtic. Paddy was never blessed with pace, but oh! boy, could he pass a ball, and did he have vision. Throughout that season United played
in fits and starts, but in early April, they were in dire danger of being relegated! They had performed well enough in the Cup, but their league form just wouldn’t come together. Early 1963 saw some really atrocious weather in Britain, and there was a big freeze from January through until March, and game after game was postponed. It meant a huge fixture jam, and this seemed to have some effect on United's league form. The game that made them safe was a local "derby" at Maine Road, played on a Wednesday evening in early May. United needed a point, and City two, as they also, were in desperate straits! Early on, Alex Harley scored for City, and the chant of " Har-Lee, Har-Lee" roared down from the Kippax. For all United's endeavours, they never looked like scoring, until five minutes from time, City's goalkeeper, Harry Dowd, had a rush of blood to the head. Denis Law had picked up the ball in the City area, but was moving away from the goal to try and find some space to turn. Dowd went haring after him, and in no uncertain fashion, pulled him down! Penalty - and up stepped Albert Quixall to put the ball in the back of the net, and secure United's First Division status. Although that game did not condemn City to relegation, they did in fact go down that season.

The 1963 F.A. Cup Final had been put back until the last Saturday in May due to the "big freeze" earlier that year. The finalists were Leicester City and United. Leicester had been to the Final two years before, losing to the Spurs side which for them, completed the first "double" of the century. Leicester were red hot favourites for the Cup, and the popular press gave United no chance, obviously, due to their poor league form. However, this gane was to prove the beginning of the "glory years" once again for United. Paddy Crerand had an inspired match - his articulate and precise passing, destroyed Leicester. Towards half-time, he threaded a beautiful pass through to Law, who was standing, back to goal, around the penalty spot. Turning like lightning, he hammered the ball past Gordon banks to give United the lead, and from that moment on, only United were going to lift that trophy. In the second half, David Herd scored twice, the second one with lightning reflexes after Banks spilled a Bobby Charlton cross. Leicester had pulled a goal back to make it 2-1, but never were they ever going to get back into that game.

So just a short five years after the tragedy, United had won a major trophy again. Those five years away from the limelight had given Sir Matt and Jimmy, the time and breathing space to once again, plant the seeds and watch the flowers grow. They were, as I said at the beginning, tremendously important years. The youth policy was beginning to flourish once more, and Sir Matt had built a team that was going to compete, and chase "The Holy Grail." Just waiting in the wings ready to be unleashed were players like Best, Sadler, Fitzpatrick, Burns, Aston, Ryan, Kidd, Sartori, Rimmer - all products of the youth team. But the yearsto follow are another story!
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