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Old 19th April 2007, 18:02   #1
tomclare
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Default Easter 1957 - The "Babes" Last Title

Easter 1957 – The “Babes” Last Title

Good Friday fell on April 19th in 1957 – 50 years ago today. I have some very strong and fond memories of that day and the weekend that followed. Being brought up in a strong Catholic environment, Good Friday was a “Holy Day” and in our family, was normally observed in just such a way. I can recall that the day began very early for me being that I was an altar boy at the Holy Family Church in All Saints, Manchester. My roster showed that I was down to serve the 7a.m. Mass, and so it was that I had arose at 6a.m., seen to my ablutions in the cold water sink downstairs, dressed, and then quietly slipped out of the terraced house in Royle Street. It was just starting to get light as I made my way up Grosvenor Street, then up past Upper Brook Street and Oxford Road and into All Saints, where the Church (which is still there today) lay at facing All Saints Park. Every step of my journey from home could be heard as I clattered along the streets because I was wearing clogs! My parents had gotten so fed up with me kicking the toes out of my shoes by playing football in them, that they had realized a threat to me, that they would put me in clogs! And so it happened. When I look back now, it’s strange how I remember those clogs with such reverence. It turned out that I loved them, and nurtured and cared for them ,just as I did for any pair of football boots, despite having to endure a lot of piss taking from my young friends of that time! As I walked along, my mind wasn’t on the task that immediately lay ahead of me. As usual it was solely focused on my one and only true love, Manchester United. My head was racing ahead of time as I would be traveling to Turf Moor, Burnley for a First Division Championship game later that day. The mystique of away travel was a wonderment to me back in those days. Today, for most kids, I suppose traveling to a place like Burnley would not seem to be too much of an adventure; but back then, it was like going to a foreign country for us inner city kids. It was such an exciting time for me – Turf Moor on the Friday, Old Trafford on the Saturday, Old Trafford again on the Monday, and then the “big one” against real Madrid at Old Trafford the following Thursday. What a week to look forward to!

My entry into the Church couldn’t have been more spectacular because as I went through the open doorway and across the carpeted entrance I came into the Church proper with its highly polished wooden floors. The minute that I stepped onto the wooden surface with my clogs, my legs came from underneath me and I went sliding feet first into a marble baptismal font that had a large array of flowers standing above it, and both font and flowers came crashing down around me! Of course the people already there in the congregation came to my aid, and almost immediately there was an appearance from the Parish Priest, Father McClernon. The result was that after the mess was cleared up, I actually served the Mass in my stocking feet! Even as I knelt there on the altar, supposedly following the events of the Mass, my mind was wandering away towards Turf Moor - what would it be like; what were their supporters like? Most important of all, would United win? As United approached that Easter, they need just four points to ensure retaining the First Division Championship title that they had won in the season before. Several times throughout that Mass, Father McClernon had to turn around and politely cough in order to bring my attention back to what I was supposed to be doing!

Time could not pass quickly enough for me, and after what seemed like an age, Father McClernon finally turned around and faced the congregation, saying; “Ite Missa Est” – and I waited for him to descend the altar steps and then followed him into the sanctuary. Once inside, I received my usual bollocking from him for being inattentive, and also got a warning from him to not forget his tickets for the Real Madrid game the following Thursday! It had become a ritual that as well as queueing at ungodly hours for my own tickets for matches, I had to bring his back as well! Discarding my cassock and cotta, and donning my clogs once more, I left the Church by the housekeeper’s entrance and down the side alleyway besides the Church. I was off back home as quickly as my legs could take me. My parents were off to Mass themselves accompanied by my younger sister, but before leaving, my Mum asked me whether I was doing the Stations of the Cross later that day at 3p.m. My face reddened as I told her a white lie saying that I had to go to St. Joseph’s at Victoria Park to do a retreat there and that I wouldn’t be home until 7p.m. I’d be gone by the time that they returned home from church!

I’d been to a few away games that season at Preston, Blackpool, Bolton and Maine Road, but Burnley was a new experience for me. I’d arranged to meet my partner in crime, Brian Walsh in Piccadilly. We wandered around Piccadilly for a while, but being Good Friday, nothing was open, and next to nobody was about. We meandered our way down Market Street, and Corporation Street, and then finally, into Victoria Station. I can recall that it was a beautiful sunny day, and after we had bought our tickets for the “football special to Burnley” we sat and waited. As time passed, more and more United fans began to arrive and before too long, there was a long line by the platform gate, and when finally the old steam train pulled in there was a big cheer from the waiting throng. The gate opened, the Ticket Collector clipped our tickets and we were allowed onto the platform to board the train. It was the usual motley band of supporters that made the journey to Burnley and the banter and camaraderie was terrific. Ladies with flasks of oxo and packets of sandwiches, fella’s smoking Capstan Full Strength cigarettes, others drinking bottles of Jubilee Stout, but it was most of all, a feeling of togetherness – we all belonged.

The urban Manchester scenery began to disappear as the train steamed its way out of Manchester, and into the pleasant East Lancashire countryside. It was hilly and green, and we passed through Bury and Ramsbottom , Haslingden and then finally arrived into Burnley, the journey taking just over an hour and 20 minutes. The train doors opened and the supporters flooded off the train and onto the platform, and then just like a snake sliding through the undergrowth,, began to move slowly out of the station and into the streets. Brian and I had no idea where Turf Moor actually was, so as usual, we just “followed the crowd”. It was a happy throng that made its way towards the ground and got denser as we neared the staium. Burnley fans and United fans exchanged banter, but for Brian and I, the Burnley people seemed to speak a foreign language! They had a very pronounced dialect and initially we had trouble understanding them! It took no more than 15 minutes to reach Turf Moor and upon arrival, we paid our ninepence entrance and took our places behind the goal at the “open end” which was where the majority of United supporters congregated. People chatted amiably, even with the Burnley fans – there was no pre-match chanting back in those days. The excitement began to increase as kick off time grew nearer, and then finally the Burnley team appeared from the tunnel in their claret and blue shirts. Some fairly big name players in their team back then; Colin McDonald, Jimmy Adamson, Tommy Cummings, Brian Miller, John Connelly, Jimmy McIlroy, Ray Pointer, Brian Pilkington – all internationals and they had a very canny manager in the Geordie, Harry Potts. United came out and made their way to the “open” end in their blue shirts, and lined up; Wood, Foulkes, Byrne;Goodwin, Blanchflower, Edwards; Berry, Whelan, Taylor, Charlton and Pegg. United won comfortably that afternoon with a terrific display of attacking football that really entertained the more than 41,000 fans. Billy Whelan was at his best and scored all three United goals, but it was a display of team power and flowing, attacking football. When the final whistle went, United were just two points away from retaining their title with Sunderland to play at home the following day.

It was a happy band of fans that left Burnley on the train that afternoon and I crept back into our house just around 7:30p.m. Nobody was the wiser as to where I’d been, and me full of myself because “I’d heard that United won 3-1”. Dad then filled me in with all the details about Billy Whelan’s hat-trick with never an inkling that I’d witnessed it all personally! Later that evening as I got ready for bed, Mum took me to one side in the bedroom and aksed me; “Did you go to Burnley today?” I sheepishly dropped my head and could not lie to her, very sheepishly saying; “yes.” She had talked to somebody at Mass that morning who had told her that there was no retreat at St. Joseph’s that day! I’d been rumbled! Fortunately, she never let on to my Dad.

Saturday, April 20th saw Sunderland arrive in Manchester and there was a tremendous excitement and expectancy within the city that United would clinch their second title in successive seasons that afternoon. The city was abuzz with the imminent arrival of Real Madrid in town the following week for the second leg of the European Cup Semi-Final, in which United were trailing by 3-1. Having to play 3 games in 4 days just three days prior to this semi-final, seemed no kind of preparation for a game of such importance. The Football league wouldn’t ever countenance a postponement of a League fixture to help the cause, so United just had to get on with it. I recall that the Saturday was again a nice sunny day and I made my way as usual to Old Trafford early, and then watched as the throngs began to arrive. Sunderland were also a team with many experienced internationals in their team; Len Shackleton, Ray Daniel, Charlie Fleming ,Don Revie, Billy Elliott, Billy Bingham, Stan Anderson and Colin Grainger. United made just one change from the team that had played Burnley the day before, and that was Eddie Colman returning at right half in place of Freddie Goodwin. Almost 59,000 fans packed into Old Trafford that afternoon. Sunderland were no real match for a rampant United team and Whelan quickly added to his three goals from the day before by opening the scoring very early on. Sunderland’s cause wasn’t helped much by an injury to their goalkeeper Johnny Bollands who was injured in a collision with Tommy Taylor as he dived at the big centre forward’s feet to get the ball. The injury necessitated him taking no further part in the game and Sunderland were down to 10 men. Big Charlie “Legs” Fleming, their centre forward, took over in goal. Charlie was a real football character and a real old traditional centre forward. Arms and legs that propelled him like a windmill, and courage that would take him through a barn door if necessary. He was handful for any centre half and had bagged a lot of goals for Sunderland since he’d traveled south from Scotland some two seasons before. I was stood at the back of the goal at the Stretford End during this game, and it was the end at which, the injury had taken place. The game was pretty much one sided from then on and it came as no surprise that United increased their lead when Tommy Taylor scored. Just before half time, I witnessed one of those defining moments in football….. something that stays with you and is immersed in your memory bank forever! The “Big Fella’” won the ball in midfield just inside the Sunderland half, and as was his want, he began to drive forward. From fully 30 yards out, he hit a tremendous venomous thunderbolt with his left foot. Charlie Fleming seemed to duck underneath the flight of the ball and it hit the back of the net with a wallop. Nothing will ever convince me that Charlie feared for his safety when that shot came at him, and took the safe way out by getting out of the way of it. It was game over and the second half was a stroll for United. A fourth goal from Billy Whelan gave the likeable Dubliner a tally of 5 goals from two games, and when the final whistle went, It was smiles and cheers all around as United retained their First Division title.

Busby now had a the luxury of being able to maybe rest a few players for the Easter Monday game against Burnley at Old Trafford. There was a real anticipation and excitement fermenting in Manchester that Sunday. The Championship secured, real Madrid was now the target. As I have written in another story, the tickets for the Real Madrid game went on sale on Easter Sunday morning and thousands queued throughout the night to make sure that they got a ticket. Brian and I got there at 5a.m. and already the line was way down Trafford Road going towards Ashburton Road. We got our tickets plus those for the Priests, and we looked forward to the coming week immensely.

Everybody knew that Busby would make changes for the visit of Burnley that Easter Monday afternoon. The title secured he could at least rest a few players. Nobody though expected the extent to what he would take this ploy. When the team was actually announced that morning, there was uproar. He made 9 changes and only Wood and Foulkes played that afternoon from the team that had defeated Sunderland two days previously. Bob Lord the autocratic Burnley Chairman, made scathing comments about United, and considered it an insult to Burnley that United could put out a “Boy’s Own” team against them as he put it. The Football League was incensed also and there was immediate talk of punishing United for fielding a weakened team in a Football League game. Busby was unperturbed and went ahead as planned. Just over 41,000 fans turned out that day to watch Dennis Viollet lead out ‘the Champions” and United lined up; Wood; Foulkes, Greaves; Goodwin, Cope, McGuinness;Webster, Doherty, Dawson, Viollett, and Scanlon. Most Manchester folk at that time knew just how good United’s strength in depth was. The Reserve team was strong, the junior teams were strong, and the Youth team was unbeatable. But for a lot of us, it remained to be seen just how good they would be against top notch opposition – and make no mistake about it – Burnley were a very, very, good team. Roared on by a very partisan crowd, United’s reserves took the game to Burnley. They displayed the same attacking ethos of their first team mentors. That they scored first through young Alex Dawson, came as no surprise and the scoreline stayed the same until midway through the second half, when the Welshman, Colin Webster, steamed in to power in a second goal. The game ended 2-0 to United and the happiness in the young United player’s faces as they left the field, told the story.

Bob Lord went back to Burnley with his tail between his legs, and his Burnley team had been demolished by the young United reserves. It was a result that made him bitter towards United forever after, and he was never slow in coming forward with that bitterness in later years. The Football League could hardly charge United with “fielding a weakened team” after that result, and so consequently, the matter died a death and wasn’t spoken about again. For us United fans, it had been a tremendous week-end. Champions again, already into the Final of the F.A. Cup, and with Real Madrid to come just three days later, what a wonderful time to be around. The word “treble” had been muted sometime before the F.A. Cup semi-final against Birmingham City in late March, and once that tie had been won, it became a more prominent word in the football vocabulary.

That United failed in their quest has always been a big disappointment to me – but it was never without the greatest of efforts. They failed in the European Cup against a tremendous Real Madrid team, by 5-3 on aggregate. I always maintain that United were on the receiving end of some poor refereeing decisions in the first leg, especially as Di Stefano should have been sent off in the first half of that game for a shocking foul on Eddie Colman. In the F.A. Cup Final, they were on the receiving end of probably the most despicable, pre-meditated acts of violence and thuggery that I have ever seen perpetrated upon a football pitch. It’s amazing to look at the run in at the end of that season, In the space of just 23 days, they had to play 9 games 6 of them inside a 10 day period! So they finished the season as First Division champions. We were happy and looked forward so much to the coming season. The “Busby Babes” were buoyant, and we were certain that the “treble” was not unachievable. Sadly, as history proved, it wasn’t to be. But that Easter period of 1957 is a time that I’ll never ever forget, and recall with so much happiness.
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