The following article is reproduced with the kind permission of John White, Branch Secretary of the Carryduff Manchester United Supporters Club. You can visit their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/carryduffmusc
MANCHESTER UNITED 1-4 CARDIFF CITY
ENGLISH FIRST DIVISION
4 APRIL 1953
WHEN A BABE BECAME A MAN – DUNCAN EDWARDS
After winning the First Division Championship in season 1951-52, Matt Busby’s first as Manchester United manager, they inexplicably struggled to reach the same form in season 1952-53. In their opening game of the 1952-53 campaign they beat Chelsea 2-0 at Old Trafford with goals from Johnny Berry and Johnny Downie. But they looked far from being Champions material in their next four League games losing three and drawing one.
Busby did not seem to know which eleven players were his first choice. He tinkered with his squad and over the course of the season he used no fewer than 30 different players in United’s 42 First Division games including five different goalkeepers (Jack Crompton, Reg Allen, Les Olive, Ray Wood and Johnny Carey). Carey was a right back and captain of the team but with none of his goalkeepers fit at the time, Busby was forced to use his captain as a stop-gap goalkeeper. On 18 February 1953, Carey swapped his No.4 shirt for the green No.1 shirt and performed quite admirably in goal helping his teammates draw 2-2 with Sunderland at Roker Park (scorers: Eddie Lewis aged 18, David Pegg aged 17).
The previous season he only called upon the services of a 24 man squad and pretty much had a regular starting eleven. Busby knew he had an ageing side and perhaps he should have moved a few of the players on to another club but he was fiercely loyal to the men who had served him so well over the previous five seasons when they helped United to a fourth place League finish and four runners-up spots before finally landing the title in 1951-52.
When United lost 2-0 at home to Stoke City on 11 October 1952, they dropped to 21st place in the First Division table, one place above the bottom rung which was occupied by Manchester City. For the first time since he took charge of the club in 1945, the alarm bells were ringing at Old Trafford. Off the pitch Busby was receiving some heat from his Board of Directors who themselves were being pressed by the club’s shareholders to turn things around and do so quickly. But Busby wasn’t a man who panicked under pressure and he knew something the club’s shareholders didn’t. Busby had an extra card up his sleeve which he was yet to play. In fact as time would tell he had more than the standard four Aces in his pack.
Over the summer of 1952 the forward thinking Busby, ably assisted by Jimmy Murphy, opened the doors of Old Trafford for Summer School. These pupils were not taught their lessons in a classroom, they were taught on the training pitch. Manchester United became the first club to run a close season coaching course for promising schoolboys who dreamed of becoming a professional footballer. The boys were given their lessons by Murphy, Busby’s assistant manager, Bert Whalley (coach), Joe Armstrong (scout) and Bill Ingris (trainer). Prior to the first day at this new school, Murphy and Whalley jumped in a car on 31 May 1952 and drove to 23 Malvern Crescent, Holly Hall, Dudley, Worcestershire. It was the home of Duncan Edwards and despite interest from many clubs, including the nearby Wolverhampton Wanderers, the 15-year old who had played regularly for Wolverhampton Street Secondary School, Dudley Schoolboys and Worcester County XI, had his heart set on playing for Manchester United. He signed amateur forms there and then and then signed as a professional for United on 1 October 1953, the day he turned 17 years old. Amazingly it was Joe Mercer, a player with Arsenal at the time and the future manager of Manchester City, who alerted Busby to the talent of Edwards telling his United counterpart that ‘“the boy would become a world beater.” How true Mercer’s words were. Duncan was one of the first to be enrolled for classes and is famously pictured on his first, make that his second, day at school, with Mrs Ann Davies, a club stewardess at Manchester United, pouring the shy, but immaculately attired, Edwards a cup of tea. Innocent times they were.
During the 1952-53 season the Football Association introduced a new competition, the FA Youth Cup. Murphy entered the graduates he chose from the Summer School into the competition and they reached the inaugural final. On their way to playing Wolverhampton Wanderers in the showpiece final the kids from Old Trafford beat Nantwich 23-0 in an earlier Round. United beat Wolves 7-1 at Old Trafford in the first leg on 4 May 1953 before a bumper crowd of 20,934 (scorers: Noel McFarlane 2, Lewis 2, Pegg, Albert Scanlon, Liam Whelan). The second leg was played at Wolves’ famous home ground, Molineux Stadium on 9 May 1953 before a crowd of 14,290. The kids from Manchester drew 2-2 (scorers: Lewis Whelan) and won the trophy 9-3 on aggregate. The shiny new trophy was presented to the United captain, 16-year old Duncan Edwards, who won it again as captain with United in 1954 and 1955. Indeed, the United Youth Team in the late 1950s were untouchable winning the first five editions of the competition. The football lessons that were taught in the Summer School had most certainly paid off.
On 4 April 1953, Busby upon the advice of Murphy, decided it was time he tested the mettle of the captain of his Youth Team against more experienced professionals and Busby blooded him into the first team. Cardiff City were the visitors to Old Trafford for a First Division game and Edwards was handed the United red No.6 shirt. The Welsh side won the game 4-1 with Roger Byrne scoring United’s goal. Although the match proved to be the 16-year olds’ solitary senior game that season, Busby had seen enough. The United manager knew he had a star in the making and he wasn’t going to rush his progress. Busby wasn’t concerned about the value of the club’s shares. His only concern was for his players. At the end of the season United finished in 8th place in the League which was won by Arsenal, their seventh title.
United got off to a dismal start to the 1953-54 season, winning 4, drawing 5 and losing 6 of their first 15 League matches. Busby knew he had to change his team and place his trust in his younger players. Busby felt it was their time, a coming of age for his youth team players.
On 28 October 1953, three days before United were due to play Huddersfield Town away in the League, Busby and Murphy had already arranged a friendly match with Kilmarnock to celebrate the official switching on off the Scottish club’s new floodlights at their Rugby Park home. Busby wanted to see just how good his young players were and how they performed against more experienced players. A few of the youth team players were selected to play; Eddie Colman (aged 16), Duncan Edwards (17), Wilf McGuinness (he turned 16 three days before the game) and David Pegg (18). Jackie Blanchflower (20) and Jeff Whitefoot (19) also played in the game against Kilmarnock although they had already made the step up into the first team. A youthful United team beat Kilmarnock 3-0 in front of 12,639 fans.
It was the birth of the Busby Babes.
And, when United travelled to Yorkshire on 31 October 1953, Busby made three changes to the team which beat Aston Villa 1-0 a week earlier at Old Trafford (scorer: Berry). Out went Henry Cockburn, Mark Pearson and Harry McShane and in came Dennis Viollet (aged 20) for his third start that season, Jackie Blanchflower and Edwards who celebrated his 17th birthday four weeks earlier. Following the retirement of Johnny Carey at the end of the 1952-53 season, 24-year old Roger Byrne was made club captain. United drew 0-0 with Huddersfield Town at Leeds Road. Busby had seen enough and in United’s remaining 26 League fixtures, Blanchflower (13 goals) and Viollet (11 goals) appeared in all 26. Duncan ran out a further 23 times in the League that season missing the 2-2 draw away to Aston Villa (scorer: Tommy Taylor 2) and the final two games, a 1-0 loss at Charlton Athletic and a 3-1 (scorers: John Aston, Blanchflower, Viollet) win against Sheffield United at Bramall Lane in the last game of the 1953-54 League campaign. United finished in fourth place in the First Division won by Wolverhampton Wanderers, the first of three titles they won.
Over the course of the following three seasons (1954-57) Duncan played 117 times for United in al competitions and scored 15 goals, winning the First Division in seasons 1955-56 and 1956-57. He had also burst on to the international scene, winning his first senior England cap on 2 April 1955 aged 18 years and 183 days in a 7-2 routing of Scotland at Wembley Stadium in a British Home International Championship match. On 12 September 1956, Manchester United became the first English side to play a competitive game in Europe, a Preliminary First Round Leg versus RSC Anderlecht. United won the tie 2-0 (scorers: Dennis Viollet and Tommy Taylor) at Stade Émile Versé Stadium, Anderlecht, Brussels, Belgium. Duncan was not selected for the game.
During the 1956-57 season, several of Busby’s young stars, notably Bobby Charlton and Duncan Edwards, were encouraged by their manager to follow in his footsteps and do their National Service. Charlton aged 19 and Edwards aged a year older like many professional footballers from the Midlands and north-west, were posted to Nesscliffe, Shropshire and played for the Nesscliffe Army Royal Army Ordnance Corps football team.
Duncan finished his National Service in 1957 and Bobby left Nesscliffe in 1958.
The 1957-58 season witnessed the influx into the first team of the greatest youth talent ever produced by the club and which would not be equaled for another 38 years. This prodigious group of young players had already been affectionately nicknamed the Busby Babes. They were destined for immortality, the greatest team England ever produced. Having lost the 1957 FA Cup final to Aston Villa and beaten by Real Madrid in the semi-finals of the European Cup, this United team looked destined to land the Treble in season 1957-58. After drawing 3-3 away with Red Star Belgrade in the quarter-finals of the European Cup on 5 February 1958, Busby’s exciting young team had reached the semi-finals of the competition for the second successive year. They had also progressed to Round 5 of the FA Cup and were challenging the First Division leaders, Wolverhampton Wanderers, for League supremacy.
The following day, 6 February 1958, the plane carrying the United team home from their trip to the Yugoslavian capital, Belgrade, stopped off in Munich, West Germany to refuel. The snow started to fall and the plane aborted taking off twice, it couldn’t attain the necessary take-off speed on the runway which now had pockets of sludge. When the plane attempted a third take-off it skidded off the runway and crashed. Seven Busby Babes died instantly: Roger Byrne (captain), Geoff Bent, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, Liam Whelan, David Pegg and Tommy Taylor. Duncan was badly injured in the crash and despite putting up a brave battle for life, he succumbed to his injuries and died in the hospital in Munich on 21 February 1958. Bert Whalley also lost his life in the disaster aged just 44. Whalley was born in Ashton-under-Lyne and was a former United player, making his debut on 30 November 1935 in a Second Division game at Old Trafford which finished 0-0. He played a total of 38 games for United (1935-47) without ever scoring and retired through injury in June 1947. Whalley was not supposed to be on the trip to Belgrade but he took Murphy’s seat on the plane as Murphy was in charge of Wales at the time and preparing for a key 1958 World Cup qualifying play-off game versus Israel in Cardiff, Wales. The Welsh side drew 0-0 in Tel Aviv, Israel on 15 January 1958 and on the same evening United drew 3-3 with Red Star Belgrade, Murphy’s Welsh internationals won 2-0 at Cardiff Arms Park, Wales to book their place in that summer’s World Cup finals hosted by Sweden along with England and Northern Ireland. It would be the Principality’s first appearance at a World Cup finals tournament since the first edition of the tournament in 1930.
Manchester and the world mourned the loss of such a talented team.
Prior to the 60th anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster Derek Thorpe, who served with the Kings Shropshire Light Infantry at Copthorne Barracks, Shrewsbury was asked about his memories of the famous United pair when he played against them. “Because they were just up the road from us, we would play each other a lot. They were a cut above the rest. They had a lot of players from different clubs, there was a player from Everton, and another one from Blackpool,” said Derek who himself was a nippy winger. Derek recalled one game in particular between the two army sides when his sergeant-major warned his team that the Nesscliffe lads had a few tasty players in their side. Not long into the game Derek was bearing down on goal when he was dispossessed by a strapping defender. Derek immediately set about paying his opponent back saying: “He tackled me early on, and I thought ‘I’ll get have you next time’. I didn’t half know about, I landed about two yards further up the pitch than I did the first time.” The player was none other than Edwards who was already a leading figure in the United side and had been capped by England three times. Derek said he was in total awe of the power, skill and speed of the Busby Babe. “Him and Bobby Charlton were both in the same team, and they really stood out. I thought Duncan Edwards was better than Bobby Charlton, and I later read that Bobby Charlton also thought he was. They were such great lads. Duncan was from Dudley, and I was from Dawley, so the lingo was pretty similar. After he had knocked me flying with his tackle, he came over to me, and said ‘you all right, kid?’”
Brian Griffiths who played at full back for Shrewsbury Town also played for the Nesscliffe Army Royal Army Ordnance Corps football team. Charlton arrived at the Nesscliffe depot shortly after Brian and the pair were in the same platoon, 3 Platoon, and they shared the same platoon billet. “Duncan was already there. He was a PTI, a physical training instructor. He was a corporal. We had a good old natter and he explained everything to us. I knew him as Dunc. He was a smashing lad. He was big, and so gentle, and yet when he said something, you automatically did it. He was not aggressive, and his football capabilities were just unbelievable,” said Brian. The platoon trained at Shropshire Racecourse, Monkmoor Road, Shrewsbury. “We would do the normal training the soldiers did – marching, ammunition and so on – and then after that the footballers would do the football training. We were all mates and it was a good atmosphere,” said Brian. Charlton played at inside forward or centre forward but Brian recalls that it took Edwards to get the best out of his United teammate. “Bobby does owe Dunc quite a lot. Over the time I knew him he improved to A1. He did not use his body, like a defender does. He was always looking to try and pass people, even if they had the ball. He had no aggression – we used to say to him: ‘Bloody get in!,’” added Brian.
Derek was impressed with how the Busby Babes slotted in very easily to army life, and got on with all the other soldiers during their Shropshire army days. “They were great lads, they really were. You could talk to them easily, it was just normal army chat. At one point I was injured, and I finished up in the medical centre at Nesscliffe, and I remember Duncan and Bobby Charlton coming to visit me. They mucked in with everything and they never thought they were any higher than anybody else,” added Derek.
Duncan Edwards was only 21 years old when he died and had the football world at his feet. In his short career he played 177 times for Manchester United and scored 21 goals. He also made 18 appearances for England, scoring 5 goals.
There will never been another team like the Busby Babes or indeed, a player like Duncan Edwards.
Did You Know That?
When Duncan made his United debut he became the youngest player to play for the club in the Football League aged 16 years and 185 days. When Duncan played for United in the 1955 FA Youth Cup final he became the first international player to play in the final. He has two streets named in his honour, Duncan Edwards Close in Dudley and Duncan Edwards Court in the Newton Heath area of Manchester.