The City of Manchester were passionate about their own boys regardless of their affiliation to either club and this was never more evident when a Dad brought his son up as a Blue or as a Red, only to see his child fulfill his dreams of becoming a professional footballer by having to change colours. It had to be a heart wrenching moment for any Dad to see his son move over to his club’s greatest rivals, but also coupled with a sense of pride that finally after all of the evenings and Saturday afternoons he spent as a part-time taxi driver, standing in the rain supporting his flesh & blood in countless junior and youth games, his son had gone from kicking football on the street to becoming a professional footballer. The badge on the shirt may well not have been to the Dad’s choice but that was irrelevant because nothing could take away the bursting pride he had in his heart for his son. These were the days when parents did what was right for their son and ignored any promises of riches offered by other clubs in return for persuading their child to join their club.
When the Preston North End coach parked outside Old Trafford before the game, their players entered the Theatre of Dreams which was still more like a morgue to home fans than a stadium where they could celebrate performances out on the pitch. Indeed, when the bodies of Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Liam Whelan were returned to Manchester, they were laid out in a coffin side-by-side in the gymnasium at Old Trafford, the last time seven of the most iconic players in the illustrious history of Manchester United were together. Their fellow Busby Babe, perhaps the most famous of all, Duncan Edwards, was still battling for his life in the Rechts der Isar Hospital in, Munich, West Germany. He still had no idea that his teammates had died and he was more concerned about playing for United in the next game rather than trying to recover from his injuries.
But whereas the football world could mourn the loss of a team, eerily 58 days previously, only the Manchester United fans could celebrate the lives of Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Duncan Edwards, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Liam Whelan.
Meanwhile, Matt Busby was still fighting an uphill battle to save his own life, and had even been given the Last Rites as he was a devout Roman Catholic, in the German hospital when Jimmy Murphy, Busby’s right hand man and the assistant manager of the club, unwillingly took temporary charge of the side to play Preston North End.
Murphy selected his team: Harry Gregg, Bill Foulkes, Ian Greaves, Ronald Cope, Stan Crowther, Frederick Goodwin, Kenny Morgans, Ernie Taylor, Colin Webster, Bobby Charlton, Thomas Heron.
Heron made his club debut. Crowther and Taylor were making their tenth appearance whilst Morgans was making his eleventh and Cope his fourteenth. Goodwin was pulling on a United shirt for the 37th time. Just twenty fours earlier Charlton and Alex Dawson scored for United in a 2-2 draw at Old Trafford in the League. The match programme actually listed Alex Dawson and Shay Brennan as starting players but they were replaced by Ernie Taylor and Thomas Heron after it had been printed.
Gregg, Foulkes and Morgans were passengers on the Munich flight. When they were sitting beside each other in the dressing room just half an hour before kick-off versus Preston North End, they looked around the room and saw the familiar ten red jerseys and a green jersey that they were used to seeing before every home game. However, the hairstyles and voices of their teammates had changed since the opening League game of the 1957-58 season when United beat Leicester City 3-0 at Filbert Street, Leicester. Liam “Billy” Whelan scored a hat-trick. For Gregg, it must have been particularly difficult, as the young Busby Babes looked upon the tall 25-year old Irishman as their father figure on the pitch. Gregg had no hesitation in coming to the edge of his 18-yard box and giving any member of his back four a right bollicking if United had just conceded a goal and Gregg had homed in on the player he thought was at fault for the ball ending up in his net. Gregg was a different character to what goalkeepers should have been, a custodian who was supposed to stay on his goal line unless a ball was crossed into the box. Harry’s game (the name of his autobiography is “Harry’s Game) was to dominate the box. He was like a bouncer at a night club who said who could and could not gain admission to his domain. And, if a centre forward was brave enough, or stupid enough, to go one on one against Northern Ireland’s international goalkeeper, who went on to win the Best Goalkeeper Award at the 1958 FIFA World Cup finals, there was only one winner and he was wearing a green jersey. But no United midfielder or forward, including Bobby Charlton, or later Denis Law and George Best, escaped Gregg’s wrath. Under the rules of the game Harry may well have only been permitted to approach the perimeter of his area, but when he wanted to make his feelings known, and he had no hesitation in doing so on countless occasions, his rough Irish brogue voice could be heard in the stand behind the opposition’s goalkeeper. None of his teammates, including the legendary Tottenham Hotspur and Northern Ireland captain, Danny Blanchflower, was safe if you were not playing Harry’s game.
Harry, in particular, must have shed a tear or more for Matt Busby’s eight lost Babes, because as much as they respected Matt Busby, who signed their apprenticeship contract for Manchester United, and Jimmy Murphy who was like a second father figure to them, then unquestionably United’s big soft spoken Irishman was their Godfather. A Godfather’s role, and we are not talking about Marlon Brando’s role in the 1972 iconic movie “The Godfather,” which earned Brando the Oscar for Best Male Actor, is to look after a child in the event that the child becomes parentless. The father figure of the Busby Babes was unquestionably Jimmy Murphy, but with Matt Busby still recovering from his injuries, the young players at Manchester United looked upon Harry as their surrogate Godfather. An excellent choice for any young Red, because you could bet your house on it that if any opposing player hurt or even ruffled up a United player, then when the opportunity arose Harry would ensure the aggressor had an early bath. A car crash on the pitch would have occurred and Harry would have been the first person to help the St. John’s Ambulance crew which were on duty to place the injured player on a stretcher.
Harry was as hard as nails and he most definitely took no prisoners when it came to him claiming a ball which had the audacity to enter his house, the United 18-yard box. When Harry pulled on a United jersey it was most definitely a case of “No Visitors Welcome.” The shop was closed and if you dared to venture in then he treated you like a burglar. It was a “No Go Area,” many years before “No Go Areas” became a regular occurrence during The Troubles in Northern Ireland.
The game versus “The Lilywhites,” the nickname of Preston North End, ended 0-0 but two of the opposing players went on to become the manager of Manchester United. Preston North End’s two inside halves were Tommy Docherty and Frank O’Farrell. Both of these talented players would go on to become the manager of Manchester United Football Club, O’Farrell from 8 June 1971 to 19 December 1972, and Docherty who succeeded his Republic of Ireland counterpart, from 22 December 1972 to 4 July 1977.