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The 1950's dawned with the break-up of Matt Busby’s first successful United side - the 1948 FA Cup-winning team.
Dressing room dissent led to Johnny Morris departing for Derby and Charlie Mitten exporting his wing wizardry to Colombia. Some United supporters were worried to lose star players of that calibre, but any fans that placed their faith in Busby were soon rewarded.
The great Scot’s plan was to promote the youngsters he’d been recruiting and grooming in the late 1940’s. Jackie Blanchflower and Roger Byrne were the first to emerge and be labelled ‘Babes’ by the newspapers; in their debut season 1951/52, United won the League Championship for the first time since 1911.
Byrne, aged 21, played a big part in that success, making 24 appearances, including the final six on the wing, from where he scored seven goals. He then returned to his customary left-back role, and captained the side for four years from February 1954.
In 1955/56 and 1956/57, Byrne lifted the Championship trophy as skipper of a great young side that included several more products of Busby’s youth academy. Eddie Colman, Mark Jones and David Pegg were all first team regulars, having cut their teeth in the FA Youth Cup, which United won five years in a row from its inception in 1953.
Not all the young talent was home-grown, however. The United manager was equally happy to plunge into the transfer market, and in March 1953, he spent one pound short of thirty thousand on Tommy Taylor, the prolific Barnsley striker. He proved to be an excellent signing, as he continued to knock in the goals for United and England. Another big-money transfer saw Harry Gregg arrive from Doncaster Rovers in December 1957. The fee of £23,000 was a world record fee for a goalkeeper at the time, but it was money well spent as Gregg immediately became United's regular shot-stopper. He was also number one for his country, Northern Ireland.
Another young man who excelled for club and country was Duncan Edwards. So powerful, talented and mature was the Dudley teenager that Matt Busby could not hold him back from United’s first team. In April 1953, he became the First Division’s youngest-ever player at the age of 16 years and 185 days.
One match that perhaps epitomised the new Busby Babes era more than most was against Arsenal at Highbury on 1 February 1958. In front of a crowd of 63,578 the Reds beat the Gunners in a nine-goal thriller with goals from Edwards, Taylor (2), Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet.
Sadly, what was perhaps their greatest game on English soil was certainly to be the last for that particular Manchester United team. From Highbury, the Babes headed off into Europe to play the second leg of a tie against Red Star Belgrade. Again they won 5-4, this time on aggregate, but on the way home their celebrations were cut short by tragedy.
After refuelling in Munich on 6 February 1958, the United aeroplane crashed, killing twenty-two people, including seven players – Byrne, Colman, Jones, Pegg, Taylor, Geoff Bent and Liam Whelan. Duncan Edwards became the eighth player to die of his injuries, fifteen days later in a German hospital.
The club, the city of Manchester and the English game entered a long period of mourning, and it seemed inconceivable that United could ever recover from such an appalling disaster.
But as Matt Busby defied the medics to recover from his crash wounds, the team bounced back and, patched up by assistant manager Jimmy Murphy, they reached the FA Cup Final in May 1958. They lost at Wembley to Bolton Wanderers, twelve months after losing the final to Aston Villa.
To continue the theme of finishing a close second, the Reds were also runners-up in the League Championship of 1958/59. By then, the team was again in a transitional period, as Matt Busby constructed another great team for another great decade.
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