February 6th 1958 will forever be ingrained in the history of Manchester United football club. It was to be the day that claimed the lives of 23 people, including eight United players. In a tribute to the Busby Babes, I wanted to celebrate their playing careers rather than that the tragic events of that day. We’ve teamed up with Tony Parks, a United youth historian, who has kindly answered a few questions that we put to him in the week on the players, coaching and the potential of the Busby Babes. If you are a Twitter user, you can follow Tony here.
1) Sir Bobby Charlton once said “Duncan was the only player that made me feel inferior.” – considering Sir Bobby Charlton was such a key figure in United’s revival and success in the 60s, how good a player was Duncan Edwards and how good could he have become?
I have researched Duncan’s early career. This kid was exceptional. He was playing in leagues three or four years older and got selected for England Schools U/15 when he was only 13. The only player in history to do this. He went on to play for England Schools for three years. Everyone was after him but he loved United. In his first year (so think first Academy year at 15 years old) he skipped the juniors (he was too good) and played a few games in the Colts, before being elevated to the ‘A’ team. This was the equivalent of today’s Reserves. Then in his first season he made his league debut just after turning sixteen. This was unheard of at the time but he was just that good. In fact, the season after making his debut clubs up and down the country complained in the newspapers that he shouldn’t be allowed to play in the Youth Cup because he was a First Division player and it was unfair to other kids. The fact that he was younger than most of them was deemed irrelevant.
The thing is….he could play anywhere and often when we were struggling, Jimmy Murphy moved him up front and he would just burst though the defence and score. He did this so often it was crazy. He then became the youngest player to play for England. If you think of Rooney at his best but stronger and bigger playing like Robson in midfield. Terry Venables made that comparison….Rooney/Robson. How good could he have become? Bobby Charlton reckons that Bobby Moore wouldn’t have got an England cap had Duncan lived!
2) Tommy Taylor scored 131 goals in 191 games for United (0.69 goals per game – in comparison with Law, 0.60, and Ruud VanNistelrooy 0.75), which is a superb scoring record after his £29,999 signing from Barnsley. Which modern day forward most resembles the Yorkshireman?
Wow…good question! I suppose a Kevin Davies, Alan Shearer, Andy Carroll type…..with Shearers goal scoring ability. If you think of all the plaudits that Nat Lofthouse received recently…well Tommy was a very similar player to him but kept Lofthouse out of the England team.
3) Jimmy Murphy played a key part in the development of the Busby Babes – do you think there was a similarity in the way both he and Eric Harrison coached? How would you sum up their coaching styles?
Harrison was a hard task master. He could be incredibly tough and some players wilted under his style and approach. Other players loved him. What everyone says…and I mean everyone….is that he was the best coach that they ever had. He pushed people. Murphy was very similar but also could put an arm around a player. He could cajole….and also deliver amazing motivational dressing room speeches. I think Harrison was more Fergie hair dryer.
4) Real Madrid had one of the best club sides in the late 50s, including Frenchman Raymond Kopa, Francisco Gento and of course the legendary Alfredo Di Stefano. Having lost the first leg 3-1 in Madrid, an extremely young United side stood toe to toe with the Spanish giants and drew 2-2, with Charlton and Taylor getting on the score sheet. Surely, for not the tragedy of Munich, this team would have gone on to challenge Real Madrid in future tournaments for the European title?
That is what Busby and Murphy had said. The first season in Europe they will still learning. But with an average age of 22 compared to Madrid’s 29/30…it would have only been a matter of time. It was like when Fergie brought all the kids through. Giggs, Beckham, Scholes….they all went on to have ten year careers.
5) If you had five words to describe the Busby Babes style of play, what would they be?
Incisive, powerful, clinical, quick, expansive. The forwards used to change positions all the time (most teams just stayed in the same place….so when the centre half saw Tommy Taylor on the left wing…he had no idea what to do)…the wing play was unbelievable and then you had Duncan bursting through midfield to support the attack…..he bust two balls in the same game once he hit them so hard!!!
6) How much of a problem were the FA in the 50s towards the development of club football? For example, their request for Chelsea to withdrawn from the 55/56 competition, their creation of the League Cup in response to the European Cup competition and the request for United to return home from Belgrade for the fixture against Wolves on the Saturday?
The FA were bureaucratic ponces (some things don’t change). United’s run in with the FA started in 1946 and has continued ever since. United asked for FA support with ground building of Old Trafford (after helping Arsenal in a similar situation) but were refused. Then in 1951 they banned Charlie Mitten for going to Bogata. Busby wanted him back at United after he finished in Columbia but the FA refused his registration so Busby let him go to Fulham. Meanwhile…Neil Franklin who was the Stoke and England centre-half, and also went with Mitten….wasn’t banned at all for exactly the same thing. Busby went crazy. Then you had them not wanting English clubs to enter Europe. It was a control thing. When Busby ignored them they got very pernickity with us. They refused to make any allowances or show any flexibility with rearranging matches and so on. After Munich they wrote a piece in the paper that said fundamentally that if United hadn’t ‘disobeyed’ them then Munich wouldn’t have happened and that United have only themselves to blame. An astonishing comment to make. I think the final straw between the FA and United was in the EC semi-final v Milan when they took Bobby Charlton for an England friendly on the same day as the game when he was clearly our best player. We lost 0-4 to Milan and the FA didn’t even play Charlton. Busby was vitriolic about that one. Since then there has been a catalogue of issues between the FA and United.
Basically the FA saw it as a threat to their power. Simple as that!
7) As an expert on youth football, why do you believe United have always set their foundations on producing top quality youngsters, ahead of other English Clubs?
It started with Louis Rocca in the early 1930’s. He was a scout and always on the lookout for young local talent. United had no money. When Scott Duncan was appointed as manager in the early 1930’s, he had won lot’s of things with Cowdenbeath in Scotland with fundamentally a youth policy. James Gibson liked this…and when he appointed Duncan said that they wanted to do the same thing. However, with United struggling, Duncan started buying lots of players (Scots!) and United were pretty poor during this period. However, behind the scenes the Youth Policy was ticking over and in 1934 they entered an ‘A’ team for the first time. In 1938, they started the MUJAC’s which was carried on throughout the war.
Busby and Murphy both had very bad experiences as young apprentices with big clubs (Man City and WBA) so when they arrived wanted to make things very different. When Murphy won the Central League in 1947, Busby congratulated him. Murphy responded with a thanks but no-one was good enough for the first team. So they agreed to start from scratch and develop a MUFC youth policy.
Busby then had 25 years to build on this…6 youth cup wins….championships….a Euro Cup win with Brennan Dunne, Foulkes, Stiles and the entire forward line (Best, Kidd, Charlton, Sadler and Aston) all coming from the youth team.
It was now part of our culture and fans thought it was normal…the expected and were then very critical of big buys and very supportive of the kids. Since then…it has simple been a conveyor belt…reinforced by Ferguson in the 1990’s.
MUFC have done this since the 1930’s so we really don’t know any other way…it really is a cultural thing. I also think it is reinforced by the culture of Manchester which is very open, welcoming, flamboyant, visionary etc. The style of MUFC and the culture of Manchester just clicked. Leeds and Liverpool people just don’t think like this.
Tony has also kindly put together for us an account of Geoff Bent, who was one of the players that lost their lives on February 6th 1958.
Each year as the anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster arrives, many in the sporting world remember those who lost their lives in the crash. The captain Roger Byrne who made 33 consecutive for England, Duncan Edwards who was destined to become one of the world’s greatest ever players and Tommy Taylor who had notched 16 goals in 19 appearances for his country were all certainties to be part of Walter Winterbottom’s 1958 World Cup team.
Additionally, Eddie ‘snakehips’ Colman was talked about as a future national player and David Pegg had already represented the three Lions on the left wing. Big Mark Jones had been fighting a positional battle with Jackie Blanchflower throughout his career and was the current incumbent of the Number 5 shirt when the tragedy hit while Billy Whelan had worn the green of Ireland. All first team regulars with decent careers behind them, except of course for Geoff Bent, the reserve fullback who most people know little about.
However, Geoff was a cracking player in his own right who would have walked into most first teams in the top flight. Dennis Viollet described him as a “great, great competitor and excellent defender, hard as nails”, while Ian Greaves commented that he “was always recognised within the club as probably the best player who could not get into the first team.”
Geoffrey Bent was born in Salford on the 27th September 1932 the only son of Clifford and Clara Bent. The family lived in Irlams-o’-th’-Height on the outskirts of Swinton. He attended St. John’s Junior School and was notably academic enough to win a scholarship to Tootal Road Grammar School. His father was a huge Rugby fan following Swinton RFC but Geoff always loved football. He was also a strong swimmer and actually won his first medal when he saved a young boy from drowning in the Salford Canal.
A fine footballer as a junior, Geoff played inside-left but later moved to left-half and finally left fullback. Whilst playing for his school, he also turned out for Barton Villa in the Eccles & District League. He was then selected for Salford Schoolboys and captained the team to success in the English Schools Shield in 1947 when they defeated Leicester in the final. On the route to the final he helped the Salford team defeat Crewe in the last sixteen before beating Heston in a closely contested quarter-final at the Cliff, Lower Broughton, to earn a semi-final place. In the last four against Rotherham, a crowd of 14,000 saw Geoff score the winning goal to put Salford through to it’s first final. 25,000 supporters turned up for the first leg at Filbert Street which ended 0-0. The return was played out in front of a packed Old Trafford, the first game played there since bombs were dropped in 1939. Geoff led the team to victory, ironically receiving the trophy from the famous Frank Swift who also perished at Munich.
A host of clubs were interested in signing Geoff but his mother was keen for him to go to Manchester United and he joined the Reds straight from school. He duly signed as an Amateur in 1949 and worked as a joiner during his apprenticeship, before finally professional terms in 1952.
In the 1950/51 season Geoff was turning out for the ‘A’ team either at left fullback or on the left wing, helping the team win the Manchester League. He remained in the junior sides until the 1952/53 season when he broke into the reserves, donning the Number 3 jersey for the second half of the campaign.
A tenacious tackler with good pace and excellent distribution, he had the misfortunate to play in the same position as Roger Byrne, who had won a league championship medal the season before. From 1953/54 onwards, Geoff was understudy to Byrne and was a mainstay of the second X1. Over the next four seasons he was only able to force his way into the first team when Roger was injured or away on international duty.
It was under these circumstances that Geoff was called into the first team and made his debut in the 4-2 win at Burnley on the 11th December 1954. He made one further appearance during the 1954/55 term, the 5-0 home win over Sheffield United in April. He made four further starts in 1955/56 and featured in six games during 1956/57, his last being the 0-0 draw at home to Spurs on the 6th April 1957.
Realising he was not going to get a ‘look-in’ with Byrne in such fine form, Geoff asked Matt Busby for a transfer, and with the likes of Wolves on the prowl, there was no shortage of interested clubs. However, the canny Scot convinced him by saying “there are no first team players, only first team probables!”
In a cruel twist of fate, Geoff was only taken to Belgrade as cover for Roger Bryne who had picked up a knock in the 5-4 victory at Highbury in the Busby Babes last game on English soil. Normally reserves didn’t travel, and Ronnie Cope was the usual 12th man, but with doubt over Byrne’s fitness the decision was taken to include Geoff in the squad instead. Little did he know that he would not see his wife Marion or four-month-old daughter Karen, ever again.
In the end Roger was passed fit for the European tie and Geoff watched the 3-3 draw with Red Star Belgrade from the sidelines.
Geoff didn’t like flying and not only did he get nose-bleeds but he also had to put drops in his ears. As the plane took off from Munich with the players, officials and press making the return journey home, the Elizabethan Airline crashed on the runway and Geoff was killed instantly.
A happy-go-lucky character, Geoff liked to play cards, listen to the rock ‘n’ roll music of Elvis Presley or the ballads of Shirley Bassey, and was often seen playing golf, tennis or watching cricket on TV.
He had played his last game for the Reserves in the 4-3 win over Wolves at Old Trafford on the 1st of February 1958. He sacrificed his own personal career for the good of the team and if he had survived, would have made it so much easier to rebuild after Munich.
Geoff was buried in St. John’s Church in Pendlebury, gone but never forgotten.