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Football and the First World War

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The Busby Babes

One of the greatest teams in the history of English football, the Busby Babes twice won the championship before being effectively destroyed when eight players were killed in an air crash at Munich on 6 February 1958.

The Busby Babes first won the Football League championship in 1955–6 with a record eleven-point margin over the runners-up, Blackpool. In the following season, 1956–7, they won the league again and came close to the elusive double, but lost the FA cup final 2–1 to Aston Villa after the United goalkeeper was injured early in the game. They were also the first English team to compete in the new European cup, and astonished Europe by beating the Belgian champions, Anderlecht, 10–0 in only their second game in the competition. They were knocked out in the semi-finals by the formidable Real Madrid side which won the European cup every year between 1956 and 1960.

It is believed that the term Busby Babes was first used by the Manchester Evening Chronicle Saturday night edition, the Football Pink, after Matt Busby had fielded several promising youngsters in a league game at Huddersfield Town on 31 October 1953. ‘Busby's Bouncing Babes Keep All Town Awake’, the paper proclaimed after a goalless draw. 

Star players included Roger Byrne, the captain who played 280 competitive games for the club, and scored twenty goals, of which thirteen were penalty kicks. After winning his first cap for England against Scotland in April 1954, he played in every subsequent England match up to the time of his death in 1958, and won thirty-three caps in total.

Tommy Taylor signed for Manchester United for a new British record fee of £29,999—a pound was knocked off to avoid the pressure of being the first £30,000 player. Taylor scored 131 goals in 191 games for United, the second highest ratio for any player in the club's history, and sixteen times in nineteen appearances for England.

 Most famous was Duncan Edwards who first played for England in April 1955 at the age of only eighteen years and 183 days, and remained the youngest England international of the twentieth century until Michael Owen broke the record in 1998. Edwards usually played at wing-half, what would later be called midfield, but was famous for filling any position; he often appeared at centre forward, and once scored four goals for the England under-23 team against Scotland. In 1957 he came third in the poll for European footballer of the year.

One of the Babes' finest performances was when they beat the London club Arsenal 5–4 on Saturday 1 February 1958. In the following week they travelled to Yugoslavia for a European cup quarter-final with Red Star Belgrade and drew another exciting game 3–3 after being 3–0 ahead at one point. On their way home the following afternoon, Thursday 6 February 1958, United's charter flight stopped to refuel at Riem airport in Munich in freezing weather. Twice the pilot aborted take-off half-way down the runway. On the third attempt the plane barely got off the ground, crashed through the fence at the end of the airfield, and crossed a minor road before hitting a house and a tree. Seven players (Roger Byrne, Geoff Bent, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor, and Billy Whelan) died immediately and an eighth (Edwards) later that month. 

Two other players, half-back Jackie Blanchflower and winger John Berry were so badly hurt that they never played professional football again.  Among the young players who survived the crash were Bobby Charlton, the Northern Ireland goalkeeper Harry Gregg and the defender Bill Foulkes.

The skill, entertainment, and innocent enthusiasm of the Busby Babes captured the imagination of the general public in the 1950s and drew huge crowds wherever they played. The great tragedy was that they had yet to reach their full potential, and might easily have succeeded Real Madrid as the dominant side in Europe.

To see the Busby Babes in action see: