The Boys Who Became The Busby Babes

In commemoration of the forthcoming 63rd anniversary of the Munich air disaster, here is a look back at some of the lesser celebrated ‘Babes’ who lost their lives and some lesser known information about their career.

To begin, an admission.

This article will focus on the progression of the lesser-known players, how they became to be ‘Busby Babes’ and their pathway to the first team.

So there are two names that almost become redundant in this process. Duncan Edwards is the player most often discussed from those who perished, and Tommy Taylor, who signed from Barnsley – and so whilst definitely a ‘Babe’, did not graduate through the youth system like the others who died in Munich, and it is that graduation which is the topic of this piece.

This will concentrate on the period before the players broke into the first team, to shine a light on that information that isn’t really discussed in detail, the crucial development ground which helped to form their identity as players.

Edwards, of course did, so it is wise to at least acknowledge this.

Edwards was a freak. He was so good that while he was playing for the first team and reserves, he was still eligible for the team that played in the FA Youth Cup. This angered coaches of the teams United would face at that level, so much so that they would complain United had an unfair advantage.

Edwards made his debut for the first team in April 1953 after a handful of games for the reserves in the Central League earlier in that season. His first goal at that level came, ironically, against the biggest rivals United had to sign him, Wolves, though United lost that game 2-1. His next game was more successful, featuring in a 7-1 win at Bury on 7th March 1953. Less than a month later and Edwards, as said, played against Cardiff in the First Division.

The Midlander was then given a run of games in the number 6 shirt, his favoured half-back role at the start of the 1953/54 Central League season. His last game for the second string that season again came in a win at Bury, this time 3-1, on 10th October. On the 31st of that month he was back in the first team in a goalless draw at Huddersfield and, from that point on, Edwards featured no more for the reserve side. The rest, as they say, is history. There is relatively little to report about Edwards’ time at Central League level because he was, clearly, too good.

Before moving on to Eddie Colman, I wanted to make a short note about Tommy Taylor.

That is not to do a disservice to Tommy. There are some brilliant stories about Tommy’s United career which I researched for the biography of Jimmy Murphy. Tommy was a big signing and didn’t come through the youth system – the intention of this post is to shine a light on those young players who came through the Central League, and to present some facts and figures that most supporters are unlikely to know.

Having featured in the 1953 FA Youth Cup winning run, Eddie Colman – a lad so ‘Salford’ that he lived on Archie Street, the road which was used in the original opening credits of Coronation Street – did not have quite the typical path to the United first team.

Colman’s United career was almost an accident – he was sports mad as a kid, always playing football or cricket, but he used to joke that he was only picked to play football to make up the numbers. However, in a game for Salford Boys at the Cliff, he impressed the watching Matt Busby and Jimmy Murphy so much that they made advances to get him signed up right away. They couldn’t believe he’d gone unnoticed for so long.

Colman was very small, and the other coaches expressed reservations about him – reservations which were quickly alleviated when it was apparent how well his style complemented that of Duncan Edwards.

Colman was again part of the Youth Cup team in 1954 but didn’t get a taste of Central League action until the 54/55 campaign, and even then, he played just two games, at Bury in a 0-0 draw on 4th December 1954, and at West Brom in a 2-0 win on 5th March 1955.

Perhaps owing in part to the wonderful partnership he had established with Edwards, Colman essentially skipped the reserves.

Roy Cavanagh, who wrote this highly-recommended biography on Eddie, recalls watching him play. “I saw his debut in November 1955,” says Roy. “He played all games as a number four, who would be expected to cover penalty area to penalty area. He did not score enough goals but was a complete part of the side and knew where Edwards was, so they covered each other perfectly having been in the youths from the age of fifteen.”

Eddie played a handful of games at Central League level in October 1955, against Leeds away in a 4-0 win on the 1st, Sheffield Wednesday away in a 1-0 defeat on the 8th, Huddersfield Town at home in a 5-0 win on the 15th, at Blackburn in a 2-2 draw on 22nd and finally in a 4-0 against Blackpool at home in front of 7,500 on the 29th, but the following month, he was selected for the first team, and immediately became a regular.

He played 26 senior games in the successful 55/56 season, and 51 as United won the league and reached the FA Cup Final in 1956/57.

‘Snakehips’, as he was called, due to his ‘hula dancer’ body movement (as described by Bert Whalley) had played 31 times in the 1957/58 campaign before he became the youngest person to lose their life as a result of the Munich air disaster.

No player could claim to be responsible for Duncan Edwards’ brilliance, and no coach tried to take the credit either, but Colman’s tigerish commitment made him the perfect foil for the Midlander to play his own natural game.

Colman made 108 appearances for the United first team, winning two First Division medals and scoring two goals. His unusual jump which saw him make just eight appearances at Central League – even more surprising given his relatively small frame – made him even more of an interesting case.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, though, when considering the esteem his coaches held him in. For Colman was given the task of man-marking the great Alfredo di Stefano when United met Real Madrid in 1957. Jimmy Murphy once said of Colman that there was ‘no better tackler in the game’.

“His role in Madrid showed he could create, mark and play all aspects of the right half role,” remembers Roy. “He was a very lively character around the side, loved by all who ever knew him. Bobby Charlton was virtually brought up by Eddie’s family, him and Eddie were always together.”

Colman was, without doubt, one of the most-loved members of the Manchester United team. So adored was he that twenty seven workers from local firm ‘Boxmakers Limited’ were sacked for skipping work to attend his funeral (they were later re-instated). It said everything you need to know about one of United’s most loved ‘Babes’.

Geoff Bent

Bent was born in Salford on 27th September 1932, and inevitably joined United as a young player.
His was a career spent predominantly on the periphery. He played twelve times for the first team, all in the First Division, and so there is relatively little known about his career other than he was essentially the cover for either full-back in the first team.

In some ways that is fortunate in terms of research for columns such as this as it means I am able to share a little more information about Bent than is widely known.

In 1952/53, he had a shirt mid-season run in the Central League wearing the number 11 shirt, having a run of five goals in six games, before later moving to the number 3 shirt, where he played 14 games over the winter. There was nonetheless something remarkable about Bent’s goalscoring – though he certainly wasn’t renowned for getting on the scoresheet, when he did it for the first time, he did it in style, scoring a hat-trick at Huddersfield in a 5-2 win on September 27th, 1952.

In the 1953/54 Central League season, Bent played the first fourteen games consecutively but didn’t play from November until the end of April, where he managed three late season run-outs in defeats at Sheffield United and at home to Huddersfield, as well as defeat against Aston Villa. In the latter game he was in an unfamiliar position, wearing the number 10 shirt.

United historian and author Roy Cavanagh does not really recall Bent as a versatile player. “Geoff Bent was a true, local Salford lad,” he says. “He captained Salford Lads to the English Schools Trophy in late 1940’s, I always remember him as left back not a left winger, that reverse role had been Roger Byrne.”

Bent made his first team debut in December 1954, in a 4-2 win at Burnley, and he played one more time that season, in a 5-0 win at home to Sheffield United. In fact, despite his sparse appearances, he was something of a lucky charm for the first team – over the three years of his first team games, he lost only one, and that was his ninth game, at Birmingham.

He had been a dependable member of the Central League besides that – playing 37 games in the 55/56 campaign, and 24 in the 56/57 season.

“Now you could ask did he lack ambition, but then again, we were in the minimum wage era so a good player at United would not get more at Tottenham, except more first team games. But then again, his family and life was in Salford so why move?” explains Roy. “Happy, in a great club, all his mates around him. A top class left back, and it took a world class full back to keep him out of the side.”

Bent travelled to Munich in a similar capacity to Jackie Blanchflower. Neither were expected to play. Bent was part of the squad really only because of doubts over Roger Byrne’s fitness; Bent himself had been injured with a broken foot and hadn’t played for the first team since his 12th and final appearance in April 1957.

Following his injury, Bent had seen Peter Jones take his number 3 shirt in the reserves, but he reclaimed it once fit again in order to take his place in the team in the crazy goalscoring winter of the 57/58 season.

His first game back was a 4-2 loss at Huddersfield; that was followed by a 4-1 win against Blackburn, a 6-5 loss at Barnsley, a 5-3 win against Leeds, a 2-2 draw at Bolton, and, in his last game for the reserves, a 4-3 win over Wolves in a game where Blanchflower, Whelan and Pegg all starred too.

“Just an opinion, Geoff only went at the very last minute due to possible injury to Roger,” recalls Roy. “If he had not been needed, I feel he would have played in 1958 World Cup finals at left back for England.”

Geoff Bent was a dedicated professional, the sort of player everyone needs, and the sort of player that often gets overlooked in squads. Sometimes, in order to keep the best players at the top of their game, they need to have the threat of a top class reserve waiting to take their place.

For Roger Byrne, United had Geoff Bent, who could have gone on to play for almost any other club in the First Division.

Roger Byrne

After breaking into the first team in the 51/52 title winning squad, Roger Byrne went from being a young pup in that side to a leader of men of the generation of ‘Babes’ who followed him into the Manchester United senior side.

Byrne was as reliable as any player could be, rarely missing a game. In the 1949/50 season he broke into the Central League side and in the following year and a half he played alongside fellow future stars like Mark Jones, Jackie Blanchflower and Dennis Viollet.

Byrne was a triumph of coaching, and the very model of professionalism. Playing nine consecutive games at the start of the 1949/50 season in the Central League in the number 6 shirt, it was quickly determined that he wasn’t a half back. Byrne was then moved to the number 11 shirt and showed some goalscoring prowess with a couple of goals in his handful of games in that role in the second half of the season.

And despite starting the following season in the same vein – with 4 goals in 12 games before December not the worst return for an outside left – Murphy and Whalley felt that they had seen something different in the player.

They moved him to left back, and he played fifteen games there in the second half of the reserve season, more or less adapting to that role right away. Byrne’s obvious ability on the ball and his versatility had also helped him stand out as a leader. It was a testament to both player and coaching that such tremendous foresight was shown.

This is one of, if not the most, earliest examples of Manchester United insisting that even their defenders should show attack-minded attitudes. Indeed, as Jimmy Murphy said, “Roger Byrne, in my opinion, was the forerunner of the modern back and set the present trend.”

With the coaches perhaps wanting to ensure his stunning form at full-back hadn’t been a flash in the pan, Byrne was given a run of games in the number 3 shirt at Central League at the start of the 1951/52 season before he made his first team debut in a 0-0 draw at Liverpool in November 1951 and never looked back.

Jimmy Murphy said of Byrne: “Roger Byrne, a superbly built athlete had already won a League Championship as a winger before he became our regular left back and captain.

“Tackling is still important of course, but there are not so many sliding tackles as there were. These days a back must be able to read a move so instead of going for the first tackle he can hold off and try to force the opposing wing man to go down the touchline. If he stays out there and the back stays with him the rest of the defence has a chance to re-group. Roger Byrne, who started this style, was a winger or inside forward before we converted him in a full back.”

Murphy would also say that Byrne would have been part of an England team that could have won the 1958 World Cup.

Byrne was that little bit older than the other Babes. And though his own career had benefitted from their guidance, he wasn’t so besotted with the teachings of Murphy and Busby that he wouldn’t challenge them. If he thought a tactical decision was wrong he would question it, whereas other players like Jones, and Colman, and even Duncan Edwards, believed so much in the word of their coaches that they wouldn’t even question it.

For Busby and Murphy, this made Byrne the perfect captain – someone who, whilst never exactly belligerent, was not indoctrinated enough by their methods that he wouldn’t ask why when told how high to jump. Though a defender by nature, Byrne’s attitude on the pitch and as skipper was similar to that of a Bryan Robson or Roy Keane.

United historian Roy Cavanagh recalls: “He was the perfect leader and captain of this team at this time. Even as a young lad, watching United then you knew he was in charge, Duncan was only 21 don’t forget. He was training at Salford Royal and did not seem to have a desire to go into management if he had lived. He had played 33 consecutive England matches at time of crash.”

As Murphy said, Byrne’s introduction into the first team mirrored his Central League transition, first of all starting him at left wing, before moving him further back once he had become acclimatised to the rough and tumble of first team football. That accounts for his goal tally gradually decreasing – after scoring 11 goals in his first seventy games, there were just another 9 in the following 210. Byrne played 280 times for United, with twenty goals.

Byrne was at his peak when the Munich Air Disaster took his life. Matt Busby described his captain as ‘majestic’. There is a reason why many historians name Byrne in their all-time best United team.

Mark Jones

Mark Jones was one of the most understated members of the Busby Babes but arguably one of the most crucial; the sort of player appreciated more by his team-mates than he might be, for example, by journalists.

Jones played in the Central League as early as 1949, with a couple of games in the number 5 shirt – his first, a 6-0 win over Leeds on 27th December 1949, though that was followed up by a 3-0 loss to City four days later. He later played in another local derby, against Burnley in mid-February, a 1-0 win.

Early on in the following season he began to make that number 5 shirt his own. After battling it out with Sammy Lynn for a place in the early months, by the turn of the year, he was a mainstay, playing 25 games all told.

In 1952/53, that was his shirt, shared only sparingly with Ronnie Cope. He made over 30 appearances. In 1953/54, it was a similar story, with 38 appearances.

Jones’ integration to the first team had taken place over this period. 4 appearances in 1950/51, 3 in 1951/52, and 2 in 1952/53. His big chance came in a regular run in the back end of the 1954/55 season, where he played 13 games in Division One.

This accounted, of course, for his absence from the Central League for the second half of that campaign, though he had been an ever present with 30 games until his last game, in a 3-1 defeat at Bolton on 19th February 1955.

Jones then kept his place in the United first team, playing all 42 games in the league-title winning season of 1955/56, and scoring one goal – his only goal for the club, which was the winner against Birmingham City at Old Trafford in the last home game before Christmas 1955.

The following campaign, Jones made 40 appearances in all competitions, with 29 of those coming in the First Division – he enjoyed arguably his best form in this campaign, with some stunning performances in the European Cup. He earned rave reviews for his performance against Athletic Bilbao but United author and historian Roy Cavanagh remembers a display that was arguably even better in his opinion.

“Jones was a commanding centre half, strong in the tackle and in the air,” Cavanagh says. “His best game was probably helping get a 0-0 draw in Dortmund on a poor icy pitch.”

Jones made 3 appearances in the Central League at the back end of the season. Despite his earlier successes, Jones found himself back in the Central League, as Jackie Blanchflower was in a rich vein of form and took the number 5 shirt.
Jones played over a dozen games in the Central League in the 57/58 season but it was a sign of his hard work and professionalism that he was recalled into the first team over Christmas and it was Blanchflower’s turn for a run in the second-string.

Jones kept his place in the team as they crushed Bolton 7-2 and won that famous game at Arsenal 5-4. Having played in the first leg against Red Star, Busby kept faith with Jones in front of Blanchflower for the return game in Belgrade. That 3-3 draw would be Jones’ 121st appearance for United, in a first team career spanning seven seasons. He made roughly the same amount of appearances for the second string.

The appearance tally spread over those years may not seem like a lot but it really presented Jones as a very typical case of how Murphy and Whalley would school their young players – dipping their feet in to the first team whilst educating them in the Central League. Once Jones was deemed ready, he was pretty much a reliable member of the first team squad.

Jones was never capped for England and it was said that he was unfortunate that his career coincided with the great Billy Wright of Wolves. “England sides were picked by committees and Billy Wright had a lot of friends!” Cavanagh says. “Mark is another player, that when the Babes are discussed, it is all about Duncan, Tommy, Roger etc. They were a complete side, however, and the likes of Mark Jones made them complete. This should never be forgotten.”

That Jones is never featured in the discussion when people talk about United’s best ever defenders is surely one of the more devastating, if understandable, consequences of the disaster. Here was a player who, when the team were being described as the best in the world, was playing his best ever football. Had the disaster not happened, and had United won the European Cup as many predicted, then Jones would surely be discussed as frequently as, for example, Bill Foulkes.

Liam ‘Billy’ Whelan

William ‘Liam’, ’Billy’, Whelan made his Central League bow for Manchester United in January 1954 as an eighteen year old.

Despite this uncompromising physical environment, Whelan made an immediate impression as inside forward with six goals in his first seven games, including a hat-trick in a 7-0 win at Derby County.

He ended that campaign with 7 goals in 11 appearances overall. With a return of 16 in 26 games the following season, it was clear he would deserve a chance sooner or later in the first team. When that came, he grabbed it, scoring in only his second game.

Alongside Bobby Charlton, Whelan formed a fearsome partnership in the second string, and in the 55/56 season he scored twenty times, which included a run of nine goals in seven games in the autumn. Not that the Irishman was a ‘streaky’ scorer. He consistently delivered.

First team chances came fleetingly – in thirteen outings, he managed a decent return of 4 goals.
From the 56/57 season onwards, Whelan was an ever-present in the United first team, just about. He scored 26 goals to help United win the league in 1957 and had scored 14 in 24 by 6th February 1958.

His team-mates were almost universal in praise of him. Bill Foulkes said that he could look slow and moved awkwardly but his ball control was exceptional – Albert Scanlon said that Whelan was a ‘magician’ with the ball with great vision. Bobby Charlton has said in more recent years that Whelan would suit today’s game. There’s a temptation, almost, to describe him as a Berbatov or Matt Le Tissier style forward.

His place in the first team had ironically come under threat by Bobby Charlton’s emergence – once his partner in crime, now he was battling with his friend for a starting spot. Whelan, like his team-mates, accepted the challenge and scored at Barnsley in a 6-5 defeat in his first game back in the stiffs in January 1958.

His performance in a 4-3 win against Wolves was enough to get him back in contention to make the trip to play Red Star. He was amongst those who did not play and sadly lost their lives.

For United historian Roy Cavanagh, who wrote a biography of Whelan, this was a player whose potential was huge.

Cavanagh says: “This is one of most interesting, ‘What if’s?’ Billy Whelan was far too good to not be in first team, but then again so was Bobby Charlton. They could play together, with Billy at 8 and Bobby at 10, but what about Dennis Viollet?! Billy did look slow, but was one of quickest in a sprint! He would have dominated the Republic of Ireland side so would have got world exposure. The only fault you could see was that he was just a happy lad, where was the ruthlessness? But then again, did he really need it, considering his goal record?”

There was no doubting that Whelan was a valuable member of the United squad and had a remarkable record of 52 goals in 98 games for the first team.

He may well have divided opinion on whether or not his undoubted immense talent was enough to get him a place in the hugely competitive United team at the time – which just goes to show how incredible they were – but one thing that everyone would agree on was that Whelan was a world class talent whose potential was nowhere near realised yet.

The same could be said for all of the others just as it could be said for Edwards and Taylor.

In Colman, United found a successor in Nobby Stiles, a player Jimmy Murphy described as the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the Busby side which rose like a phoenix. Stiles’ contribution was crucial to the way the team played – this was Colman’s role. Stiles was more defensively conscious and would probably have conceded himself that Colman was probably a little more blessed when it came to how he contributed on the ball.

Jones was uncapped but was surely destined to succeed the legendary Billy Wright in the England defence. Byrne had already proven himself on the left to negate the discussion of potential. And Whelan had a style that perfectly complemented the attacking options at the club.

Every loss was significant to how the production line had worked, from the players to the coaches to the players who survived who were either not able to play again or otherwise felt a significant impact on their career.

The loss of the players had an immediate impact on the club’s on-pitch fortunes.

The loss of staff and injuries to Matt Busby meant that the famous system that had been so prolific now needed alterations in order to survive.

The situation required many young players to skip the education process that has been explained above, in order to be fast-tracked into helping the first team. And they did. Alex Dawson, for example, did this with distinction, but there is no telling how much his long-term career suffered for the pressure that was put on to his shoulders as a consequence of this terrible tragedy.

United’s quest to compete for honours meant a compromise – a greater balance of talent brought in to assist the young players coming through.

It startles many when they realise only Taylor and Harry Gregg were signed as senior players; it is equally astonishing to comprehend that we’re not just talking about two players from eleven, we’re talking about two from around twenty or twenty two, and repercussions to many of those players that spread further than those who passed away.

But this is a week of the year where extra attention should rightly be given to those who lost their lives. Mark Jones, Roger Byrne, Liam Whelan, Geoff Bent and Eddie Colman were not just the supporting names on a tragic list – they were all destined for true greatness in their own right, each of them fated to become legends of Manchester United for what they did achieve as opposed to the canonised status that has been bestowed upon them due to the tragic circumstances of February 6, 1958.

Wayne Barton

Wayne is a writer and producer. His numerous books on Manchester United include the authorised biography of Jimmy Murphy. He wrote and produced the BT Sport film 'Too Good To Go Down'. In 2015 he was described by the Independent as the 'leading writer on Manchester United' and former club chairman Martin Edwards has described him as 'the pre-eminent writer on the club'.

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