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Friday, January 20, 2006

Tribute to Ray Wood

from 2002

It had been our intention this season to write a piece on the strange events surrounding the cruel injury and subsequent semi-heroic return to the pitch by Ray Wood during the 1957 Cup Final. It's a fascinating tale and one worthy of reproduction. Sadly in early July, Wood passed away. Another Babe lost.

Although the obituaries tried their hardest to represent his life to the full, many, written by those who'd never encountered him, only created a two dimensional figure rather than the fascinating three dimensional man that Wood was. Of course there were nice tributes from Bobby Charlton about the quiet, unassuming ex-keeper who survived Munich (he was found pinned beneath the undercarriage), but little testimony to the person himself. Such is the way of things these days. Nothing of his disappointment in later life over the lack of financial consideration made by the club to the families and survivors of Munich - not for personal gain but to right the wrong decisions made by the club over the years and of the frustration felt at the delay and final staggered decision to have the Memorial match at Old Trafford some 40 years on. Like Blanchflower and several other survivors, Wood received his part of the proceeds in the twilight of his life when in earlier years it surely would have been not only more welcome but of help.

Sir Matt once said of him: "You didn't get miracles from Ray. He was just there when it mattered, moving confidently into position and taking the ball cleanly." and the Old Fart fondly remembered him in a tribute that did create a picture of Wood that caught his essence:

"I read in the newspaper that Ray Wood died on Sunday and so another of my boyhood heroes, another Busby Babe, has gone to join his mates in the Old Trafford of the sky. Ray Wood is the first (Manchester United) goalkeeper I can remember with any clarity. In 1957 I watched the Cup Final on the television and saw McParland deliberately hit Ray, breaking, we later discovered, his cheekbone. I didn't see my dad that evening for I had gone to bed by the time he
got home from Wembley, but I can remember, with absolute clarity, his reaction when I spoke to him on the Sunday morning. Never in all the years I have been watching Manchester United with him can I ever remember him being so
cross. My dad is a very honest and balanced man and he said at the time, and remains convinced to this day, that McParland got Ray Wood early in order to give Aston Villa a chance of winning. That McParland has never been man enough to admit that is to his eternal shame.

To a young boy (as I once was!) Ray Wood always appeared slightly ill at ease when we pestered him for his autograph at the training ground. Not, I hasten to add, because he was a nasty man, but because he was, I think, a little
bit shy. Perhaps, I don't know, in awe of those around him. He seemed a quiet, gentlemanly sort of person, with little to say. But he always signed, without making a fuss and that was nice. As a player he was a good, but no better,
goalkeeper. It has to be said that playing behind a defence which included the likes of Byrne, Jones and Edwards must have been a big help. But the fact of the matter is that he won two League Championship medals and that is pretty
good by any standards. Once Harry (Harry, Harry) arrived it was obvious (or so my dad told me) that Ray's days were numbered, and, indeed, this was the case. We should not forget Ray Wood - I know we won't. He was a very fine goalkeeper and an even nicer fellow. May he rest in peace."

Wilf McGuinness remembered: "a very competent goalkeeper...but it is fair to say that he wasn’t considered one of the bright lights in the team which became famous as the Busby Babes. I will never forget his performance in a European Cup tie against Borussia Dortmund in the mid-50s. We had drawn 3-3 against them at Maine Road and they must have thought they were through to the next round with the home leg to come. However, Ray stopped everything that came his way
in the second match in Dortmund. He was absolutely brilliant. He was a bit unfortunate in his spell at Old Trafford in that there was a lot of clamour for the club to go out and buy Harry Gregg from Doncaster Rovers who everyone was raving about. Harry did eventually arrive and Ray hardly got a look-in at first-team level after that and eventually left not long after the Munich disaster.”

Although a shocked Wood considered his future the day United signed Gregg, only to vow to 'win his place back', he wished Gregg the "best of luck" that very day, a gesture the new keeper greatly appreciated, hoping he'd have done the
same in similar circumstances and they became "firm friends" thereafter. Despite the two title wins and playing over 200 times for United it is the Cup Final defeat (2-1) of '57 which most readily springs to mind when recalling Wood,
an event that still rankles with Reds present that day over the challenge which led to a fractured cheekbone in the 6th minute, during Villa's first attack, an age where substitutes let alone sub keepers were non existent. With the injury went our attempt at the League and Cup Double. Wilf McGuinness suumed it up:

“We were going for the double that year and certainly favourites to beat Villa in the FA Cup final. But all that changed when Ray was flattened by McParland in the first half. I don’t think there has ever quite been a foul like that
in an FA Cup final. Ray had the ball in his hands but McParland chased him for 10 yards and then hit him with a flying head-butt. That was the only time I ever saw Duncan Edwards angry on a football pitch. He came racing over with his eyes blazing but managed to control himself."

Jackie Blanchflower went in goal and Ray came back in the second half when it was still 0-0, playing up front on the right at odd intervals to try and at least create a balance to the United side, despite still suffering from double vision and blackouts. Edwards was moved back to centre-half, Bill Whelan moved to the left half spot only to see McParland score both of Villa's goals.

Bitter irony. Roger Byrne got the team together at 2-0 down and urged a typically all out United attack effort. Wood went back in goal, Edwards up front, and Tommy Taylor made it 1-2. A Billy Whelan goal late on was even disallowed for
being offside. Sir Matt afterwards told the team: "Well played lads, don't let this get you down. Don't worry. We'll be back again at Wembley next season:" To his management team he said the McParland challenge would: "live with me for
the rest of my life and was so unnecessary and so puzzling...his motive remains a mystery".

Most amazing of all though was that at half-time the United physio, Ted Dalton, took Wood onto a deserted grass strip outside Wembley stadium to test taking shots at him to see if he was up to coming back on as goalie. Busby said that Wood only saw two out of every six shots aimed at him so the plan was scrapped and though it "was a depressing session...a young cockney kid did relieve tension when he told Ray: "Look mister. My mates and me have got a game on just round the corner. You can come and play with us if you like". He had no idea he was talking to the United keeper supposedk to be playing inside Wembley.

Today they'd have probably abused Barthez and stolen his kit. Immediately after the game Sir Matt criticised the "dogmatic views" against using subs for injured players. Never in such a big game was this so clearly evident, as Sir Matt talked of being "robbed" and asked for a "single logical reason why subs should still be barred in British football".

During his early Old Trafford days , as was the norm, Wood had a second job to pay the bills, working in Manchester as a warehouseman. Considering the riches on offer for todays stars it is sad that he had to wait so long for what was due to him from United.

And in a sad coincidence, just days after Wood's passing, Frank Taylor, the journalist and close friend of United, who also survived the tragedy, also died. When I heard the news I took a copy of his The Day A Team Died and began to re-read it. He was an excellent journalist, and that he got a cherished second chance in life is something he never allowed himself to forget. All there is to say about Taylor the man and Taylor the friend to Sir Matt and the Babes is in this book. From his incredibly moving description of February 6th (I readily admit that tears welled up upon re-reading it), his own struggle for survival as he was initially reported back in England as dead, to his touching account of Duncan Edwards asking if he was needed for the forthcoming Wolves game upon waking up after the crash. His view was that English football and the
national team never wholly recovered from the tragedy.

Of course it wasn't just the team who perished and his colleagues and friends, his drinking mate 'Swifty' (who always called Taylor 'Dad' even though Frank Swift was the older of the pair) are given their rightful tributes. This is a
book that every true Red should, and must, read. Taylor's survival and recovery, alongside Sir Matt and the others, was incredible, that he was able to continue to write gave at least some kind of comfort to those back home. Yet he and they never forgot those they left behind in Germany and his passing, and my re-reading of The Day A Team Died conjures up many emotions as a United fan, from the constant sense of loss to the eternal sense of anger and, it has to be said, bitterness as to how and why any rival 'fan' can mock us for the tragedy and its cruel twist of fate.


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