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Sunday, June 04, 2006

The Babes

by Tom Clare

Professional footballers today live a very privileged existence indeed. They are paid more money than Presidents and Prime Ministers, and lead a life in which their every whim is catered for. Even the majority of fringe players are paid more in a month than most working class people earn in a year. They have become very distant from the people who watch football week in and week out - the real fans. They seem to forget where they came from - the grass roots of the game. They forget that it's the efforts of a lot of other people, aligned to their own talent, that's puts them into those lofty positions that they enjoy so much today. For the past hour and a half, I have sat watching the video that somebody so generously, and anonymously sent to me, about the "Babes." There are some wonderful moments in it and some great stories.

Bobby Charlton tells of his time as a young boy just starting out in the game, and how he was embraced in friendship by Tommy Taylor and David Pegg. David and Tommy were already big stars by then, but the three of them were inseparable. Bob tells the story of how they would walk from their "digs" in Stretford, and on into Manchester city centre to go to the cinema. They walked because as Bobby described it; "we found it boring to go on the bus." Can you imagine star players doing that today? He also tells about the first time that he accompanied them on one of these trips. "I thought I'd better behave like a professional player. As we got to the cinema kiosk, I said "I'll get these lads - where are we sitting?" Tommy Taylor said "just get three in the best Bob" which I did - only to find that nearly all my first week's wages had disappeared!"

There is some footage showing Eddie Colman, Wilf McGuinness, and Bob Charlton leaving the Players entrance at Old Trafford. Wilf goes on to say; "We were just ordinary everyday fun loving lads who played football. Yes, we were the "Busby Babes" but to us, it wasn't like that, we didn't feel like "Busby Babes." We were just a team of pals who shared a love of life, and football." He tells of how Eddie Colman was the fashionable, and cheeky one, and the first of the players to wear "drainpipe trousers" and "winkle picker" shoes.

Marjorie English, who was Eddie Colman's girlfriend, tells of how they would all gather around the piano in The Bridge, on Dane Road, on some Saturday evenings. Eddie used to have a favourite song - "Pennies from Heaven" - and he really fancied himself as a pianist/crooner. The guy with the singer's voice, from what Marjorie says, was none other than Bobby Charlton! There is a lovely picture of Eddie at the piano surrounded by Duncan, Bobby, Tommy, David, Wilf, Billy - all the single lads! A pint and a sing-song with their girlfriends after a hard Saturday game - superstars, yes, but with their feet firmly on the ground!

Eddie's closest friend recalls nights out with Eddie, and how, when Eddie was asked by girls what he did for a living, he would just tell them that he worked in Trafford Park, or was a docker, or his favourite line; "I'm a painter and decorator!" He really was a little imp and had a devilish sense of humour.

Brian Hughes MBE (who has written some wonderful biographies of some of the "Babes") who is a really down to earth Collyhurst lad, tells of the atmosphere that abounded throughout the city in those heady days. As he said, some people used to say it was down to religion. Nothing of the sort " it was a religion - the Manchester United religion." As he said, in those days you didn't need drugs - the biggest narcotic you could get was "the Babes" - the city, and to some extent, the whole British sporting public, fed off them. He recalls a place that used to be in Livesey Street, Collyhurst, named "Harry's, The Barbers." This guy used to have pictures of all the players up on the wall, and people would go in and ask for a "David Pegg" or a "Tommy Taylor." They would then have their hair done in the same style as the named players.

Jimmy Saville makes an appearance in the first part of the programme, and passes opinions on "the Babes." He applauds himself for being the first to realize that the United lads were the first megastars outside of pop. I actually take issue with this, because I am more than certain that Jimmy Saville wasn't even around in Manchester during that "Babes" era. He did arrive around 1959, and for a short while was the DJ at The Plaza Ballroom on Oxford Street. But I am more than certain that he had no connection whatsoever with those lads.

Part Two of the video concentrates on United's entry into Europe, and it is interesting to listen to Bill Foulkes, Bobby Charlton, Wilf McGuinness, the late Ray Wood, talk about how it was perceived by the players at that time. They said that there was excitement at the thought of playing against foreign teams. Bill Foulkes makes some good points by pointing out that up to and including the first European experience, most of those foreign clubs were just names to the players. They knew nothing about them at all, and never ever saw any of the teams play before they actually stepped out onto the field to compete against them. In the middle fifties, there was little or no coverage at all of foreign football. Travel was very limited - people from Manchester traveled great distances to Blackpool, Morecambe, Southport, Rhyl etc for their holidays! Package holidays were unheard of in those days, and Spain was some hot country a long, long, way away! Wilf tells of the day they traveled to Bilbao, in northern Spain for the first leg of that famous quarter final tie. All of them were expecting to get off the aircraft and step into blistering sunshine, but when they arrived it was throwing it down with snow and was bitterly cold. Eddie Colman stepped through the door of the Elizabethan aircraft and uttered the words; "Caramba! Just like Salford!" The morning after the game, they arrived at Bilbao Airport to find the aircraft covered in ice and snow. Together with the Press lads, they pitched in, took brooms and shovels, and cleared the ice and snow from the wings and fuselage of the aircraft - how ironic. There is some wonderful footage of the actual game - footage that I had never ever seen before. I knew that the game was played in atrocious conditions, but I hadn't realized just how bad it was until I saw this video. Today that game would never have been started. There is a wonderful piece showing Billy Whelan scoring the third goal. I knew the story behind it, how he had run from half way, beating man, after man, before firing the ball home from just inside the area. When I actually saw this, it's amazing that after 89 minutes, in conditions that were ankle deep in mud, how he summoned up the strength to go on that run, and then have the power to hit the ball so hard (and this was the old leather ball with the lace) and accurately into the top right hand side of the net. For me, one of the all time great moments in United's history, because that goal gave those lads the belief that they could win the return game and make the semi-finals. Bob Charlton relates the story of the second leg - he was doing his National Service at the time, and couldn't get away to attend the game. That is, until an erstwhile Sergeant Major mentioned that he would love to see the game, and that if Bobby could get the tickets, he would make sure that they got time off to go and see the match. Again some wonderful footage of the return game, which for me, is without doubt the most memorable game of football that I have ever attended in my whole lifetime. The memories of that United versus Bilbao match will be with me until I draw my final breath.

Frank Taylor (who wrote the book "The Day a Team Died") talks about the relationship the players had with the Press Corps. As he said, there were times that the players were criticized, but never, ever, did they take it to heart. However, as he pointed out, in those days criticism always tended to be constructive, and the press lads reported about football. Private lives were private, and as far as the press lads were concerned, they were out of bounds. Henry Rose, who was a lovely guy, and wrote for the Daily Express, once wrote a piece attacking Duncan Edwards for what Henry thought was over-robust play. A day or two after the article appeared, United were leaving for Dortmund, and Henry cornered Duncan at the airport, and told him not to take the article to heart. Duncan stopped him dead in his tracks; "Never even read it Henry" he told him. "You have your job to do and a living to make, and I have mine - that's fair enough by me." Frank talked about how all the players and press lads gelled on the European trips, and the fun that they had together. How the likes of Eddie, and Tommy Taylor, used to plague the life out of Tom Jackson (M.E.N.) and Alf Clarke (M.E.C.) Ray Wood told about how when they first traveled, they were all worried about foreign food, so they took bags and bags of boiled sweets and chocolate with them. Bill Foulkes laughs recalling Johnny Berry taking a primus stove with him on every trip!

The third and last part of the video relates entirely to the accident, so I won't dwell on that as I think I have related events a lot in previous writings. The point that I am trying to make in posting this thread, is that as I said at the beginning, I do feel that a lot of today's superstars forget their grass roots. In reality, they don't know just how good they have it, and they tend to forget that although they may be talented, and turn into great players, they are given tremendous assistance along the way by lots of people not only at their clubs, by in different walks of life as well.

Harry Gregg comes out with some wonderful words at the end of the video;

"They say that they were the best team we have ever seen ? well maybe. They say that they may have gone on to be the best team that we have ever seen ? well maybe. But there is one thing for certain ? they were the best loved team that there has ever been."

That love came from their humility, sportsmanship, the way that they lived their lives, the respect that they gave to their opponents and to the people who they loved so much - the fans. Plus the fact that they never considered themselves to be special. As Wilf said; "just a bunch of pals that happened to play football." I only wish that some of todays players would watch this video and take a leaf out of their book.

For any of you that are interested, the programme was called "The Busby Babes" and was made by Granada in 1998.


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