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Why the legacy of the Busby Babes will always survive

by Sam Peoples

Some modern day rival fans of Manchester United are quick to mock the Busby Babes and the tragedy of the Munich Air Disaster without even a thought for the inconceivable loss that happened on that day in 1958. It was not simply a loss of life – Manchester had it’s heart torn out that day.


The Munich Disaster of 1958 greatly affected not only the team and the communities of Manchester at the time, but played a major role in shaping the image of United which still stands today. The memories of these heroes, constructed by the media and the communities involved and affected, were fundamentally connected to each other and to the image and history of the club. The national profile of Manchester United became unconsciously attached to the Busby Babes.

Manchester United’s desire to not let Munich be forgotten is seen with the statue of Sir Matt Busby outside Old Trafford, with the Munich memorial clock, with the posters of the Busby Babes in the foyer of the Stretford End: endless memorabilia allows the memory of the Babes to stay intact.

Something that contributed greatly to the legacy of the Busby Babes was the rise of the age of information and new media in the late 20th century. The spread of television brought the Busby Babes into the living rooms of the nation and made them a focus for the future of English football[1]. Gavin Mellor, author of Soccer and Society, even claims that ‘United were gaining the aura of a ‘super-club’ in the 1960s that set them apart from the Football League’[2]. Average attendances peaked at 47,288 in the 1959/60 season with the closest rival being Manchester City with 35,637[3] and with marquee signings, such as the purchase of Denis Law for an English transfer record £115,000 from Torino in 1962, it was clear to see that Manchester United was indeed growing in size.

The new wave of fans brought in the loyalist culture that linked individuals to certain clubs and created a new, almost tribal, culture of being a football fan.

Jim White discusses how the game of football modernised with the influx of new managers such as Alf Ramsey and Joe Mercer matching the introduction of pre-prepared drills and teaching how to play to patterns and formulae[4] into training. Football was changing for both the fans and the players. United being at the forefront of these changes with the successes of the Sixties grew their support exponentially. As David Russell puts it, football had finally connected with the ‘Englishness[5]’.

This, in part, was why the impact was so severe on the communities. The Busby Babes were perfect role models and the same question hung over head of every Manchester United fan of the time that still resonates today. What if the crash never happened? Bobby Charlton’s illustrious career, culminating in receiving a knighthood from the Queen in 1994, epitomised what the Busby Babes were. Consistent, loyal and talented men. It could have been Duncan Edwards who stood with the World Cup aloft in Wembley in 1966. The fact that Manchester United won the European Cup a mere ten years after such a disaster was a testament to the club.

Bobby Charlton and Sir Matt Busby embrace following the 1968 European Cup Final victory against Benfica

The impact of Munich was profound and was matched only by the grandeur scale of rebirth that the team had in the ten years after. The team’s recovery was nothing short of miraculous after Munich devastated Manchester United. With fans still singing ‘Hello, Hello, We are the Busby Babes’ from the Stretford End during home matches, they still carry the immortal aura that will forever associate their name with football.

The almost romantic autobiography of Bobby Charlton embodies the effort the recovery at Manchester took but judging from the grin on his face as he embraces Sir Matt Busby after the European Cup final in 1968, it was not a victory just for those 11 players on the pitch but was a victory for Sir Matt Busby and all of his Babes.


[1] James Walvin, The People’s Game: The History of Football Revised (Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1994)

[2] Gavin Mellor, Soccer and Society : The Genesis of Manchester United (London: Routledge, 2000)

[3] Gary James, Manchester: A Football History (Manchester: James Ward, 2008)

[4] Jim White, Manchester United: The Biography (London: Sphere, 2008)

[5] Gary Armstrong, Football Cultures and Identities (London: Macmillan, 1999)

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