Emblazoned on the front of the red 1958 Manchester United FA Cup Final jersey is that of an eagle. It is a symbol which came to define the Red Devils in the months following the most significant moment in postwar English football in which eight players lost their lives. What resulted was an impromptu scramble to rebuild a team in need of major surgery but whose soul remained intact – embodied by caretaker manager Jimmy Murphy. It was Murphy – often the forgotten man in this story – who would nurture a new generation of Eagles to rise from the ashes of Munich.
The events of 6th February 1958 on a cold winter’s day in Munich were unprecedented in the history of English football. The facts of the day have been regurgitated over and over again but what remains at the very core is that United had lost eight players, more commonly referred to as the Flowers of Manchester. What united those eight was youth, talent and, above all, a lack of fulfilment. Chief amongst them was defender Duncan Edwards – recently named in a Manchester Legend XI – who died 15 days after the crash. Edwards, more so than anyone, embodied these three characteristics. At the tender age of 21, he was the youngest ever international to represent England and gradually established himself as the heartbeat of the England midfield. Many have since posed the question that if Edwards had been alive and well, would he have been the captain leading the Three Lions to World Cup glory in 1966? Matt Busby’s team was widely regarded as the greatest team that ever was however the task of upholding this reputation let alone rebuilding the team following such a tragedy, was a daunting one – a task placed upon the shoulders of one, Jimmy Patrick Murphy.
United’s loss and subsequent rebuilding process must be placed into some sort of perspective. Nine years earlier a similar tragedy befit Italian club Torino whose loss was even more substantial than that of United’s. In total the club from Turin lost their entire team composing of 18 players including five members of the coaching staff. Like United, they had risen to prominence in the postwar years, winning four straight Serie A titles between 1945 and 1949 and, according to some sources, pioneered the 4-4-2 formation. It has been suggested that the Granata (The Clarets) have never quite recovered since that disaster. Nonetheless, what United found in this period of adversity was solidarity in the form of their nearest neighbours and fierce rivals, Manchester City. Three days after the crash, UEFA asked City to replace United in the European Cup to which The Blues responded ‘no’ to – wanting to help their Manchester counterparts instead of benefitting from the circumstances. This hand of support went so far as helping United’s staff, with City’s director and surgeon, Sidney Rose, arranging medical help for returning players. Whilst administrative back up was a priority, rebuilding the team around a central figure was of paramount importance.
Only three first team players – goalkeeper Harry Gregg, right back and newly appointed captain Bill Foulkes, and striker Bobby Charlton – remained from the decimated squad. Nonetheless, after much persuasion, Murphy was able to call on these players who had formed an integral part of the Busby Babes team. As for the rest of the team, Murphy – who was on international duty on the night of the crash guiding the Welsh National team to their first and so far only ever appearance at the World Cup – looked to the youth setup at United. He was viewed as a master of judging ability and potential, nurturing the likes of Ron Cope and Alex Dawson into the starting XI whilst also making shrewd acquisitions such as defender Stan Crowther from Aston Villa and attacking midfielder Ernie Taylor from Blackpool. Furthermore, it was Murphy’s insight which helped Busby to bring in a future Manchester United legend, Denis Law, from Torino in 1962 for what was then a club record fee of £115,000. It was principally he who, despite the panic around him, galvanised this new group of players together, resulting, against all the odds, in the team reaching the FA Cup Final that year.
In the space of a mere three months, Murphy had taken a team blighted by loss and tragedy to the final of English football’s premier club competition beating Sheffield Wednesday, United’s first game after the crash, West Bromwich Albion and Fulham along the way, the last two with the help of a replay. It was a game which pulled at the heartstrings with the majority of spectators rooting for United, hoping for the fairytale finish to what had been, up until that point, a season defined by the events of Munich. Nonetheless, someone hadn’t informed Bolton Wanderers’s skipper and striker and prolific England centre forward Nat Lofthouse – who died in January this year – of the script. Lofthouse singlehandedly steered The Trotters to victory, scoring the only two goals of the game – the second of which has been a point of controversy – and thus 1958 forever became The Nat Lofthouse Final. Furthermore, victory was made sweeter as Wanderers came back to the same venue where they had lost in the final six years previously to Blackpool. Despite the script not going according to plan, this final was the moment which signalled the beginning of a new generation of Manchester United legends.
Busby resumed his full-time managerial duties in time for the beginning of the 1958-1959 season working alongside Murphy who never chose to become manager of the club, sighting a hate of the limelight and a preference for working behind the scenes. Together they continued on from where they had left off before Munich, vowing not compromise on their attacking style on which their success had been built on. The United of the 1960s still had experience within its ranks but alongside it was another dimension, that of youth, exuberance and talent, embodied by the ‘Diamond Four’, as I like to call them, of Bobby Charlton, George Best, Nobby Stiles and Paddy Crerand. How fitting it was then that ten years later United returned to the scene where the foundations for the next generation of Manchester United players had been laid with their historic first European Cup triumph against the great Eusébio’s Benfica under the floodlights at Wembley. Symbolically Foulkes and Charlton, who scored two goals on the night, had finished the work begun by their former teammates ten years ago – a fitting tribute to those who were now firmly memorialized in the hearts and minds of all Manchester United fans.
The events at Munich, which will always remain an integral part of the fabric of Manchester United, and Welshman Jimmy Murphy being suddenly propelled into the managerial hot seat were never supposed to happen. Despite being approached to manage the Brazilian National Team, Italian giants Juventus and Arsenal, Murphy remained assistant manager at United until 1971, passing away in 1979. Thirty years later a small unassuming plaque commemorating his remarkable achievements is attached to his former family home in Treharne Street in Wales. Those who knew Jimmy Murphy will tell you that that’s the way he would have wanted it.
Click here to listen to more on the aftermath of the 1958 Munich Air Crash with the Cherwell Sport podcast, ‘Extra Time’.