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When United battled with Wolves

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Ivan Ponting

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Considering the poignant, uniquely emotional circumstances, the odds against any degree of competitive success in the first full season after the Munich Air Disaster, which had cost the lives of eight top-quality footballers and maimed two more so badly they would never play again, appeared astronomical.

United manager Matt Busby, who had contemplated retirement in the wake of the tragedy but who had been persuaded to carry on – at least in part as a memorial to his beloved young charges who had perished – was still suffering both physical and mental agonies after escaping only narrowly with his own life. Selflessly and courageously, he was showing a brave face to the world as he sought to rebuild the club while struggling to make a personal recovery, but those close to him were all too aware of his constant anguish. 

His heroic assistant, Jimmy Murphy, who had worked miracles in guiding a patchwork team to the final of the previous term’s FA Cup and to spirited displays in the last four of the European Cup, remained grief-ridden at the loss of boys who had become like sons to him as he’d nurtured their precocious talent. 

Meanwhile, the players who had survived the catastrophe were carrying unknowable psychological baggage that, in some cases, would never be erased. Reds goalkeeper Harry Gregg looked outwardly strong, but granite-tough defender Bill Foulkes and rookie sharpshooter Bobby Charlton wore perpetually haunted expressions, clearly striving to come to terms with their demons, while others suffered similarly.

Jimmy Murphy (pictured, third right, at the 1958 FA Cup final) had done sterling work in Matt Busby's absence.

So how did United contrive to fly so high, so soon?

A free-scoring forward line – comprising 29-goal Charlton in easily his most prolific term, his clinical fellow marksman Dennis Viollet, flankmen Albert Scanlon and Warren Bradley, and schemer Albert Quixall – had plenty to do with it as the team racked up 103 league strikes, but enormous credit was due, too, to a makeshift, inexperienced defence, which performed far better as a unit than was widely expected.

Going into 1958/59, an ominous omen for the Reds' immediate prospects was to be found in their understandably poor post-Munich league form during the previous spring, encompassing one win, five draws and eight defeats, yielding a mere seven points from a possible 28, and prophets of doom were predicting a relegation battle on the immediate horizon.

But neither for the first nor the last time in the club’s history, United proved defiantly indestructible. Starting in the swashbuckling vein that had become the gleeful trademark of the now-decimated Busby Babes, the Reds steamrollered Chelsea at Old Trafford on the opening afternoon, with Charlton – starting at inside-left but roaming ungovernably across the attacking line – contributing a dashing hat-trick. Not even the emerging genius of Jimmy Greaves, who poached a brace for the Londoners, could steal Bobby’s thunder, and the unassuming north-easterner continued to shine as the talisman of the reborn team four days later with two more hits in a 3-0 victory at Nottingham Forest.

Not surprisingly, the sudden wave of optimism was tempered as results began to level off, and the future Sir Matt recognised that for all the spirit and enterprise of his fresh combination, more quality was needed. Accordingly, he broke the British transfer record in late September by paying Sheffield Wednesday £45,000 for England international inside-forward Albert Quixall.

Though the skilful Yorkshireman was portrayed in some quarters as the golden boy of English football – his blond, baby-faced good looks and preference for exceedingly short shorts were mentioned frequently – he took time to settle and United hit an autumn slump which prompted a descent into the wrong half of the First Division table.

A tonic was needed and it arrived from an unexpected quarter. When the club had been in desperate need of reinforcements following the disaster, England amateur international-cum-geography teacher Warren Bradley had been among several recruited from Bishop Auckland as a temporary measure to bolster the reserves.

But Bradley had remained on the Reds’ books, and in November 1958 Busby drafted the sturdy little battler into the team on the right flank. Few observers expected a spectacular outcome but Bradley gelled almost instantly with inside-forwards Charlton and Quixall, along with two men who had lived through Munich, roving spearhead Viollet and tearaway left-winger Scanlon, and United embarked on an exhilarating sequence of eight straight wins, which catapulted them into championship contention.

The deadly Dennis Viollet was central to United's heroic efforts during 1958/59.

This was stretched into a run of 16 victories in 18 matches, including a 2-1 home triumph over leaders Wolves in February, which drew them level at the summit with Stan Cullis’s ruthlessly efficient Molineux machine – Charlton contributed the late winner – and a 6-1 Good Friday drubbing of Portsmouth at Old Trafford to lift the Reds to the top of the table with only six games to play.

An astonishingly unlikely fairytale seemed possible, only for Busby’s boys to falter in the final straight, losing at Burnley, then dropping further points at Luton and Leicester, allowing Wolves to stretch away to lift the crown by a six-point margin. Still, United cemented second spot emphatically, five points clear of third-placed, Arsenal, a sensational effort given the calamity that had overtaken the club so recently.

Praise was heaped on Charlton, and deservedly so, but Viollet’s tally of 21 goals and Scanlon’s 16, with Bradley adding a dozen in only 24 games, were also massively valuable, while Quixall’s modest return of four did not reflect his colossal input as the deep-lying play-maker. 

At the back, Gregg was a tower of strength in goal, though the usually rock-like Foulkes was not at his most commanding at right-back, not relishing the captaincy and struggling grittily through his ongoing trauma as a crash survivor. Recognising the problem, Busby gave him a rest in the spring before recalling him at centre-half – ultimately his specialist position, in which he was to taste serial glory in the years ahead – for the last few games.

There were mammoth contributions, too, from two other full-backs, Ian Greaves and Joe Carolan, while Ronnie Cope was a classy central bulwark and Freddie Goodwin laboured shrewdly at right-half. Meanwhile young Wilf McGuinness – destined ultimately to briefly succeed Busby as Old Trafford boss – enjoyed the finest season of his career at left-half, granted his first extended senior run following the death at Munich of his close pal Duncan Edwards.

Ronnie Cope and Freddie Goodwin were redoubtable performers in defence and midfield.

Sadly the dynamic, ultra-competitive McGuinness’s long-term prospects were sabotaged all too soon by a chronic injury, though not before he had collected two England caps. He later recalled:“Although the opportunity came to me in the most horrific fashion, on a professional level that season was the time of my life.”Foulkes acknowledged that United, whose form dipped over the next four years before a lasting recovery got under way in 1963, overachieved in the 1958/59 season.“Emotion played a major part,”he admitted years later.“We were high on adrenaline. But it always seemed likely that further major reconstruction was necessary, and so it proved.”Charlton agreed, though he maintained that not enough recognition had been accorded to the remarkable events of the first post-Munich campaign, declaring with no small amount of understatement:“It was some effort in the circumstances.”

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Ivan Ponting

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