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Manchester's Finest by David Hall

Release date: 03rd February, 2008
Publisher: Bantam Press

List Price: 16.99
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Among the heaps of pitiful dross and ridiculous nonsense published by former players and others associated with, or fans of, Manchester United over the past few years, only a handful of books stand out and do justice to their subject.

Nobby Stiles' excellent After The Ball is outstanding for it reveals everything about the man and although thankfully, he was not part of the tragedy which befell Manchester United fifty years ago this week, the impact of the Munich disaster permeates his biography. Like so many others who were at the club at the time, Stiles felt compelled to rebuild United in the image of those that had perished.

Sir Bobby Charlton's My Manchester United Years is the only other recently-produced, Old Trafford-related publication to emulate the depth of Stiles' feeling, for the tragedy was to define his life.

Charlton rarely goes a day without recalling that dreadful night in Bavaria, when eight Busby Babes lost their lives and frequently poses an inner question: 'Why me?'

Significantly, these two are the only Englishmen ever to have lifted both the World Cup and the European Cup, although non-Manchester United fans may wonder just how many of the side who died so young at Munich could have emulated this famous old pair.

Much has been written about the Babes over the past week and justifiably so. They were then, as now, the champions of England, although unlike today, their 1958 European adventure attracted widespread support from football fans across the nation.

David Hall approaches the story of Munich from the fan's angle. Like Nobby Stiles, he was a youngster living in Manchester when the terrible news of BEA flight 609's crash hit the city like a sledgehammer. Hall paints a fascinating picture of life in post-war Britain, not necessarily suffering from shortages, but 'making do' and always bitterly cold.

Fifties Manchester was a great industrial city, proud of its two football teams. The arrival of Matt Busby as manager had transformed the better-supported of the two, United, into an irresistible attacking force and their European adventure was the next logical step for a side that swept to the league title in 1955/56 and 1956/57. Not until Sir Alex Ferguson had completed a decade at Old Trafford were United capable of playing the same brand of football as the Babes.

Hall canvassed widespread opinion on the Busby Babes and there seems little doubt that had eight of the side not been killed at Munich, they would not have had to wait until 1965 before being crowned champions again. He quotes Bob Paisley who famously announced that had the tragedy not occurred, United would have dominated football for the next decade.

Most fans will know the story of Munich - the outbound flight from a misty Ringway airport, the 3-3 draw against Red Star Belgrade which gave United a 5-4 aggregate victory, the return journey to England and the fateful stopover for refuelling at Munich. Hall adds to this tragic tale, describing how the city of Manchester reacted to the news, of how it conducted itself with great dignity in the sorrowful aftermath of funerals and pain, but never does he become mawkish. It would have been easy to do so, but perhaps the dead players' greatest legacy was to leave behind a great sense of hope that has pervaded Old Trafford ever since.

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