A look back at Manchester United’s famous FA Cup run of 1958, and how Jimmy Murphy took charge of a club in trouble to give it a new sense of identity.

It is not usual to look back on a season which ultimately ended with failure and declare it one of the most important in United’s history; of course, 1957/58 went down in history for other reasons after the club were decimated by the tragedy of the Munich Air Disaster.

Though all the evidence suggests that Wolverhampton Wanderers would have maintained their hold on the First Division title race, elsewhere it is fair to say that United’s youngsters were benefitting from a bit of a learning curve. Just as the ‘Fledglings’ of the Ferguson era underwent a domestic education competing against Blackburn, Newcastle and Arsenal, and likewise on the continent against Juventus, the Busby Babes were blossoming to justify their heralded potential.

Although they had lost the 1957 FA Cup Final against Aston Villa — a game disrupted by the fact United had to play with defender Jackie Blanchflower in goal for most of the final — the Babes had clearly matured to the next level; when facing Villa in the league in October, they scored four past them, and repeated the trick less than three weeks later in the Charity Shield. Likewise, they were expected to go one better and give Real Madrid a better game than they had in the previous season’s European Cup, before disaster struck.

United’s FA Cup journey began on 4th January 1958, when they came up against Workington Reds. Workington actually took an early lead and kept hold of it until half time; whatever was said by a probably-furious Jimmy Murphy clearly had an impact, as by the 62nd minute United had turned the game around completely. Dennis Viollet scored one of the quickest hat-tricks in United history, inside just eight minutes, starting his feat in the 54th.

Ten days later United played the first leg of their European Cup tie against Red Star, winning 2-1 at Old Trafford. Their next FA Cup tie was at home to Ipswich Town and that game was sandwiched by the last two leagues the ‘Babes’ played before the disaster. The same team had played this entire run of games in 1958 so far and Bobby Charlton scored twice to eliminate Ipswich.

Far more eventful were the league games, with a 7-2 battering of Bolton at Old Trafford and the memorable 5-4 win at Arsenal preceding that fateful trip to Belgrade.

It said much about the quality of United’s squad that in the last reserve game before Munich, Geoff Bent, Jackie Blanchflower, Johnny Berry, Liam Whelan and David Pegg all played.

United drew 3-3 against Red Star to secure a passage to the semi finals of the European Cup; but, as their plane stopped to refuel in Munich on the way home, it failed to take off due to ice and slush on the runway, crashing and killing many of those on board. Among those who perished were 8 United players and 3 staff members. Johnny Berry and Jackie Blanchflower survived but never played again.

There are many profoundly emotional accounts of what happened at the time of the disaster
available online; this account will assume knowledge of most of what happened and instead focus on the FA Cup run which followed.

On 19th February, almost two weeks after the disaster, Manchester United took to the field again. Assistant manager Jimmy Murphy was taking charge of everything while Matt Busby recovered in Germany. Despite being offered some assistance by some of the world’s great names such as Ferenc Puskas, Murphy signed just two players to play against Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup fifth round.

The identity of those players said much about how Murphy intended to rebuild the club. Entertaining the idea of signing Puskas would have caused Murphy a greater headache than he had time for. As Welsh manager, he did explore some of the links he had with the national team; the legendary John Charles was almost apologetic that his contract with Juventus forbid him from helping. Bids for John’s brother Mel, and the highly-rated Cliff Jones, also failed.

Instead, Murphy resolved to do things in the same manner as he and Matt Busby had worked in the first place. So, first came Ernie Taylor. Taylor had played in the famous Blackpool team of Mortenson and Matthews but Murphy reckoned Taylor to be the heartbeat; likewise, Stan Crowther of Aston Villa had, for him, been the unsung hero in the previous year’s Cup Final. United would need industry, work and experience to complement the raw ability of some of the unexperienced youngsters he would have to play.

So Ian Greaves played just his 20th game for the club; Freddie Goodwin made his 26th appearance. The pair were relative veterans at the side of Ronnie Cope, making his 3rd appearance, Alex Dawson, making his fourth, and Mark Pearson and Shay Brennan, who were both making their debuts.

Famously, the programme for the game featured a blank team sheet for United, such was the uncertainty.

Highlights :

Manchester United won 3-0. Sheffield Wednesday never really stood a chance.

“I have just been in tears in our dressing room,” Jimmy Murphy told reporter Terence Elliott after the game. “I’ve just seen something wonderful, which means more than the victory deservedly won. We have all been privileged to see the beginning of a great build-up. And now we know the future has its sunshine. They were tears of joy. I have always said that enthusiasm plus ability can beat anything and this is the greatest day of my life, even after 30 years in football.”

United were then drawn against West Bromwich Albion, Jimmy Murphy’s former club, at the Hawthorns. Baggies manager Vic Buckingham had spoke about his team hitting a handsome number of goals against the beleaguered visitors but the United team caught his own side cold, taking the lead twice through Ernie Taylor and Alex Dawson. An equaliser four minutes from time earned WBA a replay at Old Trafford.

6th round replay highlights:

Colin Webster’s late, late close range effort put United into the semi-final where they would play Fulham.

The performance, though, left some unimpressed. Journalist Malcolm Brodie wrote quite scathingly that United were ‘a mere skeleton of a once great side’. This was in keeping with the general subsidence of sympathy afforded to the club. The win over WBA came just four weeks after the disaster, and ten days after that game United lost at Burnley where Clarets chairman Bob Lord continued his own brand of charm offensive. Having previously criticised United boss Jimmy Murphy for making an enquiry for one of his players, Lord then criticised United’s style of play in the game at Turf Moor.

It made Murphy irate in terms of talking to the press, although privately he was pleased to have been given extra motivation for his players ahead of the semi-final. Villa Park hosted a 2-2 draw, and the replay was surprisingly scheduled to be played at Highbury.

Now, Jimmy was blessed with some returning players, yet not only resisted the temptation to give some of the kids a rest, but pulled off a tactical masterstroke.

Semi final replay

Just before kick off, Murphy told centre forward Alex Dawson to switch with Colin Webster who was playing outside right. He had an inkling that the confusion would give Dawson more space to punish the Cottagers and his premonition proved to be correct; Dawson scored a hat-trick in a thrilling game as United won 5-3.

Against all the odds, United had qualified for the FA Cup Final where they would play against Bolton Wanderers. Jimmy Murphy’s team had comprised mainly of three crash survivors, two new signings, two reserve players with limited experience and a bunch of rookies.

Jimmy wrote in the Evening News after the Fulham game that ‘no-one can now say that United are being carried on a wave of hysteria’ though he did also later say that if enthusiasm counted for anything, the Cup was as good as at Old Trafford.

Whilst acknowledging the disaster, Jimmy also proudly declared that getting to a Wembley Cup Final was simply a continuation of the great work set in place by his good friend Matt Busby and a testament to the hard work everyone at the club had done.

Perhaps there was some truth to this bullish claim but it was a characteristically modest one from Murphy. Anyone could see that this was a new Manchester United team. If the Babes had been a composite reflection of Murphy’s blood, sweat and tears and Busby’s refined touch, then, in the absence of that polish, this new collection were the uncompromising and yet unrelenting mirror image of the Welshman. Their dogged determination had been matched by a fevered support and in a Cup run, it made all the difference.

FA Cup Final v Bolton

Unfortunately, when it comes to FA Cup Final day, as United had discovered earlier in 1957, even a dedicated team and a rabid support need a little bit of luck. United hit the crossbar and were even more unfortunate when Nat Lofthouse’s second goal was given, considering the physical manner in which the Bolton player approached Harry Gregg.

United lost 2-0. Jimmy Murphy had led the team out and described it as the proudest day of his life; Matt Busby was back on the bench, but allowed his right-hand man to control the day. Murphy had admitted that selecting a team for the final was a horrendous experience. Shay Brennan, Mark Pearson and Kenny Morgans had all been outstanding for him and he had to let each of them down. Murphy was disappointed to have lost, but understood that getting there in the first place was something not many expected.

To say that qualification for the final, then, was an achievement in itself, does sound somewhat condescending, but it is nonetheless true. Some might say that merely continuing the season was an achievement and they would have a point. There is no telling what Jimmy Murphy gave to United in those three months after the disaster because it cannot be measured or quantified. But without him, it’s safe to say that Bobby Charlton may not have been convinced to play on, and without United playing on as they did under Murphy’s insistence, there is no telling how a grief and guilt stricken Matt Busby would have continued.

If Manchester United could qualify for an FA Cup Final — then, easily comparable to a league title, and for some even favourable to a league title, considering as it was described as the highlight of any player’s career — with the scratch side they had, it was a testament to the principles of commitment and dedication, the basic principles Jimmy Murphy insisted in seeing from any of his players.

With the talent United players had showed in the past, and hopefully would possess in the future, it meant anything was possible; Jimmy Murphy had kept the dream alive, and it was a crucial intervention at the most harrowing time in the club’s history.