After breaking into the first team in the 51/52 title winning squad, Roger Byrne went from being a young pup in that side to a leader of men of the generation of ‘Babes’ who followed him into the Manchester United senior side.
Byrne was as reliable as any player could be, rarely missing a game. In the 1949/50 season he broke into the Central League side and in the following year and a half he played alongside fellow future stars like Mark Jones, Jackie Blanchflower and Dennis Viollet.
Byrne was a triumph of coaching, and the very model of professionalism. Playing nine consecutive games at the start of the 1949/50 season in the Central League in the number 6 shirt, it was quickly determined that he wasn’t a half back. Byrne was then moved to the number 11 shirt and showed some goalscoring prowess with a couple of goals in his handful of games in that role in the second half of the season.
And despite starting the following season in the same vein – with 4 goals in 12 games before December not the worst return for an outside left – Murphy and Whalley felt that they had seen something different in the player.
They moved him to left back, and he played fifteen games there in the second half of the reserve season, more or less adapting to that role right away. Byrne’s obvious ability on the ball and his versatility had also helped him stand out as a leader. It was a testament to both player and coaching that such tremendous foresight was shown.
This is one of, if not the most, earliest examples of Manchester United insisting that even their defenders should show attack-minded attitudes. Indeed, as Jimmy Murphy said, “Roger Byrne, in my opinion, was the forerunner of the modern back and set the present trend.”
With the coaches perhaps wanting to ensure his stunning form at full-back hadn’t been a flash in the pan, Byrne was given a run of games in the number 3 shirt at Central League at the start of the 1951/52 season before he made his first team debut in a 0-0 draw at Liverpool in November 1951 and never looked back.
Jimmy Murphy said of Byrne: “Roger Byrne, a superbly built athlete had already won a League Championship as a winger before he became our regular left back and captain.
“Tackling is still important of course, but there are not so many sliding tackles as there were. These days a back must be able to read a move so instead of going for the first tackle he can hold off and try to force the opposing wing man to go down the touchline. If he stays out there and the back stays with him the rest of the defence has a chance to re-group. Roger Byrne, who started this style, was a winger or inside forward before we converted him in a full back.”
Murphy would also say that Byrne would have been part of an England team that could have won the 1958 World Cup.
Byrne was that little bit older than the other Babes. And though his own career had benefitted from their guidance, he wasn’t so besotted with the teachings of Murphy and Busby that he wouldn’t challenge them. If he thought a tactical decision was wrong he would question it, whereas other players like Jones, and Colman, and even Duncan Edwards, believed so much in the word of their coaches that they wouldn’t even question it.
For Busby and Murphy, this made Byrne the perfect captain – someone who, whilst never exactly belligerent, was not indoctrinated enough by their methods that he wouldn’t ask why when told how high to jump. Though a defender by nature, Byrne’s attitude on the pitch and as skipper was similar to that of a Bryan Robson or Roy Keane.
United historian Roy Cavanagh recalls: “He was the perfect leader and captain of this team at this time. Even as a young lad, watching United then you knew he was in charge, Duncan was only 21 don’t forget. He was training at Salford Royal and did not seem to have a desire to go into management if he had lived. He had played 33 consecutive England matches at time of crash.”
As Murphy said, Byrne’s introduction into the first team mirrored his Central League transition, first of all starting him at left wing, before moving him further back once he had become acclimatised to the rough and tumble of first team football. That accounts for his goal tally gradually decreasing – after scoring 11 goals in his first seventy games, there were just another 9 in the following 210. Byrne played 280 times for United, with twenty goals.
Byrne was at his peak when the Munich Air Disaster took his life. Matt Busby described his captain as ‘majestic’. There is a reason why many historians name Byrne in their all-time best United team.
This article is part of a ‘Lost Babes’ series which will run through the following days. If you have enjoyed it, please consider purchasing the forthcoming biography of Jimmy Murphy, “The Man Who Kept The Red Flag Flying”. The book has been heavily researched and is the official biography of his life as authorised by the Murphy family.
Additionally, this series will not feature Duncan Edwards in great detail. So much has been written about Duncan that there was little point writing an individual feature about him, but he was featured in the first in this series which included Eddie Colman. Tommy Taylor will also not feature due to the intention of this series, to shine a light on those young players who came through the Central League, and to present some facts and figures that most supporters are unlikely to know.
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