BY KAUSTUBH PANDEY
The Munich Air Disaster in 1958 brought the city of Manchester to its knees. The tragedy, which claimed the lives of eight of Manchester United’s stars, brought about gloom over a city that seemed to be rejoicing in the club’s recent successes and their rise to prominence. The cheers were replaced by grim silence.
While it’s obvious that every player who passed away was a vital cog in Sir Matt Busby’s wheel at Old Trafford, the loss of Duncan Edwards was the one that was felt the deepest. The man from Dudley had made his United debut at the age of 16 and perished at the tender age of 21 when many felt Edwards would go on to become one of the best players in the world. Fate, sadly, had other plans.
Another who failed to survive the crash was Eddie Colman. He defined how Sir Matt Busby wanted football to be played under his management. It was impromptu and instinctive; ideal for Colman’s bright persona both on and off the pitch.
Colman’s roots lay in the working class area of Salford. For him, grafting was an art in itself to be enjoyed and embraced. His grandfather served in the British Army during the First World War. Because of his height, or lack thereof, he served in the bantam battalion – an army unit made up of soldiers below the normal minimum requirement of 5 feet 3 inches for new recruits. Most likely that’s where Eddie inherited his diminutive proportions from. His father was a short man too but was renowned locally as an inside right; his skill and ability a genetic gift from his father.
The Colmans lived in a two-up-two-down house at 9, Archie Street, Salford – a place that would later become famous as the fictional home of the formidable Coronation Street matriarch, Elsie Tanner. Young Eddie honed his skills in and around the area with his cousin Albert, also a good player, eventually catching the eye of several clubs including Wolves and Bolton, yet it was a stroke of (bad) luck that brought the precocious youngster to the attention of Manchester United. One day, whilst playing in an old air raid shelter, he fell and hurt his back for which his team – the famous Salford Lads Club – were able to send him to Old Trafford to have seen to by the club’s medical team, such as they were back then.
Busby and his assistant Jimmy Murphy were soon impressed with Colman’s confidence and trickery on the pitch and saw enough in him to think that he could become another piece of the plan to create a youthful, vibrant team capable of beating anybody at home and abroad for years to come.
The boy matured quickly after signing for Manchester United in 1953 – he led the youth team to three successive FA Youth Cups and in 1955 his first team debut followed, his lack of stature and experience proving no barrier to progress in Busby’s grand scheme.
Very soon his midfield partnership with the physically imposing Edwards came to the fore. Their different statures and styles complemented each other’s.
Edwards was versatile and could be employed anywhere on the field to great success; he possessed physique, fitness and intelligence. Above all, he was a leader – a rare quality for someone so young.
Colman acquired the nickname ‘Snakehips’ for the way he swivelled and swerved about with the ball. His movement oozed elegance and class; his work-rate made him the complete player in the middle of the park.
He made a couple of dozen appearances in his first season as United won the league in 1955-56. He doubled that tally the following year as the Busby Babes – as they had become known – retained the title and reached the final of the FA Cup, a game which they ended up losing 2-1 to Aston Villa.
The most notable element about the way United were being run wasn’t the fact that they played a brand of football that the players loved and thrived on, it was that it was crafted without the need for a raft of big money signings. Harry Gregg and Tommy Taylor were United’s only two significant incomings in the five-year period from 1952. The majority of this modern phenomenon was made up of homegrown stock like Colman, Edwards, Mark Jones, Jackie Blanchflower and Roger Byrne.
Busby’s footballing ideology insisted on making play simpler and less clunky. The kick and rush approach to the English game had become tired and predictable. He insisted that his players expressed themselves whilst retaining a winning mentality to go with the artistry. Busby gave birth to an ethic that the club is still proud of today. Simply put, Manchester United in the 1950s played football that lifted people out of their seats.
While Edwards was considered one of the world’s best talents, Colman’s presence helped made him tick. His lion-like will and grit handed Edwards the licence to thrill and decimate the opposition whenever he wanted. He had little burden to track back but all the pleasure to bomb forward whenever he had to or felt like.
Yet despite whoever they were or how good they were, none of the players had the audacity to question Busby or any of his decisions. He was, in actuality, ‘the Boss’. His decision was final.
Everything about Manchester United caught the public’s imagination so they seemed like the perfect club to represent England and take the continent’s elite teams in the newly established European Champions Cup competition. People at home believed United were the best there was and the 1956-57 season was seen as the perfect opportunity to test the legitimacy of that. United trounced Anderlecht 12-0 on aggregate, beat Borussia Dortmund 3-2 and staged a terrific comeback to eliminate Athletic Bilbao by coming from 5-3 down to beat them 6-5 in the tie. Standing in their way in the semi-final was Alfredo di Stefano’s Real Madrid.
Jimmy Murphy once said of Colman that there was ‘no better tackler in the game’ than him. Therefore, it came as no surprise that 20-year-old Colman was handed the task of marking di Stefano – 10 years his senior – in both legs of the contest. He did a good job; well enough to justify Murphy’s praise.
Despite a commendable show from United and Colman, Real Madrid progressed to the final where they beat Fiorentina to win the crown. Busby was left to lament a missed opportunity to get what was, thus far, missing. The next time the Busby Babes reached the semi-finals of the competition, the outcome was one that no one could have ever imagined.
The side matured from the previous campaign. While they had aged by just several months, they had learnt lessons mentally. Colman scored in the first leg of the quarter-final against Red Star Belgrade, it was the second of the game in a 2-1 win at Old Trafford. He came up with another impressive showing in the second leg, helping United go through 5-4 on aggregate, despite a stirring Red Star comeback.
And that was the last time, in the public eye at least, that Colman’s cheeky smile and mop of shiny black hair were ever seen.
On their way back to Manchester from the Yugoslav capital, the United squad landed at Munich to refuel their plane. Their journey had started an hour later than planned as Johnny Berry had lost his passport. The Munich Reims Airport had been inundated with snow which made the ground slippery and icy.
The plane tried, and failed, to take off twice, but there was an ominous aura about the third attempt. Minutes later, the plane slipped across the runway, crashed into the airport fence and collided into one of the houses adjacent to the airfield.
It is said that the Busby Babes and Colman didn’t die that day. They became immortal. Not just for Manchester United, but for football. They met a tragic end when their best days were yet to come; when they could have gone on to conqueror the world. But life, like football, can be unfair.
While what was once Colman’s house in Archie Street became famous on a television show, the old town has come a long way since then. It still carries the marks, blemishes and austerities of what it used to be; its pride lies in the times gone by and the joy in what it currently is.
The path that Colman took to reach Old Trafford, across the Ordsall Bridge, is now a bustling media centre. If there’s anything left in the town to indicate that it was the home to one of the best tacklers world football has ever seen, it is a hostel facility that the University of Salford provides for its students. It’s named after Colman and is called the ‘John Lester and Eddie Colman court’.
If it were a player of the modern-era and not someone like Colman, things would have been very different. But as great as he was and as great as he could’ve gone on to be, Colman doesn’t need gilded statues of recognition. It is his spirit and that of the Busby Babes that remains the legacy of Salford and Manchester.
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