Town legend can never forget Busby Babes

Ipswich Town were the last team to play at Old Trafford before the Munich air disaster on February 6, 1958. The tragedy claimed the lives of eight of the 'Busby Babes' including five who had featured in that FA Cup fourth round tie just 12 days earlier.

Nick Garnham

Ipswich Town were the last team to play at Old Trafford before the Munich air disaster on February 6, 1958. The tragedy claimed the lives of eight of the 'Busby Babes' including five who had featured in that FA Cup fourth round tie just 12 days earlier. Nick Garnham speaks to John Elsworthy, who was in the Town team that day

FIFTY years on from the tragedy that rocked world football, John Elsworthy still struggles to make sense of the loss of life.

Elsworthy and Ipswich Town gave a good account of themselves in front of 53,550 fans - the biggest crowd to ever watch an Ipswich match at that time - before losing the cup-tie 2-0.

Just 12 days later five of that team - Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, Duncan Edwards and Tommy Taylor - together with Geoff Bent, Billy Whelan and David Pegg were killed.

They were among the 23 of 44 passengers who died as the plane carrying the United team, club officials and journalists, crashed on take-off at Munich, West Germany as they returned from playing Yugoslavian side Red Star Belgrade in a European Cup tie.

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Elsworthy, who still lives in Ipswich with wife Ann, recalled: "We felt dreadful. We were devastated. They were such a lovely bunch of fellas. It just happened so suddenly.

"The players at Ipswich could not believe it. Players went around in a trance. Having only just played against them some of the players took it very badly."

United, then as now, were one of the best club teams in the world with a host of international stars.

Ipswich, similarly, were playing in the second tier of English football, and not expected to put up too much resistance against their illustrious opponents.

However, it was not until Bobby Charlton scored his second goal of the game five minutes from time that United confirmed their place in the fifth round.

Elsworthy's memory of the quality of the United side remains undimmed by the intervening half century.

"That was a team that you could never better. They just had so many good individual players.

"Duncan Edwards was big and so strong. There were players with more ability but he was such a powerhouse. The player to come closest to him since has been (Ipswich Town's) Kevin Beattie, but Edwards was the better player. He had more finesse."

Welshman Elsworthy, one of only three players in the Ipswich side that day who are still alive - Reg Pickett and Derek Rees are the other two - still looks very fit for a man of 76, and he shows it too, as he gets up out of his chair to demonstrate what made the young Charlton such a special player even then.

Moving sideways across the room of his Ipswich home to illustrate his point as he speaks with great enthusiasm, Elsworthy recalled: "In my day you had to be good over two yards. He would make room for himself and be gone. He had electrifying pace and you could not do anything about it."

While there was no doubting the ability of the United side, the match itself was in severe doubt beforehand.

Nine inches of snow had fallen in Manchester and from the Thursday morning before the game 100 men and bulldozers are reported to have worked solidly to clear it.

By the Friday evening very little snow remained, but the Old Trafford floodlights at the four corners of the ground were left on all night to help the thaw.

At five o'clock on the Saturday morning it apparently started to rain and by 11am the pitch looked more like a lake than a football pitch. The groundstaff forked the pitch to drain away the water.

One Ipswich newspaper reported: "The surface consisted of an unholy mess of water, sand and half frozen earth which rapidly became churned up into something like the consistency of the mud you see if you look over Bourne Bridge."

Elsworthy recalled: "The pitch was like a quagmire. They wanted to play it but the game should never have been started. Travelling was very difficult in those days and it would have meant us travelling up to Manchester again, but they wanted to get it over with.

"The conditions were very difficult. I don't know whether that favoured us or them, but it made it difficult for our style of play."

The sprightly septuagenarian is on his feet again, this time to illustrate his role in the team, collecting the ball thrown out by the goalkeeper, controlling it and then playing the ball up to what are now known as the strikers, and running on to support them.

"We still got beaten, but if it had been played on a good surface we might have been beaten by more!" he said graciously.

"They were a great side and we were a Second Division side, just promoted from the Third Division, and lacked maturity and experience, so they had everything going for them.

"We were certainly the underdogs, but I think we surprised them. Alf Ramsey had them watched before we played them and knew we were going to be up against it, and it was a question of us putting on a good show.

"Although our chances were very remote we were a much better side than they expected and we shook them a little bit.

"It was not a very exciting game, but we did not disgrace ourselves, and if Ted Phillips (who missed most of the season through injury) had been fit and played we could have even brought them back to Portman Road. I am sure Ted would have got clear of their defence and when he got within 20 yards of goal there was always a good chance he would score."

Charlton's second goal, which came after Town's Jimmy Leadbetter had hit a post with United goalkeeper Harry Gregg beaten, went in off Elsworthy, who reflected: "The deflection did not make a lot of difference - it would have gone in anyway."

Ipswich took more than 3,000 fans and Elsworthy said: "You could hear them quite clearly in amongst the crowd.

"I guess it would be similar to if Ipswich played at Old Trafford now - it would be a big day for them."

Alongside the match at Tottenham in Town's 1961-62 First Division Championship-winning season - Town won 3-1 against the previous season's double winners in front of 51,098 fans - Elsworthy said it was the biggest match of his career.

"The Manchester United game was special because cup games always had a different atmosphere. You could have the same number of people watching at a league game but not the same atmosphere.

"It was the biggest crowd I ever played in front of. I don't think it made any difference to me because when I played the pitch was my domain and I concentrated so much on the game. There could have been 100,000 there and I would not have known.

"The bigger the crowd the better so far as I was concerned because you could not hear the cat calls!" he mused.

The following Saturday - February 1 - United won 5-4 at Arsenal while Elsworthy and Ipswich lost 3-1 away to Bristol Rovers, and by the time he arrived home around 11pm he had missed the birth of his son Martin earlier that evening.

John and wife Ann, who have two children - Martin, who is the golf professional at Rookery Park near Lowestoft, and Jane - and a 16-year-old grandson, Jack, were at the time living in a cottage in the grounds of the cemetery in the town's Cemetery Road, and he was often seen riding his bike around town.

Ann was still confined to bed five days later when news of the tragedy filtered through on television.

Asked if he still thinks about the events of 50 years ago, Elsworthy said: "It is like everything else - it comes and it goes.

"We truly felt sorry for the players who did not make it. It is something I will never, ever forget.

"Something like this had never happened before and you just hope that it will never happen again."


FA Cup Fourth Round

Saturday, January 25, 1958

Manchester United 2 Ipswich Town 0

Goalscorers: Charlton 39, 85.

Manchester United: Harry Gregg; Billy Foulkes, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, Duncan Edwards; Ken Morgans, Bobby Charlton, Tommy Taylor, Dennis Violet, Albert Scanlan.

Ipswich Town: Roy Bailey; Basil Acres, Kenny Malcolm; Reg Pickett, Dai Rees, John Elsworthy; Billy Reed, Doug Millward, Tom Garneys, Derek Rees, Jimmy Leadbetter.

Attendance: 53,550.