THE GREAT MATCH AT HIGHBURY
The United side that faced Arsenal was the eleven that was to line up against Red Star four days later. With Irish international Harry Gregg, a new signing, in goal, United were without some of their regulars. Jackie Blanchflower, the centre-half who had replaced Ray Wood in goal in the FA Cup Final, was missing from the side along with wingers David Pegg and Johnny Berry and the creative inside-forward Liam Whelan, all of whom are being rested by Busby.
The two full-backs were Bill Foulkes and captain Roger Byrne, with the half-back line of Eddie Colman, Mark Jones and Duncan Edwards supporting the forward line of Ken Morgan, Bobby Charlton, Tommy Taylor, Dennis Viollet and Albert Scanlon.
Jack Kelsey was in goal for the Gunners and he was first to feel the power of United. Only ten minutes had gone when Dennis Viollet laid off a pass to an advancing Duncan Edwards who struck the ball with such ferocity that it was past Kelsey and in the net despite the efforts of the Welsh international. The goal was typical of Edwards. His power and strength had become a hallmark of his game despite his youth. Duncan was just 21, yet had played for England 18 times and represented his country at every level. In his short career with United he played 151 games and that first goal on that February afternoon was his 19th and final League strike.
Arsenal fought back, urged on by the huge crowd, and it took a superb save by Gregg to prevent them from equalising. He somehow kept out a certain scoring chance by grabbing the ball just under the crossbar and his clearance led to United's second. The ball was pushed out to Albert Scanlon on the left wing and he ran virtually the full length of the field before crossing. Two Arsenal defenders had been drawn into the corner by the United winger and his centre found Bobby Charlton running into the centre from the right. Charlton's shot was unstoppable and all Kelsey could do was throw up both arms in a token gesture as he dived to his right, but the shot was past him and the young Charlton was turning to celebrate the Babes' 2:0 lead.
By half-time it was 3-0, and again Scanlon's speed had played its part. The winger broke down the left, rounded Arsenal right-back Stan Charlton and crossed to the far side of the pitch where right-winger Kenny Morgans met the cross and chipped the ball back into the penalty area. England centre-forward Tommy Taylor scored his 111th goal in the First Division after five seasons with United.
United seemed to be on their way to a comfortable victory, ready to take four points away from the London club following a 4-2 win in Manchester earlier in the season. High scoring clashes between the two seemed commonplace, United having beaten Arsenal 6-2 on their way to the 1956-57 Championship. Was this to be another massive victory for the Babes?
For 15 minutes of the second half there was no further score, then Arsenal took heart when David Herd, later to be a United player, broke through and hit a fierce shot at Gregg's goal. The big Irishman tried to keep the ball out but Herd's power and accuracy beat him. It was 3-1 with half an hour remaining.
Within two minutes the scores were level as Arsenal staged a sensational fight back. Wing-half Dave Bowen was the man driving Arsenal forward. It was from his cross that Herd had got the first of the home side's goals and he was involved in the move, which led to the second Arsenal strike. Vic Groves jumped above the United defence to head down a cross from Gordon Nutt which fell to Jimmy Bloomfield, who scored. It was Nutt again who made the pass to Bloomfield some 60 seconds later for the London-born striker to dive full length and head home a magnificent goal which turned Highbury into a deafening stage for the final drama.
No scriptwriter could have dreamt up the plot for the last chapter of the Babes' challenge for Football League supremacy. No one in that arena knew that they were witnessing the last magnificent demonstration of sheer genius, which had taken English - and to a certain extent European - football apart in that decade. Under Busby the Babes had created a new style, a game that was refreshing, flowing, entertaining, and a game which was putting England back on the map after falling to the skills of the Hungarians and the Brazilians in the early and mid-1950s.
Would United collapse under the Arsenal onslaught? Lesser teams would have been forgiven if they had defended in depth to hold out for a draw, having seen a three-goal lead disintegrate, but Manchester United went all out in search of more goals, and got them.
The speed of Scanlon and the skill of young Charlton combined to give Dennis Viollet a goal. The Manchester supporters screamed their delight, and were in raptures a few minutes later when Kelsey had to retrieve the ball from his goal for a fifth time, after Eddie Colman had found Morgans with a precise pass and Tommy Taylor had scored his last goal.
Yet even then this magnificent game had not ended. Derek Tapsfott ran through the centre of United's near exhausted defence to put Arsenal within one goal of United again. But it was the final goal of the afternoon. The referee blew for time and the players collapsed into one another's arms. United, their white shirts mud-spattered and clinging to their breathless bodies, shook hands with the opposition and each other. Supporters on the terraces embraced one another as a reaction to the sheer enjoyment of the game, and the massive crowd left the stadium with a feeling that they had witnessed something unique in football.
Fate had decided that for fans at home this game would be the epitaph to those young heroes of Manchester. In the weeks which were to follow many words would be written about the greatness of Busby's Babes and in the years which have passed since the Munich air disaster. They have become legendary characters, but that 5-4 scoreline, in a game played with all the passion and creative expression those tens of thousands had watched, said all that needed to be said as far as the ordinary football fans were concerned. They knew they had seen something special in Busby's young cavaliers.