Triumph, tragedy and the United Irishmen

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As the British European Airways twin-engine Elizabethan RMA readied itself for a third attempt to take off from Munich Airport, it was Johnny Berry who articulated the fears that up to then had remained largely unspoken among the Manchester United players. A fearless winger by reputation, Berry offered the opinion that the way things were looking, they might all die here on this German airstrip. Liam Whelan, such a religious man it was once rumoured he might leave football for the priesthood, remained stoic at the suggestion.

“If that’s going to happen,” said the Dubliner, “I’m ready for it, I hope we all are.”

That February night in 1958, three of the first-team squad were Irish. Harry Gregg proved the hero of that darkest hour, dragging some of his friends from the burning wreckage, Jackie Blanchflower suffered injuries that prematurely ended a promising career, and Whelan, well, he was one of the eight players who in death turned a mere football club into something much more important than that.

As the 55th anniversary of the tragedy looms next month, the date also marks the point in history when the relationship between United and Ireland was changed forever. Irish supporters of a certain age have always invested the demise of the Busby Babes with the same significance others accord the assassination five years later of President John F. Kennedy.

That the mercurial midfielder Whelan, cut down in his prime at 23, was among the dead, only added to the poignancy in Ireland. The outpouring of grief during his funeral on the northside of Dublin was the defining moment for a pre-pubescent Bertie Ahern. The future Taoiseach was brought along to watch the cortege make its way towards Glasnevin Cemetery. After that, there could be no other club for him, nor for so many thousands more of a similar age.

“My affection for United dates back to my earliest days, when as a young lad kicking a ball around on the streets of Drumcondra, I used to pretend to be Liam Whelan,” Ahern wrote some years ago. “There always seemed to be an Irish connection at United. I was always impressed by Matt Busby. He was a charismatic and dignified figure, a devout Catholic, and United were considered to be a Catholic club, which is another reason Irish people identified with them.”

Other English clubs have had fond and lengthy associations with Ireland, but none has endured and grown quite like this one. The first Irishman to play professional soccer anywhere was a Belfast-born left-winger by the name of Jack Peden. A petulant type, he plied his trade in Manchester in the 1890s, when the team that would be called United was still known as plain old Newton Heath. Seventy years later, an even more gifted left-winger from the same town as Peden, a kid by the name of George Best, would encounter success and excess in almost equal measure.

Between those two eras came Munich, and after that everything was different. The powerful symbolism of the catastrophe and its impossibly tragic storyline, stretching all the way to Whelan’s native Cabra, meant Irish people were inexorably and romantically drawn to United. Decades before Ryanair made cheap day-trips such an intrinsic part of the modern supporters culture, the Friday night boat trip to Old Trafford was already a type of hardcore pilgrimage for fans from all over the island.

Protestants and Catholics. From the North and South. Even in the worst of times, United provided a church where every Irish denomination found common ground and, to its credit, the club has always acknowledged this rabid constituency far across the sea. It’s difficult to think of any other English outfit asking a Dubliner to parade his freshly won World Snooker Championship trophy at half-time on the pitch as United did with Ken Doherty (a devout red) back in 1997.

Of A different timbre, the monetary value of the link can be gauged by the match programme a few years back containing a Mastercard advertisement urging Irish fans to get a credit card with the slogan Ar aghaidh libh, lads. Way before the intrusion of slick marketing, however, this bond went deep.

“Matt Busby loved Ireland and I think he felt that Manchester United should go over there at least once a year,” said Paddy Crerand, a Scot of Irish descent. “Our first game after winning the European Cup was friendly in Dublin, a testimonial for Liam Whelan’s brother. You have to remember that one in three people in Manchester claim some sort of Irishness. Matt was honorary president the Irish club in Chorlton, and he didnt hold the position just for the sake of it.”

That the city had long-standing historical ties with Ireland no doubt helped in the strengthening of the union. Even before the Great Famine struck, one in ten Manchester residents were Irish-born, and today the city hosts Britain’s largest annual Irish festival. That a preponderance of Irishmen have worn red at crucial junctures through the decades also explains the intensity of the rapport. While every United fan has his or her own personal epiphany, there are games that remain landmarks for all, and nearly every one of those came with Dubliners, Corkonians or Belfast boys operating in key roles.

Ten years after Munich, more than a quarter of the first XI that defeated Benfica in the European Cup Final were Irish, and one of them, the peerless Best, was the hero of the hour. Thirty-one years later, Roy Keane sat out the Champions League triumph over Bayern Munich through suspension, but his outsized heroics and Denis Irwin’s quiet brand of excellence made such a contribution to the treble season that somewhere along the way Sir Alex Ferguson picked up an impressive knowledge of Cork geography.

“Denis says Roy is from the rough part of Cork, and Roy says Denis is from the rough part of Cork,” said Ferguson. “I don’t know exactly who to believe here, but there is obviously a little bit of competition in the parts of Cork they come from.”

Funny as it may seem to hear him discussing the merits of Keane’s Mayfield and Irwin’s Togher, there was a time Irish fans worried about Ferguson. In the years after the departures in quick succession of Frank Stapleton, Kevin Moran, Paul McGrath and Norman Whiteside, before the arrival of the Cork duo, a bizarre legend grew up that Ferguson had something against the Irish. Ignoring the obvious fact that Whiteside was a Protestant from east Belfast, the ludicrous notion was predicated on Fergusons perceived anti-Catholicism.

In its way, this was as misguided and wrong-headed as the belief in a different time that Busby’s faith caused him to discriminate in favour of the Catholics in his charge. Busby’s staunch personal Catholicism, and his closeness during his formative years to his maternal grandfather, an Irish immigrant by the name of Jimmy Greer, formed the unwieldy premise for that fallacy. In practice, Busby, like Ferguson, picked the best players, regardless of affiliation.

As with any long-standing affair, there have been some rocky spells. When JP McManus and John Magnier began buying up shares in United through their company Cubic Expression, it looked for a time as if the Irish were finally, officially, going to take over Old Trafford. Unfortunately, that whole episode degenerated instead into an unseemly and drawn-out soap opera involving Ferguson, the fertility rights to a horse, myriad protests, and the eventual selling-on of the stake to American Malcolm Glazer, a final act that didn’t exactly endear the Irish investors to the United faithful.

If having so many Irish stars has always provided a lineage to which supporters could lovingly adhere, there is also a sense of genuine comradeship between the players themselves too. Despite coming from very different backgrounds, Whiteside and McGrath became fast friends once they met at Old Trafford, and Eamon Dunphy tells a wonderful story about himself as a young apprentice being taken into the confidence of the veteran Cork centre-half Noel Cantwell for no other reason than they shared a nationality.

The different eras tend to interact. Thirty years or so after making his United debut in a friendly against Bolton Wanderers in Cork in 1963, Crerand was introduced to a man who claimed to have lost his job because he took a half day from work to go to that game at Flower Lodge. The man’s name was Mossie Keane. His son Roy ended up with his face plastered on to the white part of the Irish tricolours that vendors sold outside the ground on match days.

From Peden to Best, from Cantwell to Keane, the line is drawn and somewhere in the middle stands Liam Whelan. Back when he first arrived at the club, the 18-year-old neophyte met Johnny Carey, another Home Farm alumnus, and the then club captain asked the kid his name.

“Liam, is it?” enquired Carey. “Well hold on to it for as long as you can. They’re sure to take it away from you here.” The boy who had been christened William but was known as Liam became Billy Whelan by the time he died. And that’s the name they etched on the memorial plaque at Old Trafford, the one that remembers the tragic day when United and Ireland were changed forever.

 

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