Tag Archives: Cardiff City

The day I saw the Bluebirds play the Busby Babes

It was one of the first professional football matches I ever saw. It may even have been the very first.

The awesome magic of Manchester United was at its height back then, not just in the way they played but in the sense of expectation, admiration and sheer wonder that they inspired in spectators. My Dad took me to Ninian Park that day, 27th April, 1957, to watch United take on the team that had already infused my bloodstream with deep, irreversible loyalty and passion, the ‘Bluebirds’, Cardiff City. The teams were in the First Division, the highest tier at the time, way before the inception of the Premier League. Nine months later, two of the United players I watched would be killed in the Munich air crash. Three others were rescued by Harry Gregg.

I was reminded of that day earlier this week by the announcement of the passing away of the legendary Irish goalkeeper. Reputations were harder to earn in the days before headline writers assumed control of the national psyche. Harry Gregg wasn’t in goal that day, his place taken by Ray Wood. Quite honestly, I remember very little about the match, which is a pity, as it was obviously a bit of a nail-biter. (As a very young lad, I think I found the spectacle of the near-deafening noise of so many supporters, the vastness of the stadium and the atmosphere of seriousness and passion even more interesting than the game. My Dad kept encouraging me to watch what was going on on the pitch!).

I haven’t found any full match report, but I have discovered the timings of the United goals. They scored in the 43rd, 86th and 90th minutes. So it looks as though my beloved Bluebirds were probably 2-1 up with four minutes left on the clock. Irish international Liam Whelan, who was one of those who tragically died in Munich, scored in the 43rd minute. That would be a good time (maybe) to bring the scores level at 1-1 (I don’t know). Another guess: Cardiff went ahead again in the second half. But Scottish international Alex Dawson scored in the 86th minute, that much is sure. And Liam Whelan finished us off by scoring from the penalty spot on 90 minutes.

Liam Whelan died at the age of 22. Eddie Colman, who also played in the game I watched, was another who perished in the disaster. An England international, he was just 21. The only Welshman to play that day, Colin Webster, would certainly have gone on the Munich trip if he’d been fit, but he had ‘flu and couldn’t go.

It’s difficult to describe the depth of national mourning – across the whole of Britain – that surrounded that disaster. There wasn’t quite as much of the mind-numbing, media-fed tribalism back then. There had been twenty-three deaths in total, including players, crew members, club staff and journalists. Manager Matt Busby survived, but the list of famous players who died also included David Pegg, 22, Mark Jones, 24, Geoff Bent, 25, Tommy Taylor, 26, and team captain Roger Byrne, 28.

So when it was revealed that Duncan Edwards seemed to have survived, a collective sigh of relief went around grieving football fans. He was a true “Busby Babe”, only 21 on the date of the crash. He was without doubt one of the most admired players in the United squad, arguably in the whole of England, despite having had a couple of ‘dodgy’ games just prior to the crash. I can’t improve on the Wikipedia section on him headed Style of Play. He was highly talented all around the park and played 177 games for the club.

Although Match of the Day didn’t launch until 1964, I’d often see Manchester United featured on sports reports on TV. Now millions tuned into news broadcasts on the BBC Home Service (precursor of BBC Radio 4) to hear the latest updates. Initially it appeared that Duncan Edwards would recover from his injuries. As the situation with the other survivors – and most notably that of Matt Busby himself – became clearer, the whole focus of news reports about the crash eventually switched to the condition of Duncan Edwards (see right – photo of the statue of Edwards in the centre of his home town of Dudley). Every morning, I’d wait for the 8.00 am news broadcast. Invariably it included an update on Edwards’ condition, such was the level of public interest. At first things looked good and after the first week he seemed to be making a recovery. But then reporters became less optimistic. His condition took a turn for the worse. On the morning of 21st February the lead story told of his death, which had happened overnight. That was a highly emotional moment for me and millions of others. I don’t want to overstate the extent of national mourning, but looking back it does have just a tinge of the kind of feelings engendered by the deaths of John Lennon and Princess Diana. That’s the way I remember it, anyway. I think emotions were heightened by the two weeks he spent fighting to survive.

Although tributes to Harry Gregg were fulsome, for me they didn’t entirely do him justice. “He went back into the ‘plane and saved a number of people” doesn’t really describe his courage. And he was a very courageous player, by the way. Those were the days when ‘keepers were far less protected by the rules of play. It was perfectly legitimate to barge into a goalkeeper and bundle him over the line. Nowadays I sometimes wonder if giving a goalkeeper a dirty look can result in a red card.

Trapped in the wreckage at first, Gregg managed to prise himself out of the twisted metal. He ignored shouted orders to get away from the plane for fear of explosion. In fact, he clambered back into the shattered shell of the blazing aircraft to undertake a series of rescues. Amongst those he pulled to safety were Vera Lukić, pregnant wife of a Yugoslav diplomat, and her daughter, Vesna, together with the three other players that I’d seen play – Albert Scanlon, Ray Wood and Dennis Viollet – as well as Jackie Blanchflower and the now-legendary Bobby Charlton. According to reports, Charlton and Viollet were unconscious, Gregg dragging them from the plane by the waist-bands of their trousers.

Sport, in general, and football, in particular, has a way of creating lasting memories, whether for the onlooker or the participant. My memory of the match I attended has all but faded; but what happened nine months or so later, and the aftermath, will stay with me as long as I live.


Image credits

Busby Babes last match – public domain – see https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Busby_babes_last_match.jpg

Munich crash –
Deutsch: Crash des BEA Fluges 609 am Flughafen Riem, MünchenFotofuzzy1 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Duncan Edwards
ChrisTheDude / CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)

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The art of the half time rant

Warning: this piece contains language which you may find offensive

For spectators, the blowing of the ref’s whistle at half time in a football match usually signals the start of discussion and analysis, or a chance to stand and stretch one’s legs, to look around, maybe weave a way past the people seated on the same bench in the direction of pies, Mars bars and hot, sweet tea or even an opportunity for a natural break. It’s a time to relax, to calm down after the exhilaration or disappointments of the game’s first half.

Meanwhile, in the dressing room, things can be very different …

The rant is a largely unremarked form of discourse, but it seems as capable of moving men to great feats of achievement as some of the finest oratory. It can be controlled or uncontrolled. Adolf Hitler knew a thing or two about the power of the controlled rant, as have many other dictators. Comedians sometimes use the rant as a format that they know can make someone look ridiculously funny. And, in everyday life, the uncontrolled rant is often an outpouring – in the home or business context – of feelings that have for too long been bottled up and can no longer be contained.

But the half time rant is different. First, it takes place within a limited time frame. The manager has just fifteen minutes to persuade his team that they can turn a losing situation into ultimate victory.

It could be suggested that the ranter should strike a balance. If the rant is too harsh, he perhaps risks doing more harm than good, making the team feel cowed and beaten, ashamed and de-motivated. aristotleIf too weak, the players will brush it off and emerge back onto the pitch with the same attitudes as those they had when they left it. The manager’s objective should be to build his tirade to a crescendo, which peaks in its force as the players leave the dressing room, re-invigorated, determined, inspired. Only by so doing can he persuade these young men that they can and must win the game.

Aristotle was the philosopher who most comprehensively laid out a theory of persuasion. In Rhetoric, he reviews what he sees as the three types of rhetorical proof which should be used by the rhetorician (in this case, the manager) when attempting to win an argument: ethos, in which he must generate respect and credibility amongst his audience; pathos, in which he appeals to the feelings and emotions of his audience ; and, logos, whereby he applies logic and reasoning to the problem which is being faced. More specifically, Aristotle advises on how to handle different kinds of audiences. It is easy to change the opinions of the young, he says – they are creatures of desire and easily satisfied; but they hate to be belittled, longing to achieve superiority.

Well, that’s the theory … but sometimes a manager employs a less emollient approach, as here, when manager John “Sitts” Sitton pulls no punches with a team that is already 3-0 down.

Secondly, the rantees are in no condition to fight back. After forty-five minutes of physical exertion, the players are – or should be – in need of time to recover. Although there’s only one ranter and eleven rantees, it’s very much a one-sided contest of wills. The manager, sat in the dug-out or on the bench, has had plenty of time to discuss, analyse and rehearse. A good manager must know his players like a good general knows his troops. Clearly he needs to know the game – the moves and tactics that are available to him, his players’ strengths and weaknesses. But as a key part of his leadership role he must develop psychological strategies that he can adapt to different circumstances. After all, there will be good times and bad times.

artofwarIn The Art of War, Sun Tzu lays emphasis on the need for generals to adapt to different circumstances: “If generals do not know how to adapt advantageously, even if they know the lay of the land they cannot take advantage of it. If they rule armies without knowing the arts of complete adaptivity, even if they know what there is to gain, they cannot get people to work”.

No doubt the management teams of the more successful Premier League clubs are very skilled in adapting both physiological and psychological strategies based on sports science theories to motivate their players effectively. This short video demonstrates different approaches adopted by Peter Reid and Bobby Saxton at various points in Sunderland‘s 1996/97 season:

The touchline antics of some of the more high profile managers do make one curious, though, about what kind of conversations take place, even at the very top of the game, when the whistle goes for half time. I can’t believe it’s sweetness and light in many dressing rooms. Indeed, the half time rant has become so legendary in the game that it’s even found a place in TV drama.

In 2001, Ricky Tomlinson starred in Mike Bassett: England Manager, a fly-on-the-wall, comic “mockumentary” which satirised the way the England team was managed and the media coverage that it attracted. In 2005, it was turned into a TV series. One of the most memorable moments from the film was Bassett’s half-time team “talk”:

Bassett was resurrected in a piece in the Daily Mirror at the time of the ill-fated appointment of Sam Allardyce as the real England manager, offering this sensitively-worded piece of advice to the new general: “Like many of your predecessors: Steve McLaren, Glenn Hoddle, Kevin Keegan, Graham Taylor – you too have never won a major trophy, so you are ideally suited to the job”.

In his time as Peterborough United‘s boss, Barry Fry‘s was also a leading exponent of the ranting genre, though some might say that on occasions his real world rant was every bit as extreme as that of the fictional Bassett:

Maybe the greatest half time ranter of all time was Bryan Clough. Sadly, it looks as though we’ll never be able to make a proper assessment. I’ve been unable to find any videos that show him in action. But if one is looking for circumstantial evidence that he was the supreme ranter, it’s not hard to find …

Neil Warnock was appointed to manage my beloved Bluebirds (Cardiff City) earlier this season. He had some initial success, though the team is still perilously close to the bottom of the Championship. But there’s still a long way to go. Warnock is highly experienced and, as we’ve seen, a master of one of the most useful rhetorical arts, the half time rant.

I just hope that when the final whistle goes at the end of the season, all the ranting can be put aside and celebrations begin!

Image credits
: Aristotle, after Lysippos [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Art of War: original uploader was Kallemax at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


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Filed under Cardiff City, Football, Psychology