“Forever a Babe: Growing Up With Manchester United” is the story of boy growing up in a working class family in post war Manchester surrounded by poverty, hardship and a football club being rebuilt almost from scratch. From his first days as a pupil at St. Augustine’s right up to the horror of the Munich Air Disaster, Tom Clare chronicles the highs and lows of his family life together with Manchester United Football Club in this 368 page paperback published in 2009.
Notwithstanding the Munich tragedy, Tom describes the hardship suffered by his father upon losing his sight, the love of the game of football encouraged and engendered by his grandfather and the difficult relationship between the former and latter which typified proud working class men of the period. Tom also reflects on the disturbing effects caused by the Manchester Education Committee’s insistence that he leave home for 6 weeks due for a period of convalescence at the tender age of 9.
But this is not Angela’s Ashes. This is a story with as much humour here as tales of escapades with fellow urchin Brian Walsh are related to the reader. The discovery to Tom at such a young age that football was not only escape from the drudgery of the day, but the gateway to another life is vividly told, and in doing so the landscape and imagery of the period is uniquely captured in the narrative.
From how families living on top of each other survived in the harshest of conditions by being streetwise, to the messianic pull of a football team on the rise. And it’s a commitment to detail which truly makes this a remarkable book. From anecdotes about goalkeeper Jack Kelsey to describing Jack Irons, the United mascot walking around Maine Road on those famous pioneering European nights, it these things that put the reader at the centre of the action.
But the centrepiece of this book is Tom’s match going experience and his almost Pepys’ like recounts of individual games from the emergence of the Busby Babes to their final destination. The chapter on the game against Bilbao at Maine Road in 1957 raises hairs on the back of your neck.
Other highlights are the anecdotes about the players and the human face that this book gives them, players that were accessible, unassuming and naturally gregarious, particularly among fans that idolised them. And too, the lengths that Tom and Brian would go to procure tickets for Catholic priests raised smiles. It is said that pictures tell stories. On the rear cover, there is a picture of the author as a goalkeeper for St. Gregory’s Under 13 team. It was suggested that David Pegg was a young Victor Mature. The urchin looking goalkeeper could have been an extra alongside Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces.
The book concludes with a personal homage to a team decimated by tragedy and it starts with the rebuilding process by Jimmy Murphy, his creation of The Fourth (and forgotten) Great Team, a personal tribute to Duncan Edwards and a final tribute to those heroes. As much as Manchester United fans will learn more about those times by reading this book, I found myself wanting to know more about the Author and his journey beyond his own heartbreak at the sudden loss of his heroes.
Manchester United fans with a real desire to gorge in the history of the club will want this book but more than that, this is a man’s love of the game as it was and a period document of the city.
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