Bert Whalley and Manchester United
After moving to the club from Stalybridge Celtic in May 1934, Bert made his Manchester United debut against Doncaster Rovers at Old Trafford on 30 November 1935. The match ended in a 0-0 draw before a crowd of 23,569.
In a playing career cut short by WWII, during which he played for United and Bolton Wanderers in unofficial wartime competitions, and injury, Whalley went on to make 32 League and 6 FA Cup appearances for Manchester United. His final game for Manchester United was at home to Blackburn Rovers in Division One on 19 April 1947. This resulted in a 4-0 victory before a 46,196 crowd. With Old Trafford out of use due to war damage this game was played at Maine Road, Manchester City’s ground at the time.
Central League winners medal
Whalley was by now the longest serving professional at Old Trafford and in 1946-47 he led the reserves to the Central League championship. The Manchester Evening News of 18 March 1947 said of him; “The experience of Bert Whalley is a real asset to Manchester United…. signed from Stalybridge Celtic in 1934. His transfer cost nothing, but he has turned out as an invaluable utility player – as pivot, wing-half and even full-back.”
In his final first team game the Manchester United side was Jack Crompton, Johnny Carey, John Aston senior, Jack Warner, Whalley, Henry Cockburn, Jimmy Delaney, Johnny Morris, Jimmy Hanlon, Stan Pearson, Jack Rowley
Manchester United had ended the 1946-47 season as runners-up in Division One but nevertheless Matt Busby took seriously the comment of Jimmy Murphy, who had managed the successful Central League side that season, when he told him there was not one reserve who could strengthen the first team. Busby replied; “in that case we will have to find our own youngsters.”
Later in 1947, Whalley, who according to Jimmy Murphy, manager Matt Busby’s assistant, always describe described himself as “just an honest trier”, was coaching some schoolboys at Stockport County when a miskicked ball hit him in the eye. The player did not complain until on the way to a reserve match at Newcastle United, he confessed that he was having trouble with his vision.
On visiting a Tyneside hospital, he refused to be kept in and returned to Manchester for treatment. On Christmas Eve 1947, a depressed Whalley faced losing his sight in one eye and the end of his football career. It was then that Matt Busby showed one of the reasons why he was a great manager by demonstrating loyalty. Busby, who had become manager at United in 1946, told Whalley that when left hospital he had just the job. In August 1948, Whalley replaced Arthur Gale as the man in charge of Manchester United’s ‘A’ side, the third team at the club.
Manchester United won the FA Cup in 1948 and over the next three seasons (1948-49 to 1950-51) Manchester United finished twice in second place and once in fourth. They won the title in 1951-52 but when they slipped back to eighth in 1952/53, Busby undertook a major reshuffle as the emphasis moved to youth with Duncan Edwards, aged 17, Jackie Blanchflower, aged 20, playing regularly in 1953-54. Tommy Taylor was signed from Barnsley. Dennis Viollet, aged 20, scored 11 goals in 29 appearances. David Pegg, 19, played nine games and Bill Foulkes, 21, made 32 appearances. 22-year-old Ray Wood became the number one goalkeeper.
Aided by the experience of Roger Byrne and John Berry, Manchester United won the title in 1955-56 with a side known as the ‘Busby Babes.’
The search for talent
Busby explained what was key to the success. ‘We search relentlessly for young talent. Jimmy Murphy and Bert Whalley are two of the finest spotters in the land. We look for boys who have decent ball control, who can pass, and shoot, show ball sense and some form of positional play, and are useful with their headwork. These are the bare fundamentals and we look for a boy’s qualities that will enhance this development, namely keenness and love of the game. These will ensure he will spend hours perfecting his ability, and ride the inevitable disappointments, and avoid arrogance.
“Our greatest asset is the floodlit practice ground at Salford. Here, on Tuesday and Thursday evenings we coach the youngsters who have just left school. Jimmy Murphy and Bert Whalley are in charge. I take charge when I have the time. In the practice matches here, the lads get an early sense of our system and tactics. We prefer to produce a few new players.
“When the youngsters have developed sufficiently, they join senior practice sessions….this ensures that the young players are ready for the big day when they play in the first team…………..I estimate that 80 per cent of our ‘Babes’ turn out well…”
The faith that Busby placed in Murphy and Whalley and also Joe Armstrong, the Manchester United chief scout, served him well as Manchester United again won the title in 1956-57 and also reached the FA Cup final.
It was also the season when Busby refused to be deterred by the ‘Little Englander’ attitude of many of the football authorities and politicians who felt English teams should not enter the new European Cup competition that had kicked off in 1955-56. Manchester United did well in the competition in 1956-57 and were beaten by a quite brilliant Real Madrid side in the semi-final.
The two sides both reached the semi-final stages of the competition in 1957-58. What a final that would have been! But, as we know, by the time of the final many of the Busby Babes and one of the men who helped them to develop into the stars they were – and still are, 63 years on – in Bert Whalley had tragically lost their lives at Munich on 6 February 1958.