On Saturday, Manchester United take on Blackpool in a fixture that harks back to a famous FA Cup final between the two clubs in 1948. In that year, United enjoyed their first success under a certain Matt Busby, defeating a Blackpool side boasting Stanley Matthews and Stan Mortensen, and doing so in some style. In the process, they established a template for daring, attacking football that would not be surrendered by the club, both during the remainder of Busby's reign and beyond.
The history of Sir Matt Busby is of course indistinguishable from that of Manchester United. He is the man who nurtured 'the Busby Babes', survived the tragedy of Munich when so many perished and then brought the European Cup to England for the first time in 1968. He is a colossus, a man who created a trio of legendary teams and who Sir Alex Ferguson has described "as one of the truly great football managers".
But 20 years before his third great side enjoyed their crowning glory at Wembley, and ten years before his second was so horribly and tragically torn apart in the Munich Disaster, Busby's first, and undoubtedly least-known team, established a legacy of success at a club that was far from being one of English football's dominant forces. Under the rule of the Scot, they would certainly become one.
FA Cup winners in 1909, United had not won a solitary piece of silverware since the Division One title of 1911, but all that was to change after the Second World War when the club appointed former Manchester City and Liverpool player Busby, who turned down the chance of becoming assistant manager on Merseyside. The Scot recruited Jimmy Murphy as his assistant - a man described by Bobby Charlton as "a brilliant teacher of players" - and a bond was formed that was to transform the face of United.
Under Busby and Murphy's control, United finished second in the first Football League campaign conducted after the war, the 1946-47 season, and the pair would not be denied silverware for long. Indeed, it came the very next season as United embarked on an FA Cup run that took them all the way to the final, where they would face a Blackpool side boasting the great 'Wizard of Dribble', Stanley Matthews, and forward Stan Mortensen.
Matthews, in particular, was a player of real repute. A genuine star of the English game, he would win the inaugural Footballer of the Year award that season. The FA Cup final was a chance to add to his storied career, 14 years and 34 games since his first appearance in the competition as an 18-year-old, playing for Stoke against Blackpool. The Guardian, in a piece of acute myopia, wrote of the man who would play until he was 50: "For Matthews, this final represents a special milestone in a great career. He has all the honours save one - a cup winner's medal - and, as things go, he may consider this to be his last chance to get one."
In 1953, at the age of 38, Matthews would return to the final and help inspire a memorable 4-3 victory over Bolton. Though Mortensen would score a hat-trick, the game became known as 'The Matthews Final', such was the beguiling brilliance of the outside-right, who would become the first footballer to be knighted.
Five years earlier, though, he had been thwarted. Busby had assembled his own talented forward line and the collective of Jimmy Delaney, Stan Pearson, Jack Rowley, Charlie Mitten and Johnny Morris became known as the 'Famous Five' of Old Trafford - the 1940s version of Charlton, Law and Best. Mitten, in particular, was an intriguing figure. An electric entertainer on the left flank of Busby's first great side, Mitten sparked huge controversy in 1950 when opting to join the cash-rich Colombian side Santa Fe, earning him the notorious nickname 'The Bandit of Bogota'. He returned to United but was suspended and subsequently sold to Fulham.
The presence of Mitten and his four talented contemporaries in 1948 meant that while, according to The Guardian, Blackpool "relies for its effectiveness on the brilliant improvisations of individualists such as Mortensen and Matthews", United had five players "who are all masters of combined manoeuvre and swift interchange".
With such attacking talent on display, it was no surprise that the match was receiving prominent billing in the press. Also newsworthy was Blackpool's preparation, as manager Joe Smith ensured his side trained in the familiar North West, and on Lytham promenade to be exact. "The grass is the nearest approach to Wembley turf you can find for miles round," he told the Mirror. "For weeks our team have been playing on pitches bare of grass. They must have some sort of preparation for the turf they will find at Wembley." The Blackpool team had to battle their way through crowds of people when reaching the train station and departing for Ascot.
When the day of the match arrived, United were as dashing as expected but it was Blackpool who took control of the game, goals from Eddie Shimwell and Mortensen giving them a 2-1 lead at half-time. Indeed, Mortensen's strike meant he had netted in every round of the competition. United's reply had come through Rowley, and Busby rallied his troops when telling them: "No need to worry about being a goal down, just go out and play the style of soccer which brought you here." In a dazzling last 20 minutes, that is exactly what they did.
The crucial goal came on 70 minutes when Rowley grabbed his second from a Morris free-kick. "Suddenly the thought came to me that this might be our last chance of drawing level," Rowley said. "I felt we must get that ball into the net somehow, else we'd never win. I saw it whip over fast. Blackpool still hadn't had time to take up position. Johnny rushed it too much for them. I threw myself at the ball ... and what a thrill to see it go in!"
With Matthews kept quiet in the second half by John Aston - whose son, also named John, would star for Busby's United in the European Cup final victory over Benfica in 1968 - goals from Pearson and John Anderson in the final ten minutes ensured a thrilling conclusion, the upshot of which was that the FA Cup was heading back to United for the first time in 39 years. As ever, though, Busby was not one for arrogant celebration. "Matt was not very demonstrative," goalkeeper Jack Crompton would reveal. "If you did well, he'd just pat you on the back. After the cup final, he put an arm around my shoulder. I knew I'd done my stuff. There were no words, though."
While Busby was reluctant to swamp his players with praise, the national press were not so reticent following an FA Cup final that was described as the greatest ever to grace Wembley. As well as United, Blackpool were hailed for the part they played in an enthralling game. The Mirror's correspondent wrote: "They [Blackpool] make history as one of the cup's great losers - as splendid in defeat as Manchester were in victory. For the teams from Lancashire gave London the most exhilarating cup final Wembley has seen."
Matthews, the wizard whose magic could not bewitch United, was pragmatic. "It's all in the game," he said. "What's the good of looking back to what might have been?"
His time would come. Instead, in 1948, it was United who were cast in the role of winners, and thanks to the wonderful career of Busby and the great sides he constructed, it was a role they became famously accustomed to.
What happened next? Busby lost Morris and Mitten at the turn of the decade but he began to turn his attention to the Old Trafford youth ranks, promoting a talented crop of players who would become known as the 'Busby Babes'. In 1952, United won the league title for the first time since 1911 and, in April 1953, the club handed a debut to Duncan Edwards - a player who, even at the age of 16, appeared destined for greatness. On February 1, 1958, 'the Busby Babes' beat Arsenal 5-4 at Highbury, with Edwards and Bobby Charlton on the scoresheet. It would be the last game the team would play together on English soil prior to the Munich Disaster.