After a memorable European Championship qualifying campaign in which England won every game, confidence will be high when they embark on France in the finals. At the helm should be the Manchester United and England captain, Wayne Rooney, and if England are to add to their historic 1966 World Cup triumph then England's record scorer will be pivotal, as he has been throughout his career. The final will take place on the 10th July, 2016 and twenty days later will be the 50th anniversary of England's memorable victory at Wembley.
That Rooney will be one of the focal points of the team is a strange twist of fate, as one of the stars of the 1966 team was none other than Sir Bobby Charlton, who was the record goal scorer until Rooney recently surpassed him. These two United and England icons will not be alone in representing England. Rooney could be joined by Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Michael Carrick and Luke Shaw, if he recovers from injury. John Connelly and the larger-than-life Nobby Stiles accompanied Sir Bobby in the final England squad. In addition, a former player and future manager, Wilf McGuinness, was also assistant to Sir Alf Ramsey adding to the United connection.
Nobody can predict if Rooney and co. will go down in history, and what part United's players will play if they do, but looking back almost half a century ago history and United's contribution is well documented. It is well known that Sir Bobby and Stiles played in the final, but Connelly played his part albeit very minor. In the first game against Uruguay he started, but as the game ended rather drably 0-0 it inspired Sir Alf Ramsey to go forward revolutionary without wingers. As Connelly was a winger, that would be his solitary contribution as Sir Alf's 'Wingless Wonders' went on to lift the trophy. With no substitutes in 1966, there was no opportunity to add to his initial appearance.
Nobby's contribution was huge, and no more so in the semi-final. He was tasked with the job of stopping the great Eusebio. The younger generation may not remember Eusebio, but he is up there with the greatest who have graced the game and Nobby nullified him to perfection, although the Portuguese did net a penalty. The game has changed beyond recognition, and in today's game Nobby possibly wouldn't have stood a chance. A hard, uncompromising, tough tackling midfielder in today's game Nobby probably wouldn't have got to half time without an early bath. Even in the old days, getting close to a player of Eusebio's class was no mean feat and Nobby did enough to enable England to triumph. He never looked like a footballer, with his receding hair and lack of front teeth, but he played well in the final and his celebratory jig after the game will forever be remembered.
Sir Bobby Charlton
Sir Bobby also made a huge contribution to the overall success. He scored England's opening goal in the tournament in their first win against Mexico, a trademark blockbuster from outside the area. He also got both goals in the 2-1 semi-final win over Portugal, including another rasping shot. His contribution to English football and to the tournament in general is never going to be forgotten. Although Geoff Hurst is the first player you think of when you think of 1966, the first goal against Mexico was so important and Portugal were arguably a better team than West Germany, so Sir Bobby's goals were vital in setting up the triumph.
So United players got some headlines in England's hour of glory. But for Sir Bobby, there was probably mixed emotions. As would be the case two years later, when United reached their holy grail and won the European Cup for the first time, his thoughts would be with players he played with many years earlier, some of whom he should have been sharing his joy with.
'The Busby Babes', or at least a large number of them, had perished in the Munich Air Disaster in 1958 and they were never away from Sir Bobby's thoughts. They have never been away since. Considering he is one of United's all time greats, for him to hold some of his team mates who perished in such esteem, including Duncan Edwards, the player he described as the best of all time, speaks volumes. It also poses questions as to what the England squad would have looked like had the Munich tragedy not occurred.
Roger Byrne, Duncan Edwards, Tommy Taylor, David Pegg, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones and Geoff Bent all perished. Of those, Byrne, Edwards and Taylor were already established as England internationals, while David Pegg had made one appearance. In truth, it is likely that Duncan Edwards would have been the only guarantee to have taken a place in the final in 1966, barring injury, but there was certainly a case for some of the others.
In 1966 Byrne would have been 36, so in all likelihood would have been retired or certainly out of contention for a squad place. The player who occupied the left back position in the '66 final was Ray Wilson. He was considered a good footballer, and his pace and ability to support attacks his strong points, but his career at club level was not one that stood out. Byrne was quick, a great footballer and he read the game. He was also the captain of 'The Busby Babes'. He still has the distinction of holding the most consecutive England caps after debut, a record of 33. But for Munich, he would have undoubtedly extended that record. His was expected to be the successor to Billy Wright as England captain before fate intervened. If he didn't play in 1966, he may have prevented Wilson coming to prominence years earlier.
Geoff Bent, if he was at any normal club in 1958, would have had a great may appearances to his name and would have been a first team regular. In doing so, he would have put himself in contention for international honours. He was considered an extremely talented player, but his misfortune was to have to compete with Byrne for a place in Manchester United's first team. Although he was a left back, he could also play right back and his record of 12 appearances for United over a seen year period is scant reward for his talent. He died at the age of 25, and it is not inconceivable that had he established himself at United or away from Old Trafford he may have played his way into international reckoning and in '66 even at 33 he may have been a factor.
Like Bent, Mark Jones was 25 years old when he died. Unlike Bent, he was a permanent fixture in United's vibrant, exciting consecutive title winning side. He featured in an England squad, but never made an appearance and that was largely due to the England legend Billy Wright, who played in his position at centre half. He was widely tipped to earn international recognition, and considering Wright retired in 1959 (playing for England that year) at the age of 35, then assuming Jones continued playing for England's finest club team, he could well have featured for the national team on the biggest stage of all. Jack Charlton was a late developer in terms of England, and while it was likely that Jones' career would be winding down, he could have lined up alongside Bobby Moore.
David Pegg made his debut for Manchester United as a 17 year old. Think Norman Whiteside. Think Ryan Giggs. To play for United at 17 is no mean feat, but to establish yourself as a regular from that tender age tells you all you need to know about how good Pegg must have been. Like Giggs, he was a left winger and played more than a hundred times for United. He made one England appearance, but as with Mark Jones had a legend in Tom Finney to compete with. Finney retired from England duty in 1958, so Pegg would in all probability been his natural successor. He would have been 30 in 1966, and could possibly have been playing against Uruguay instead of Connelly. It was said that after the great Real Madrid team defeated United in the 1957 European Cup semi-final, Madrid made a new full back a priority as they were so impressed and worried about Pegg in future encounters that would surely follow.
Eddie Colman was nicknamed 'snake hips' on account of his wicked body swerve, and was another outstanding young talent. He was also the youngest player to perish in Munich aged just 21. When he died, he had not been capped by England, but that would have surely only been a matter of time. Over a hundred appearances for United, two League title medals, Colman actually scored in the first leg of the ill-fated semi final with Red Star Belgrade. He would only have been 29, but if his career would have stayed on track then he could certainly have featured. He was a right half, and by the time the final came along, he would have been competing with Nobby Stiles for the position of defensive midfielder, or possibly Alan Ball at right midfield.
Yet another player that would probably have missed out due to age, rather than ability. At the time of his death, Taylor was one of the finest centre forwards in the world. His goal scoring record was phenomenal both for club and country. Sixteen goals for England in nineteen appearances is an incredible record and aged just 26 his best years were still to come. Sir Matt Busby turned down a world record transfer from Inter Milan bid for his services in 1957, and that outlines how revered he was in world football. The great Nat Lofthouse played for England at 33, but Taylor would have been competing with the prolific Jimmy Greaves, Sir Geoff Hurst and Roger Hunt and father time would have probably had the final say.
"The greatest of them all" said Jimmy Murphy, Sir Matt Busby's legendary assistant. "The only player I ever felt inferior to" said Sir Bobby Charlton. The only thing that would have stopped Duncan Edwards lining up in 1966 would have been injury. The only question for Sir Alf Ramsey would have been which position to select him. Essentially a left half, Edwards could play anywhere and quite often did. He was a man as a boy, making his United debut at 16 - the youngest ever in the English top flight - and he was 18 when he made his England debut. Again, the youngest ever to represent England, a record that stood until Michael Owen made his debut in 1998. He is still regarded as the greatest Manchester United player ever by many a good judge. Sir Bobby says he is the greatest player ever, full stop. He would have most likely succeeded Billy Wright as captain when Wright retired, and would probably have been the one to lift the Jules Rimet trophy aloft and not the great Bobby Moore.
Dennis Viollet and Albert Scanlon were also on the plane, and survived. They both started in the semi-final, and Viollet scored United's first goal. Viollet was top scorer in the European Cup in 1956-57 and still holds United's record for most goals in a season plundering 32 in 1960. Although they resumed their careers with United it is impossible to say how much the disaster took it's toll mentally. Viollet played twice for England, scoring once, and played until 1962 for United. Scanlon left United in 1960, but his career slowly went downhill. Had it not been for the disaster their careers may have continued at the highest level. Scanlon would have been 30 and Viollet 32 in 1966. Even Wilf McGuinness' career would have been different. His career ended with a leg break at the age of twenty two, but the crash changed Manchester United intrinsically. He could have been playing and not coaching England as he had already represented England before his own personal misfortune.
Although the complexity of the squad and United's involvement could have been greater or maybe different in 1966, history would have no doubt been changed, because whether or not England could have benefited in 1966 or not, they most certainly would have in both 1958 and 1962. The last international England played before the disaster included Byrne, Edwards and Taylor in a 4-0 victory over France. Taylor netted twice. Their loss was felt in Sweden, as England failed to win a solitary game. They drew all three games with the Soviet Union, Brazil and Austria and were eliminated to the Soviet's in a play off. The loss of two potentially future captains and one of the best strikers in the world was sorely missed. Ironically, Sir Bobby played his first two internationals in the wake of Munich, scoring three goals as England beat Scotland 4-0 and Portugal 2-1 (Charlton got both), but he didn't play a minute in Sweden.
In 1962, England lost to Brazil in the quarter finals. Included in the squad at this time along with Charlton were Ray Wilson, Bobby Moore (both who played), Gordon Banks, Jimmy Greaves, John Connelly and Roger Hunt - all of whom would play their part in 1966. However, the three United stalwarts would have been at their peak or close to it, and in all likelihood would have been joined by some or all of the names mentioned that were involved in the crash. The average age of the 'Busby Babes' was 21, and given that they were on the cusp of conquering Europe at such a young age, then by the time 1962 came along, they would have provided a large chunk of the England squad in 1962, just as the great Liverpool team in the 70's and 80's or the United team in the 90's and early 2000's did latterly.
Manchester United can be proud of the connections that helped England to conquer the world in 1966, but it is not so fanciful to suggest that England may have reached the football summit either four or even eight years earlier had tragedy not struck, with United's influence at the heart.