- Years: 1951-1958
- Appearances: 280
- Goals: 20
- Honours: First Division Championship (1952, 1956, 1957)
Roger Byrne played almost 7 seasons for Manchester United before his death due to the Munich air disaster. Prior to his death he had captained United for 2 years and was widely touted to be the next captain of the English football team after the incumbent captain Billy Wright had retired. Fate though had other plans and he was one of the 8 Busby Babes that lost their lives while returning on the ill-fated flight from Belgrade.
Roger Byrne joined Manchester United as a youngster but rose quickly through the ranks to break into the first team within 2 years as part of Sir Matt Busby’s youth experiement. His first team debut for United was at Anfield alongside fellow youngster, Jackie Blanchflower and the pair promptly received the moniker of “Busby Babes” by the press. Sir Matt appreciated the mature start made by Byrne and even predicted that he would make the English squad and once there, it would be impossible to get him out. His words were eerily true.
Byrne made his debut for England against Scotland in 1954 and appeared in every England international fixture since then till his untimely death in 1958, earning a grand total of 33 international caps in consecutive games, a record that stands to this day. Byrne started as a left wing player but was quickly moved down to left full back where he spent the rest of his days playing for club and country.
It is a testament to his ability and utility that he played on the left in spite of being a right footed player. Though Byrne typically played a full back position, his role and playing was more akin to the modern day sweeper. At a time when full-backs were expected only to stand and defend, Byrne frequently made forward runs and joined his team’s attacking raids. Byrne was not the most astute of defenders – his tackling was circumspect and his aerial ability was at best average. In fact, Byrne disliked tackling and considered it as a last option, depending on his pace to retrieve the ball.
He maintained that the full backs should bide their time, backing away from the winger and placing themselves between the ball and the goal. The key was to make the winger where you wanted him to go. If one were to break down the individual aspects of his game he would come across as a pretty average footballer. It was however an amalgamation of his skills and attitude that made him one of the best defenders in England at the time.
Byrne was highly respected for his work ethic making tireless runs on the pitch for the entire duration of the game. Byrne made up for the lacunae in his footballing skills by blistering pace – both physical and mental. He was quick to read situations and anticipate danger and then move swiftly to counter it. There was hardly a winger in the entire competition who could outpace Byrne down the flanks. His highly developed football intelligence that allowed him to get into position quickly and react to danger swiftly set him apart from other defenders of his era.
Above all else, though, were his exceptional leadership skills. As a captain he possessed the ability to inspire his team and drag them fighting and screaming over the line. A dynamo of energy, Byrne inspired his team mates also to give more than 100% and that translated to results on the field. He was a born leader and even though he was only 28 when he died, he was a father-figure for the younger team members.
A man of integrity, Byrne commanded respect from his team and though his treatment may have been harsh at times, everybody knew it was for the best of intentions. It was not for nothing that even after half a century of his death he was still considered one of the best captain’s United have ever had. Byrne was the important conduit between the players and Sir Busby. He was afraid of no one.
Not even the manager. Many sources have stated how the manager and the captain had heated exchanges about how things ought to be. Yet the two had the utmost respect for each other and that is what made the relationship work so beautifully. The players looked up to Byrne and liked how he was not afraid to stand up to even the manager for what was right. In fact, Sir Matt himself was a bit wary of Byrne because the latter did not take anything lying down. He was always the middle guy – fighting the club’s battles with the players and the players’ battles with the club.
A little known fact about Roger Byrne is his highly superstitious nature. Roger captained his side in their 5-4 win over Arsenal at HIghbury on 1st February 1958. That was to be his final match for the Busby Babes on British soil. Though he had picked up a minor thigh strain that was though to rule him out of the trip to Yugoslavia, Byrne recovered in time to make the fateful trip to Belgrade for the European Cup quarter final and led United to a 3-3 draw, which secured them a semi-final spot in the competition for the second year in a row.
On the return journey, the plane carrying the team stopped to refuel in Munich and after two failed take off attempts, crashed on the third attempt. Byrne was instantly killed in the crash. He had been married the previous year and never knew that he was to become a father to a son, eight months after the crash. Byrne’s death along with 7 of his team mates shook the very foundation of Manchester United. Sir Bobby Charlton maintained that had Byrne not died prematurely, he would have most definitely led England to a World Cup in either 1958 or 1962 while United would have become European Champions in 1958.
Amongst his many achievements was leading United to the FA Cup final in 1957. The team eventually lost to Aston Villa. Post match, Byrne commented, “Never mind, we’ll be back next year.” True to his word, United returned to Wembley the following season. Byrne, unfortunately, never did.