The Munich crash had claimed the lives of eight United players – and two more were maimed so badly that they never played again. Matt Busby – the team’s master and leader – was hovering between life and death in a German hospital so Jimmy Murphy, his assistant manager, took control. He needed to find players because, as well as normal league matches, United had a FA Cup match to play against Sheffield Wednesday in less than a fortnight.
Jimmy cast around urgently for reinforcements – and one was Stan Crowther, described as a tall, wiry, abrasive and inelegant Midlander. He was also an England under-23 international wing-half who had faced United in the Wembley showcase only a year earlier, working unflaggingly as Villa won 2-1. Now, for a £18,000 fee, Stan moved from Aston Villa to Manchester United. Shortly after Ernie Taylor, a scheming inside-forward, arrived from Blackpool in time for the reconstituted Red Devils’ first match. Normally the FA prevented anyone figuring in their knockout competition for different clubs in the same season but, in this situation, they waived their rule and Stan could play.
So – on the night of Wednesday 19th February 1958, in front of an unbearably emotional Old Trafford crowd of 59,848 supporters, a team with two Munich survivors; two newcomers and seven reserves/third-team players; United set to their task. Stan Crowther applied all his characteristic grit and vigour to achieve midfield domination, Manchester United beat Sheffield Wednesday 3-0 to reach the FA Cup quarter-finals.
United went on to beat West Bromwich Albion and Fulham to reach the FA Cup Final for the second year running. There, with Stan Crowther still in the side, Murphy’s heroes tried their hardest against Bolton Wanderers. It was not to be. Bolton’s centre-forward Nat Lofthouse scored after two minutes and, despite having a fit Bobby Charlton on the field, United could not score. Bobby did have one shot that hit the post and bounce back into the Bolton goalies’ arms. Three minutes later Harry Gregg made a terrific save which bounced back and was put into the net by Nat Lofthouse.
So – United lost 2-0 to Bolton Wanderers – but their achievement of getting to Wembley at all was a magnificent one.