What has the Northern League ever done for us?

#1 Manchester United

At the time of the Munich air disaster Manchester United had hopes of becoming only the third English club to win three successive league titles. Six points behind Wolverhampton Wanderers with 14 games left to play, they’d also just reached the fifth round of the FA Cup and their second European Cup semi-final in a row. When the plane skidded off the Munich runway, twenty-three people lost their lives and Matt Busby’s team was decimated, with eight dead and two – Jackie Blanchflower and Johnny Berry – who would never play again.

Short of players and with fixtures to fulfil, Busby, who had coached Great Britain in the 1948 Olympics, turned for help to the man who captained his side to fourth place in the London games. Bob Hardisty, a defender who had won seven Northern League titles and three FA Amateur Cups with Bishop Auckland, arrived at Old Trafford along with two of his Bishop teammates, Derek Lewin and Warren Bradley. All three played in United’s reserve team, Hardisty doubling up as a coach. “Just stand in the middle of the pitch and give the youngsters the benefit of your experience. There’s no need to do anything else at all,” Busby told him. The three Northern League men made their Central League debut against Burnley in front of a crowd of 11,000. “I remember being amazed at the crowds thinking we must have been brought to a first team game by mistake,” Lewin said. “They said the gate was 11,000 but there must have been as many as that still outside.” Lewin, another three time FA Amateur Cup winner who had also represented Great Britain in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, returned to Auckland at the end of the season and later became a director at Blackpool.

Right-winger Warren Bradley, though, stayed on, signing a part-time contract when Busby recovered from his injuries and returned to work. After making his first-team debut against Bolton Wanderers, he turned out for the Reds a total of 63 times, scoring 20 goals. In May 1959, little over a year after playing in the Northern League, Walter Winterbottom selected Bradley to play for England on their tour of Mexico and the United States. He played three times, scoring twice.

A knee injury would cut short his Old Trafford career, Bradley losing his place to Johnny Giles before moving on to Bury. He took up a teaching post in Stretford – “All I really wanted was to be a headmaster,” he said shortly before his death in 2007.

The help Bishop Auckland gave Manchester United is still remembered at Old Trafford. When the Two Blues play their next evening fixture at their new Tindale Park ground, they’ll run out under a set of floodlights donated by the club they lent three players to over half a century ago.

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