50 Years On – Mark Jones
That the “Busby Babes” were the glamour team of their era is beyond doubt. Sir Matt had quietly introduced his youngsters into First Division football between the 1952 – 53, 1953-54, and 1954-55 seasons. It had taken three years to assemble this array of mercurial young talent, and there had been some setbacks along the way as his young apprentices came to terms with First Division football. By the start of the 1955-56 season his young team had an average age of around 22-23 years – unheard of in those times. Talk to people about the “Babes” today and they will automatically come up with the names of Edwards, Taylor, Byrne, Colman, Pegg. But just as there has been unsung heroes in all of Fergie’s past and present United teams, so it was with the “Babes.” The man I am going to write a few lines about was certainly an unsung hero, but he was as essential to the “Babes” team as has been Vidic, Ferdinand, Stam, Bruce, Pallister, McGrath, McQueen, Buchan, Holton, who played in the United teams that followed afterwards.
To meet Mark Jones was an absolute pleasure. He was so quiet, unassuming, modest, down to earth, and could even be termed shy. He was born in Barnsley, Yorkshire on June 15th 1933 and once again, details of early childhood are buried in the mists of time. What is known though, is that he developed into an outstanding young schoolboy footballer. A no nonsense type of centre half. He was so good, that he captained not only his school team, but also his City Boys team, Yorkshire Schoolboys, the North of England Schoolboys and finally, England Schoolboys. So it was no wonder then that he had come to the attention of many of the top clubs in England. He had only thoughts of joining Manchester United though because his idol was Allenby Chilton, the United centre half. I think that it is true to say, that Mark was certainly one of the “original Busby Babes” when he signed amateur forms for United in the summer of 1948.
He would travel over from Barnsley twice a week to train with the juniors at the Cliff. It must have been a tiring experience for him because after leaving school, he also apprenticed as a bricklayer – hard work in a time when Britain had started to rebuild immediately after the war years. The work helped Mark fill out physically and before too long here was this big strapping young teenager standing over 6 feet tall and weighing around thirteen stones with the physique of a heavyweight boxer! He progressed through the junior teams and in the summer of 1950, finally signed professional forms for United. In the autumn of that year, 7th October to be precise, the day that he had dreamed about arrived when he was selected to make his first team debut against Sheffield Wednesday at Old Trafford in a team that read; Allen; Carey, Redman; Gibson, Jones, McGlen; Delaney, Downie, Rowley, Pearson, McShane. United won 3-1 that day and it’s interesting to note that Harry McShane, actor Ian McShane’s father, was amongst the goal scorers. He was to play a further 3 more games that season and was never on the losing side defeating Everton 4-1 at Goodison, Arsenal 3-1 at Old Trafford, and the return fixture against Wednesday at Hillsborough 4-0 – a terrific start to his football career at top level. He was to play a further 3 games in season 1951 -52, United’s first Championship winning season since 1911, and again, he never finished on the losing side. But unfortunately, three appearances didn’t qualify him for a winner’s medal. In 1952 – 53 he played two games, only this time, he tasted defeat for the first time in both games.
It was in early 1953 that he also left to do his two years National service and he never figured in any first team games again until after his demobilization in early 1955. That he’d been kept out of the first team before call-up by his boyhood hero Allenby Chilton, must have been of little consolation to him, but Chilton’s remarkable consistency of form and fitness over a period of four years when he was well into his thirties, was of tremendous credit to the older player. It has to be stressed that Chilton had a great effect on shaping the player that Mark was to become as he honed him into the centre half that United needed. Chilton’s days came to an end in early 1955 after some bad defeats – two of which were in games that I saw against Manchester City. I had attended my first ever “derby game” at Maine Road in late September 1954 when City won 3-2. On February 12th 1955, I watched my first “derby” game at Old Trafford, but it was a disaster for me, and United, as City went “nap” winning 5-0. The following week on February 19th, United were away to City again in the fourth round of the F.A. Cup and once again, City triumphed by 2-0 in a game that United really dominated but suffered because of their wastefulness in front of goal. It was also a game that saw Chilton sent off for foul and abusive language to the referee – how would the referees cope in today’s modern game! What an introduction for me to “derby” matches! Chilton’s last game for United was at Wolves the week after that Cup tie and once again United lost by 4-2. For the next game, because of Chilton’s suspension, Mark played his first game at senior level for two years and was to make the position his own from then on
There was certainly no frills where Mark Jones was concerned. He was a bone crunching tackler and majestic in the air and after he had won the ball, there was no just hoofing it upfield as many of the centre halves back then were want to do. He was quite content to play it simple and give the ball to Colman, Edwards, Viollet or Whelan who could use the ball much better than he could. He was certainly a stopper, and he was very adept at it. For a former bricklayer, he became the rock, the cornerstone of the defensive stonewall!
There is a little bit of a myth that abounds in United’s history that the centre half position was complicated by a continual battle between Mark and Jackie Blanchflower for the number 5 shirt. This simply isn’t true. Mark was virtually ever present during the 1955-56 season when the “Babes” secured their first Championship win. He was also almost ever present in the 1956- 57 season, until a knee injury in the sixth round F.A. Cup tie at Bournemouth in March of 1957 kept him out of the team. Jackie Blanchflower had played most of his career at inside right for United, but he was very versatile player, and Busby had experimented with him at centre half once or twice in the Reserves. Ronnie Cope was normally Mark’s deputy, but after the Bournemouth game, Busby went with Blanchflower, who it has to be said, played so superbly that he couldn’t leave him out. Blanchflower played for the rest of the season winning a championship medal and also playing in the F.A. Cup Final, and he also played into the November of the following season, when a dip in his form allowed Mark to reclaim the number 5 shirt which he kept until the time of the tragedy.
After he was demobbed from the Army, Mark had married his childhood sweetheart June and they had settled down to married life in the Flixton area. It was well known back then that Mark Jones and Jackie Blanchflower were close friends; so much so that Jackie was best man at Mark and June’s wedding. He was never a man for the bright lights and after a game it was commonplace to see him emerge out of the main entrance wearing his trilby hat, smoking a pipe, and the gabardine raincoat. The pipe smoking was the point of a lot of banter from his young team mates who christened him with the nickname “Dan Archer” after the character in the famous “Archers” BBC radio programme. Off the field he was such a mild mannered person, quiet, and loved nothing better than to get off home to June, his labrador dog whom I think was named “Gyp” and his newborn baby daughter. He also had a passion for breeding budgerigars which often led to other bouts of mickey taking from his young mates. But he took it all in his stride. “The Gentle Giant” was a nickname given to the late, great, John Charles back then, but it was also a name that would describe Mark Jones so aptly.
He put in some tremendous games for his beloved club and none more aptly than that glorious night at Maine Road when United triumphed over Bilbao in the European Cup. The Spaniards threw everything they could at United that evening, but they could not breach the defence at which he was the central lynchpin. He faced some of the toughest and hardest centre forwards of his era, but none ever baulked him – household names of the time like Lofthouse, Ford, Hickson, Milburn, Revie, Swinbourne, Allen, Wayman, Bentley, Smith. Unfortunately fate decreed that he would never ever realize his ambition of playing for his country. He was called up into an England party when he was named as a reserve but that was as far as it went – no subs or place on the bench back then. That dream would, I am certain, have been realised as he was certainly knocking on the door at the time of the tragedy. I also believe that had he lived, Billy Wright would not have reached the figure of 105 caps for England.
My own experience of meeting Mark came on a couple of occasions through schoolboy football. In 1957 my school team had reached the final of a knockout competition and it was played at Newton Heath Loco in the Newton Heath area of Manchester. For us kids that night, it was like the experience of professionals reaching Wembley – an enclosed ground, nets, referee and linesmen, a large crowd (we played before the start of a game between Manchester Catholic Boys and Liverpool Catholic Boys) and we were all so starry eyed. My school team lost that Final by 4-2, and although I was disappointed at losing, I had played fairly well. It was great consolation to me that the medals were presented by Mark, and that for me was just thrill enough. I couldn’t wait to receive mine and as I did, he handed me the medal and ruffled my hair saying in his thick Yorkshire accent, “well played young ‘un.” In November of 1957, he again did the presentations for a school’s 5-a-side competition which was held at The Proctor’s Gymnasium and Hulme Lad’s Club in Hulme, which my school side won. That night he had the Labrador dog with him and it just sat at his side as he spent time with all the kids, signing every bit of paper that they put in front of him. Here was an established United player giving of his free time to schoolboy football in the Manchester area. He was such a very gentle man off the field.
June, his wife, was five months pregnant with their son Gary at the time of the disaster. After it happened, the Labrador dog pined for him so badly and died in the March just a few short weeks afterwards. I have great memories of him playing for United and as I said at the beginning, he really was one of the unsung heroes. The doughty stopper, the uncompromising centre half, the archetypal pivot, the seam of Yorkshire granite. Most of all, I remember a man who loved his family, loved his club and was indeed a very gentle giant.
Sleep on in peace Mark – never forgotten.
Mark played in 121 games in all competitions scoring just 1 goal.