50 Years On – Ray Wood
Ray Wood is a name often forgotten about whenever the “Busby Babes” are mentioned. The signing of Harry Gregg in December 1957 seemed to signal the end of Ray’s career at Old Trafford, but personally, I would never have bought into that theory. At the time of the tragedy he was still too good a goalkeeper not to have bounced back. However, Harry’s heroics at Munich tend to overshadow the part that Ray Wood played in the “Busby Babes” story.
Ray began his career as an amateur with Newcastle United but after failing to make his mark at St. James’s Park, in 1949 he moved on to Darlington where he signed as a professional. His stay at Feethams was short – just three months in duration. However, during that three month period his performances for Darlington were such, that he came to the attention of Manchester United and they secured his signature for a 5,000 pounds fee. For the affable young Geordie it was a dream move. United had bought him with more of an eye on the future, but because of injuries he was immediately pitched into the fray in a First Division game against Newcastle United at St. James’s on December 3rd 1949 in a game that finished 1-1.
He went back to the Junior teams after that and began learning his trade as understudy to Jack Crompton and Reg Allen. There was not much chance for him to progress his ambitions over the next few years and it was not until the 1952/53 season that he started to see more first team opportunities due initially to Allen’s retirement through injury, and Crompton’s intermittent form. Ray was a versatile sort of player and as was the want back then, there did at times seem to be some strange selections as junior players were shuffled about in the “A” and “B” teams as the coaches worked out which position they were best suited for. He was given a run at centre forward in the “A” team for three games and raised some eyebrows when he scored six goals in those few appearances! He was extremely quick off the mark and surprised a number of defenders with his pace. What they didn’t know though was that in earlier days he’d been a professional sprinter up in Northumberland amongst the various pit villages where he “dashed for cash.” His speed was an asset with his goalkeeping and he was probably the quickest goalkeeper of his era when it came to moving off his line.
He finally cemented his place in the first team in the 1953/54 season and his performances began to make the England Selectors take note. He was certainly in line for nomination to the England World Cup squad of 1954 but sadly for him, a broken wrist towards the end of that season put paid to his international chances. England came back from that World Cup in Switzerland with their tails between their legs, but when the next season began, Ray was selected for the first home international against Northern Ireland at Windsor Park, Belfast in October 1954 and ended in a 2-0 victory for the English. It was a feather in his cap really as at that time there was so many good English goalkeepers around – Merrick of Birmingham, Ditchburn of ‘Spurs, Williams of Wolves; all great goalkeepers in their own right.
Wood continued to play exceptionally well for United. He was as I said, exceptionally quick off his line and had great anticipation and a safe pair of hands. His bravery was unquestioned and was a terrific shot-stopper. If he did have a fault, it was coming for crosses and sometimes could be found hesitant. However his strengths outweighed his weakness and he was integral to the team that developed and won two consecutive championships in 1956, and 1957.
I suppose that the thing Ray will most be remembered for was the 1957 F.A. Cup Final against Aston Villa when he was on the end of the most horrific, premeditated, and violent assault, that I have ever seen perpetrated upon a football pitch. Just six minutes into the game, in a Final of which United were red hot favourites to win, McParland, the Villa left wing, headed a ball tamely into Wood’s hands. The ball was already safe in Ray’s capable hands but McParland continued to charge through, launching himself through the air and connecting with his head into Wood’s face, shattering his cheekbone. He took no real part in the game after that even though he wandered around for a while on the left wing as a little nuisance value. At half time, with the score 0-0, Sir Matt sent physio Ted Dalton outside of the stadium with Ray, the object being to throw a ball at hime a number of times to see how he reacted. They went out onto the grass verge and Dalton began throwing the ball to him – poor Ray hardly saw any of them. As they finished this little exercise, a young boy who had been playing football on the verge just a short distance away from them, meandered over and said; “Mister, you can come and join me and my mates in our game if you’d like to!” Just yards away, 100,000 spectators were all awaiting to see if Wood could rejoin the United team in goal for the second half of the F.A. Cup Final. Unbeknown to them, here he was being offered a game in kid’s football! Ray did go back out onto the field but not in goal. United fell behind by 2-0, ironically to two goals scored by McParland. However with 8 minutes to go, Taylor pulled a goal back from an Edwards corner and Wood returned back between the sticks as United went all out on the attack to try and pull back the one goal deficit. Great effort though it was, it was all to no avail and United lost that final by 2-1.
Wood was back for the start of the next season, and by United’s standards, they weren’t firing on all cylinders. In December, after a couple of results that hadn’t gone their way, Busby acted by first signing Harry Gregg, and then for the game against Leicester City on December 21st, he dropped Ray together with Johnny Berry, Liam Whelan, and David Pegg. Sadly for all of them, although they weren’t to know it at that time, they were never to play in the first team again.
Ray Wood was on the aircraft that fateful day in Munich and did suffer bad injuries to his head, leg and hip. He returned back to Manchester after convalescence and tried to pick up his career at United. Sadly it wasn’t to be, and he was never the goalkeeper that he had once been. In December 1958 the legendary Bill Shankly took him over the Pennines to Huddersfield Town. It seemed to me personally that it was an obscenely short time between the disaster and his release from Old Trafford and one that in later time he came to be bitter about. He was to serve Huddersfield for the next 4 years and I can recall in March 1963 seeing him return to Old Trafford to play against United in an F.A. Cup 3rd round tie. 1963 was a bad winter and the tie had been postponed since the January. Unfortunately for Ray, although it gave the United fans one last chance to see one of their former heroes, it was a bad night for him personally as United romped away with the game 5-0, Denis Law scoring a hat-trick aided by goals from Albert Quixall and Johnny Giles. It’s hard to imagine what his feelings were as he left the pitch that he had graced so well just a few short years before.
He left Huddersfield in 1965 and played for short periods with Bradford City and Barnsley before retiring from the game in 1968 – ironically the year that United lifted the European Cup. He spent most of his time abroad from then on, coaching in places like Ireland, USA, Zambia, Canada, Kenya, Greece, Kuwait and Cyprus. He went through a very bad time in his personal life and his first wife Elizabeth certainly blames the part that the tragedy played in their lives. It was Elizabeth who campaigned so vehemently on behalf of the families, and it was those efforts which finally got the Club to allow a testimonial match to be played at Old Trafford in 1998 for those families. It is sad to note that she was one of the many of the families to fall on hard times. Just prior to the staging of that benefit match in 1998 she had written to Martin Edwards because she was overdrawn at the bank and was having difficulties even meeting her train fare to attend the game. She had asked for an advance against her share of the game’s payout only to receive a reply from him being told that ; “it was against Club policy.” Hard to take when here was a woman that had witnessed the horrors of the aftermath of that tragedy; who had stayed by her husband’s side in the hospital for almost eight weeks and watched as close, personal friends fought for their lives. She pointed out that it was British European Airways that flown the families of the survivors out to Munich immediately after the disaster, and that it was they, and not the Club, who made sure that they had daily expenses. Ray was also bitter about the treatment that the families received from the club and in his own words not too long before he passed away, felt that they had all been “shafted”.
I can recall him so well. He was so soft spoken and never one for the ‘limelight”. As I said at the beginning, Ray Wood’s name is one that hardly ever gets mentioned in regards to the “Busby Babes”, but there is no doubt that as the last line of defence in over 200 games for United, the likeable young Geordie played more than a passing part. Ray passed away at Bexhill on Sea in 2002 at the age of 71 years.
Rest on in Peace Ray and thanks for all the memories.
Ray Wood played in 208 games in all competitions for Manchester United and won 3 full international caps for England.