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United, the Eagle and the Myth of the Phoenix: Manchester United’s 1958 FA Cup Final Badge by Tony Smith

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  • United, the Eagle and the Myth of the Phoenix: Manchester United’s 1958 FA Cup Final Badge by Tony Smith

    this appeared in Red News a few seasons ago


    Before the 1972/73 season Manchester United played in jerseys without a club badge. Prior to this date the team wore shirts bearing a badge on just a handful of occasions, notably cup finals.


    In 1909 United’s white shirts bore the badge of a red rose, presumably representing the county of Lancashire. In the FA Cup finals of 1948, 1957 and 1963, and in the European Cup final of 1968, the badge on the United shirt was based on the coat of arms of the city of Manchester.


    Less familiar to United supporters is the badge worn by the team in the 1958 FA Cup final, played just three months after the devastation of the Munich air disaster. It is sometimes assumed today that the 1958 badge represents a mythical phoenix bird arising from the ashes of that tragedy, reflecting United’s incredible journey to Wembley that season and the determination of the club to recover and rebuild from the heartbreak of Munich. The badge even contains what looks like a letter ‘M’ in the centre, assumed by some to refer to Munich. Indeed, even in the new memorial to the disaster – the Munich Tunnel at Old Trafford, which was opened in February 2008 on the 50th anniversary – one of the display panels likens the 1958 FA Cup final badge to a phoenix.


    In fact, like the phoenix itself, the story of the ‘phoenix badge’ is simply a myth, because the golden bird on the 1958 FA Cup final badge is actually an eagle.


    The Borough of Manchester was first granted arms in 1842. Before 1958 the Manchester coat of arms consisted of a red shield derived from the arms of the lords of Manchester, above which was a sailing ship which represented commercial enterprise and the city’s links to the sea. Above the ship was a globe of the world, bearing a number of flying bees, symbolising the world-wide trade of Manchester and its industry. The shield was supported by an antelope and a lion, each wearing a red rose, and these were derived from the badges of Henry IV, Duke of Lancaster. This coat of arms was worn on the blue jerseys of Manchester United in the FA Cup final of 1948.


    In 1958 the coat of arms of the city of Manchester was redesigned (by Mr H. Ellis Tomlinson). The redesigned coat of arms contains, above the shield and beneath the globe, an armoured helmet and a ‘mantling’ (which looks like a scarf flowing from each side of the helmet).


    The mantling itself contains detail which is often not visible on small representations of the coat of arms – the detail is a badge consisting of an eagle on a mural crown; the badge appears several times on the mantling.


    According to a 1958 newspaper account, held by the Manchester United museum, the eagle is said to be symbolic of Manchester’s connection with ancient Rome, the symbol which looks like a letter ‘M’ in the centre is the fesse dancette recording the association with the former lords of the manor, and the ring around it is symbolic of Ringway. The mural crown is a symbol of a municipal corporation, and is silver or white to represent cotton and clean air, the provision of which was pioneered by Manchester.


    In a more official publication (and slightly at odds with the above description), the eagle is said to represent the city’s importance in air transport, while the mural crown symbolises an expanding community. The new eagle badge, but not the coat of arms, “may correctly be used by any person or organization connected with the city, provided official permission is obtained from the Town Clerk”.


    It is in this context that Manchester United wore the new eagle badge from the redesigned city coat of arms at the 1958 FA Cup final. In this sense the use of the eagle badge was effectively no different from wearing the old city arms on the team’s shirts at the 1948 FA Cup final.


    The 1958 FA Cup final badge was announced in the Manchester Evening News on Thursday 24 April 1958, nine days before the match on 3 May. Interestingly, the newspaper suggests that the eagle ‘fittingly’ resembles a phoenix rising from the ashes – perhaps the suggestion that the badge shows a phoenix arises from this time:


    “This is the badge Manchester United will wear at Wembley. Although it looks fittingly like a phoenix rising out of the ashes it is in fact a golden eagle on a mural crown – the city’s new badge which is contained in Manchester’s new coat of arms.”


    This history therefore disproves the myth of the phoenix on the 1958 shirt, and also disproves another common misconception – that the eagle was in some way connected to an American trade fair that took place in Manchester around that time.


    Although United wore the new eagle badge from the redesigned city coat of arms in 1958, in their next two cup finals (the FA Cup final of 1963 and the European Cup final of 1968) the team wore a badge based on the old city coat of arms – the pre-1958 version that did not contain the armoured helmet, the mantling and the eagle badge – just as they had done in 1948. In major cup finals since 1968 the badge on the United shirt has been the club badge. Additionally, it may be noted that the crest worn on official club blazers, from the 1950s to the present day, is also based on the old city coat of arms, and does not contain the armoured helmet, the mantling and the eagle.


    The eagle badge from the city of Manchester coat of arms has therefore been worn only once by Manchester United. However the new badge of Manchester City FC is now based on this same golden eagle, taken from the city coat of arms.

    by Tony Smith
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