As we prepare to mark the 65th anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster, this time of year serves as an important reminder that Manchester United Foundation was established as a continuation of Sir Matt Busby and Jimmy Murphy’s commitment to developing and nurturing the talents of young people.
Extending that legacy, 21-year-old Will Balderston, grandson of Sir Bobby Charlton, recently volunteered at one of our community football projects, Street Reds. Will spoke about his time with the Foundation, the importance of our work and the strong link between the charity, Sir Bobby and his fellow Busby Babes.
Tell us about your time volunteering with the Foundation?
It was an amazing experience. I would go once a week to Street Reds at Manchester Enterprise Academy Central, in Fallowfield, supporting Ryan and Ash, the coaches at the project. They were both so helpful, showing me the best way to engage the kids and to ensure that they were happy, enjoying themselves and learning.
I’m a United fan and a huge fan of football in general, so I loved being a part of it all, even in just a small way. The sessions are varied to keep the kids on their toes, but you don’t have to be there long to see how much joy it brings to them.
Can you describe the impact that the Foundation has on the local community?
The impact that the Foundation has on the areas it works is massive, but more specifically, the individuals themselves. You can see them grow before your eyes, they become more sociable, more confident and, of course, more skilled. I volunteered for a year and a half, and the development of the participants was staggering.
They come to the Foundation with real talent and potential, but sometimes children like them aren’t afforded the chance to develop and encourage that talent. Using the skills of the staff and the opportunities at projects like these, the Foundation can facilitate their development and it’s wonderful to see.
The one big thing I took was that, above all, enjoyment was key. When they’re enjoying themselves, they develop and learn without even realising it.
Your grandad has been a long-standing supporter of the Foundation - how did it feel to continue that legacy?
This meant a lot to me, of course. When I think of someone who has experienced tragic lows, but also touched the stars, I think of him. My grandad is a perfect example to show that, no matter where you come from, no matter what adversity you might experience, with support of those close to you, support of a club like Manchester United, you can overcome challenges and go on to do great things. United gave him that chance, the platform to go on to be an incredible player and a person of massive influence which he used to do a huge amount of good in the world. The Foundation want to give young people that chance and to light that spark that they have within them.
Since its early days, my grandad and grandma have been incredibly supportive of the Foundation, helping to open projects all over Manchester, so for me to pull on the training kit and continue that support meant a great deal to our family.
He was, of course, a Busby Babe, a team that embodied United’s commitment to developing young people. The Foundation was set-up as a legacy to that commitment, why do you think that is important?
The relationship between the past and the present at Manchester United is so important. Sir Matt’s contribution to the club is, to me, the cornerstone of everything we do. Taking a chance on a group of young lads who came from humble beginnings, but with the club’s support would go on to achieve great things. The parallel between that philosophy and what the Foundation works so hard to do on a daily basis is clear.
I can recall many occasions when my granddad would talk to me about simply loving the game, practising all the time, but I also recall his fondness for the collective, for his team-mates. To him, particularly in those early days, he was going out on the pitch with his mates – he had a passion for his team-mates. It just so happened that my granddad and his friends were playing their matches at Old Trafford, but I always found his simple love of the game and the power it can have to change lives really inspiring.
As we approach the 65th anniversary of Munich, what does that event mean to you not only as a young United supporter, but as the grandson of a survivor?
Everybody knows the magnitude of Munich and the seismic impact it had on Manchester United. It shaped the club, when it could have very easily broken it, which is why we mark it – to honour those who died and those that continued, despite incredible adversity. But above all, this was a human tragedy, one that affected the families of those who lost their lives and those that survived, such as my grandad, extremely deeply. It is of course a very delicate subject in our family, but the commemorations are really important to us, as we’re not just remembering great footballers, we’re remembering great people and great friends.
You must be incredibly proud of your grandad...
I’ve said it from being very small: my grandad is my hero. As a footballer, as a person, and as someone with a passion for life, he inspires me every day. If I can achieve a fraction of what he has achieved in his life, I will be a very happy man!
I count myself as very lucky to be able to say that holding up Sir Bobby Charlton as an idol is a sentiment shared by millions. That’s a really magical thing and it makes me very proud.