United had been league champions in 1908 and 1911, as well as winning the FA Cup in 1909, but the interwar years were less successful as financial problems blighted the club, who spent the 1920s, and 1930s bouncing between the First and Second Divisions. The club's Old Trafford stadium was then severely damaged in a German air raid in March 1941, and the club did not return there until the stadium's rebuilding was completed in 1949, until which time their home games were played at Maine Road, the stadium of Manchester City.
In October 1945, the impending resumption of football led to the managerial appointment of Matt Busby, who demanded an unprecedented level of control over team selection, player transfers and training sessions. Busby led the team to second-place league finishes in 1947, 1948 and 1949, and to FA Cup victory in 1948 - the club's first major trophy for 37 years. In 1952, the club won the First Division, its first league title for 41 years.
With an average age of 22, the media labelled the back-to-back title winning side of 1956 and 1957 "the Busby Babes", a testament to Busby's faith in his youth players who had gradually replaced the older players of the team which had enjoyed success in the late 1940s, and early 1950s. In 1956-57, Manchester United became the first English team to compete in the European Cup, despite objections from the Football League, who had denied Chelsea the same opportunity the previous season. En route to the semi-final, which they lost to Real Madrid, the team recorded a 10–0 victory over Belgian champions Anderlecht, which remains the club's biggest victory on record.
Busby rebuilt the team through the 1960s by signing players such as Denis Law and Pat Crerand, who combined with the next generation of youth players – including George Best – to win the FA Cup in 1963, which was the club's first major trophy since the Munich tragedy. The following season, they finished second in the league, then won the title in 1965 and 1967. In 1968, Manchester United became the first English club to win the European Cup, beating Benfica 4–1 in the final, with a team that contained three European Footballers of the Year: Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and George Best. Matt Busby resigned as manager in 1969 and was replaced by the reserve team coach, former Manchester United player Wilf McGuinness.
In February 1945, with the Second World War in its final few months, Matt Busby met club president James Gibson in Manchester, where he was offered a three-year contract to become manager of Manchester United. At Busby's insistence, this was lengthened to five years; he was appointed manager aged only 36, having just finished his playing career which had seen him turn out for Manchester City and Liverpool as well as the Scottish national side. Busby's appointment was notable for his insistence that he had the authority to appoint his own staff and overall control of all matters related to the playing of the game, responsibilities usually held by club directors or chairmen. Busby did not assume managerial command until October 1945, after the start of the season, and his first act was to appoint Jimmy Murphy as Reserve Team coach.
League football resumed for the 1946–47 season and United finished second with a side featuring the likes of Jack Rowley, Charlie Mitten and John Aston. The club captain was now Johnny Carey, an Irishman whose normal position was right-back but who during his United career playing in every position except on the right wing.
They would repeat this twice, and though disappointed by this failure, they did deliver the FA Cup in 1948, beating Blackpool 4–2 to claim their first major trophy for 37 years. It was the first of many trophies to come. United's stadium Old Trafford had been largely destroyed by German bombs in the Second World War, so they played their home fixtures at Manchester City's ground Maine Road between 1945 and 1949, when they returned to a rebuilt Old Trafford.
After a 41-year wait, league title success finally came in 1952, with United, led by Johnny Carey, demolishing second-placed Arsenal 6–1 on the final day of the season to finish four points ahead of Arsenal and Tottenham. However, the side captained by Johnny Carey was beginning to show its age and a new set of players had to be found. Busby had already made an important signing the previous year by paying Birmingham City £25,000 for winger Johnny Berry, and as long ago as 1949 had signed young goalkeeper Ray Wood from Darlington, while a young Roger Byrne had excelled on the left wing in the title run-in, but many other positions were in need of changes.