Manchester United, one of the most popular clubs in football and in all of sports, is known around the world as the “Red Devils.”
The nickname is immediately recognizable, and the brand is one of the most valuable in sports.
According to a study done by marketing agency Kantar in 2019, the club can count 1.1 billion people among its vast fan and follower base, making it the world’s most popular football club. A study in June 2021 by William Hill, using online trend data from Google, came to the same conclusion.
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But where did the “Red Devils” nickname come from? It was the creation of — well, actually, borrowed by — legendary manager Sir Matt Busby in the 1960’s in the immediate aftermath of the Munich Air Disaster.
Man United’s nickname before Red Devils
During the 1950’s and early 1960’s, United was popularly referred to as the “Busby Babes” in reference to the team’s well-known and well-liked manager. Busby, in charge since 1945, led the club out of the Second World War and molded the squad into trophy winners in just a few years.
It didn’t take long for him to become an influential figure at the club, and well-known across the country. The Busby Babes nickname soon followed and stuck, in reference to his young, endearing squad.
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The Munich Air Disaster in 1958, which killed 23 people including eight players — the victims included captain Roger Byrne, young superstar Duncan Edwards, and England international Tommy Taylor — left a mark on the club’s history.
Busby had to rebuild the squad, and with it he searched for a new identity. The “Busby Babes” moniker had become a painful memory, a reference that evoked the tragedy, the fallen club members, and a reminder of the innocence lost in the Munich Air Disaster, where players pulled survivors from the wreckage.
Why Manchester United’s nickname is Red Devils
Local rugby club Salford — a city based in the Greater Manchester area — was officially referred to as the Reds, but was popularly known as the “Red Devils” (logo below), a nickname dating back to 1934 when the club dominated a tournament in France, prompting local journalists to dub them “Les Diables Rouges” (The Red Devils).
The rugby team, which played a match at Old Trafford in November of 1958 just months after the February plane crash, inspired Busby who eventually adopted the nickname for his own club. He liked the more intimidating image of the “Red Devil” over the former, more innocent-sounding “Busby Babes” and he began to apply it to Manchester United.
In time the nickname became popular, partly since it also represented an homage to the early moniker for the club way back in the late 1800’s, when they were originally known as Newton Heath or “The Heathens”. Manchester United has been the Red Devils ever since.
In the aftermath of the Munich Air Disaster and having adopted a new identity, Busby built another winner.
In 1968, Manchester United became the first English club to win the European Cup, and Busby was cemented as a legend. In 1973 the club changed its crest to officially include the image of a Red Devil holding a trident.
The Red Devil has become an integral part of the Man United brand around the world, and today the club’s mascot is … you guessed it: Fred the Red, a smiling red devil, horns and all.