February 6th, 1958 was the darkest day in United’s history. The ‘Busby Babes’ had just defeated Red Star Belgrade on aggregate to set up a European cup semi final clash with AC Milan. Flying back, the team had stopped in Germany to refuel where heavy snow was apparent. The first two attempts to take off from Munich airport were aborted. Following a third attempt,the plane crashed. 23 people, including 8 Manchester United players and 3 members of the clubs staff, suffered fatal injuries. Duncan Edwards, one of the 8 victims of the team- passed away 15 days after the crash. It is particularly upsetting to note that had the technology we have today been around at the time of the crash, Duncan Edwards would have survived.
Roger Byrne (28), Eddie Colman (21), Mark Jones (24), David Pegg (22), Tommy Taylor (26), Geoff Bent (25), Liam Whelan (22) and Duncan Edwards (21) all died, along with club secretary Walter Crickmer, trainer Tom Curry and Bert Whalley.
Eight journalists died- Alf Clarke, Tom Jackson, Don Davies, George Fellows, Archie Ledbrook, Eric Thompson, Henry Rose and Frank Swift, who was a former Manchester City player. Plane captain Ken Rayment perished, as did Sir Matt’s friend Willie Satinoff. Travel agent Bela Miklos and crew member Tom Cable also died.
As you approach Old Trafford, you will immediately notice the Munich clock, where the time has frozen to 4 minutes past 3, the time of the crash. When you venture down the Munich remembrance tunnel, along with the forever glowing candle light there is an inscription that shines out, reflecting the romance that millions of fans around the world share with the club:
“Before the tragedy at Munich, the club belonged to Manchester. But afterwards, Manchester United captured the imagination of the entire world”.
It is impossible to talk about the history of Manchester United without relating to the Munich air disaster. Taking over the reigns of the club on the verge of bankruptcy in 1945, Matt Busby and his assistant Jimmy Murphy embarked on a journey to shape English football. Busby dreamed of younger, fresher legs – players to mould in his image. United would win the league title in 1952 but the team was ageing and it was time for Busby to bring young, homegrown players into his senior squad. Not all of Busby’s players were homegrown “Babes”. Centre forward Tommy Taylor was signed from Barnsley whilst goalkeeper Harry Gregg commanded a world record fee for a goalkeeper at that time. United would run away with the title in 1956 with the average age of the team at just 22. Captain Roger Byrne, known by some as the ‘father of the team’, was 28. “The marks of the nursery cradle were on them, but they did not show”, remarked a proud Matt Busby. It was this team that began to capture the hearts and imaginations of English football with their inspiring forward play. Having won the title in 1956, they were invited to enter a new tournament established by UEFA, the ‘European Cup’. This was a football competition for the champions clubs of UEFA affiliated nations but the English FA were in strong opposition to this, particularly the Football League’s secretary Alan Hardaker. They had banned Chelsea from taking part the season before but Matt Busby defied the league and United became the first English team to play in Europe.
In their first season in Europe, Manchester United would reach the semi final but bowed out to Real Madrid, who had been European champions for 5 successive years between 1956-60. Manchester United were becoming a force to be reckoned with in Europe, and won the league title again in the 1957/8 season to once again embark on their quest for European glory. “You’ve never had it so good” once proclaimed Harold Macmillan about the people of Britain and it was certainly true for the Busby babes. After an initial slump at the start of the 1958/59 season, United had closed the gap at the top of the table to 4 points after a thrilling 4-5 win at Highbury against Arsenal, where one Daily Telegraph respondent reported “The Babes played like infants in paradise”. This would be there last league game together before tragedy struck at Munich after they had secured a semi final clash with AC Milan in the European Cup.
Manchester United had charted the British European Airways plane because as mentioned before, the Football league were not favourable towards United playing in Europe. This meant United had to make it back for their top of the table clash against Wolves or would face a point reduction. An investigation by West German airport authorities had originally blamed plane captain Ken Rayment, saying he did not de-ice the aircraft’s wings, despite eye witness statements claiming he did. 10 years later, Thain was cleared as it was later established that the crash was caused by slush on the runway, which slowed the plane down too much to take off.
Sir Bobby Charlton was pulled from the burning wreckage by Harry Gregg, after being unconscious for quarter of an hour. Bill Foulkes also joined the search with Gregg, as they went in and out of the burning wreckage helping people. Bobby Charlton put his coat around Matt Busby, as he lay in a pool of water seriously injured. People who knew Charlton best, including his brother, say there is irrefutable evidence that he “stopped smiling” and left his sparkle in the wreckage. He would never forget a German patient in the hospital he was admitted to, reading out the names of the dead, “The names of all my pals”. Friends he would go to the dance with at the weekend, friends that would invite him over for dinner at Christmas. “It felt like my life was being taken away, piece by piece.” Matt Busby was critically injured and had to have his death rites read 3 times and Bobby Charlton remarks that Busby probably felt the loss more than anyone else: “He had brought these players together, he had cajoled everyone’s parents to make them sign for Manchester United and then he took them into Europe when he had been told it was against the FA’s wishes”.
Everyone associated with football in England was devastated by the news. Sir Alex Ferguson recounts whilst he was revising for a exam, his friends burst into his room in tears and his football training had to be cancelled because everyone was in shock. On a personal note, my grandad had taught the great Duncan Edwards whilst he was a teacher in the Black Country. He used to put Duncan in charge as he stepped out the classroom because “no one would ever mess with big Duncan”. Still to this day, fans that had the chance to see him in action get emotional. Many claim he was the greatest player they had ever seen at 21, which is quite something considering the likes of Ronaldo and Messi today.
As Matt Busby lay immobile in Munich, he told his assistant Jimmy Murphy (who had missed the trip because of his duties as Wales manager) to “Keep the flag flying, Jimmy”. As Harry Gregg noted in his autobiography, those who could play had to play and it saved his sanity. 13 days after the crash, United faced Sheffield Wednesday in the FA cup in front of an emotionally charged Old Trafford of 59, 848 fans. United’s chairman Harold Hardman left a message on front of the match programme that was simple, yet effective.
“Although we mourn our dead and grieve for our wounded, we believe that great days are not done for us….Manchester United will rise again”.
Perhaps then, just as Matt Busby returned to England when Manchester United reached the FA cup final it was fitting that the clubs badge would be a phoenix rising from the ashes. The frail Busby sat on the bench and watched his team finally run out of steam, losing 2-0. Murphy whilst in charge, proved beyond doubt that United would indeed go on as it was a minor miracle to have reached the FA cup final. In the European Cup semi-final they beat Milan 2-1 at Old Trafford, before a valiant, yet comprehensive 4-0 defeat in the San Siro.
Yet 10 years later, Matt Busby and Jimmy Murphy had rebuilt a team and won the European Cup, captained by survivor Bobby Charlton. Fittingly, the exuberance of local youth- the driving force behind Busby’s dream- played a full part in United winning the European Cup at Wembley, defeating Benfica 4-1 after extra time. This was for them, the ultimate debt to their memory. 50 years later from the Munich Air Disaster, Manchester United would become champions of Europe for a third time in 2008. Manchester United should have won many more European trophies than they have and they would have done had this terrible disaster had not taken place. Almost certainly, Real Madrid would not have dominated European football had the Busby babes been around. Sir Bobby Charlton is also convinced with the quality of English players in the team, England would have won the World Cup a lot sooner than in 1966. Every year, hundreds of fans gather at the memorial to show their respect. The defiant song that is still heard in the stands today echoes around: “We’ll never die, we’ll never die, we’ll keep that red flag flying high, because Man United will never die”.
“Oh England’s finest football team its record truly great, its proud successes mocked by a cruel turn of fate, Eight men will never play again who met destruction there, the Flowers of English football, the Flower of English football, the Flowers of Manchester”. Eric Winter (1958).