It was a tragedy that changed the face of aviation, but it also puts today’s high stakes football business in context as it unites the fraternity in remembrance.
Munich Air Disaster: A club is training on this day, like any other club. Wearing its training bibs in red, they’re looking at the next game with a wily-smart manager taking care of all their moves. Similar to all clubs in Europe, isn’t it?
A throwback to 62 winters ago and a club was challenging traditions in its country, one of the most powerful in the continent. The FA did not want its participation in the showpiece but with his 25 players, Sir Matt Busby was willing to win. Did he win, at the end of it all?
Munich Air Disaster: The Busby Babes
Manchester United, the ever-lasting dominant force of England are currently training but 62 years ago, at this very moment, they were heading home from Belgrade, ecstatic and upbeat after their win against the Red Star side of Yugoslavia.
Advancing to the then Semi-Finals by beating a much-experienced side with a 5-4 aggregate. It is not just their progression that people remember, but their sacrifice and utter love for the game. Fondly known as the Busby Babes, they were this group of young lads who dreamt of winning everything and they did, may not be every trophy on offer but everybody’s heart.
Munich Air Disaster: Manchester United players lined up before boarding the doomed flight home in 1958
The Munich Air Disaster, on February 6, 1958, claimed the lives of eight Manchester United players and three Old Trafford staff, Eight sports journalists, including the Manchester Evening News’ Tom Jackson.
Twenty-three people died in total as a result of the tragedy and despite the fact that Manchester United has the biggest fan bases in the world, many are unaware of the depths of the Munich Air Crash, let alone the greatness of the Busby Babes.
“Busby Babes”, the academy graduates who flourished under the governance and care of Sir Matt Busby, took Britain by storm. They were notable not only for being young and gifted but for being developed by the club itself, rather than buying them from other clubs, which was customary then.
The term, coined by Tom Jackson, the renowned late journalist from the crash, of M.E.N. in 1951, usually refers to the players who won the league championship in seasons 1955–56 and 1956–57 with an average age of 21 and 22 respectively.
Rising up the ranks was a young lad who went by the name of Sir Bobby Charlton. He worked his way through the pecking order of teams, scoring regularly for the youth and reserve sides before he was handed his first-team debut against Charlton Athletic in October 1956.
Charlton was an established player by the time the next season was fully underway, which saw United, as current League champions, become the first English team to compete in the European Cup. In those years, now well known UEFA Champions league was in its initial years and only included the champions of respective countries but the scenario of English football was in a way that the League administrator, Alan Hardaker, believed not participating was best for English football.
Hardaker did not allow Chelsea to participate in the first-ever season of the then UCL in 1955, but the stern drive of Matt Busby and the strong backing of the club meant United to move forward towards this competition. In their debut season, they were knocked out by the eventual champions Real Madrid at the semi-final stage.
United had won back to back league titles in 1956 and 1957 and Hardaker again tried to tie them down from the European games but Matt Busby’s ideologies and thirst of making United a European giant made the league administrator helpless.
Winter transfer window 1957-58
Munich Air Disaster: David Pegg and Liam ‘Billy’ Whelan
Matt Busby had a squad which each and every club envied. They had the likes of Eddie Colman (21), Mark Jones (24), Duncan Edwards (21), Billy Whelan (22), Tommy Taylor (26), David Pegg (22), Geoff Bent (25) and Sir Bobby Charlton who always ensured to make the lives of their opponents a living hell, at least for the 90 minutes on the pitch.
The only problem area for the Red Devils was the position between the posts and Busby bought Harry Gregg, in December 1957, as the world’s most expensive goalkeeper at the time for £23,500.
Manchester United played the home leg against Red Star Belgrade on 14th January 1958, ending on the winning side with two goals to one. The side was ecstatic and upbeat with the win and confident to make to the semi-finals of the Champions Cup (UCL).
The urge for coming back home early
United were supposed to play their away leg on 5th February and just before leaving for Yugoslavia, Alan Hardaker paid them a visit. In the meeting with Jim Murphy, the backbone of Busby Babes concept and the team coach, and Matt Busby, Hardaker warned them for a potential deduction of points if they fail to comply with the minimum rest days before a match.
5th February was a Wednesday and they had a league game on the following Saturday, the 8th and Alan Hardaker laid a foundation of returning at max by 5 pm on 6th February, 48 hours prior to the kick-off. Busby flew with his first squad without Murphy, who had an international match to manage for Wales.
3:04 GMT: When everything changed
Munich Air Disaster: The Old Trafford clock is stopped at 03:04 GMT the time at which the crash took place
Just after the midday mark, Manchester United took off from Belgrade to head home. Flying in an Airspeed AS-57 Ambassador of British European Airways with a hurry of getting to the lands of the Queen, the flight took a halt in Munich for a scheduled refuelling but the issues with anti-icing feature on the wings delayed everything.
At 14:19 GMT, the control tower at Munich was told that the plane was ready to take off and gave the clearance, expiring at 14:31. Rayment abandoned the take-off after the pilots noticed the port boost pressure gauge fluctuating as the plane reached full power and the engine sounded odd while accelerating.
A second attempt was made three minutes later but called off 40 seconds into the attempt because the engines were running on an over-rich mixture, causing them to over-accelerate, a common problem for the “Elizabethan”. After the second failure, passengers retreated to the airport lounge.
Munich Air Disaster: Duncan Edwards is considered as one of the greatest English talents in football history
By then, it had started to snow heavily and it looked unlikely that the plane would be making the return journey that day. Manchester United’s Duncan Edwards sent a telegram to his landlady in Manchester. It read: “All flights cancelled, flying tomorrow. Duncan.”
The passengers were called back to the plane 15 minutes after leaving it. A few of the players were not confident fliers, particularly Liam Whelan, who said, “This may be death, but I’m ready”. Others, including Duncan Edwards, Tommy Taylor, Mark Jones, Eddie Colman and Frank Swift, moved to the back of the plane, believing it safer.
Once everyone was on board, At 14:59, they reached the runway holding point, where they received clearance to line up ready for take-off. On the runway, they made final cockpit checks and at 15:02, they were told their take-off clearance would expire at 15:04. The pilots agreed to attempt take-off, but that they would watch the instruments for surging in the engines. At 15:03, they told the control tower of their decision.
The plane skidded off the end of the runway, crashed into the fence surrounding the airport and across a road before its port wing was torn off as it caught a house, home to a family of six. The father and eldest daughter were away and the mother and the other three children escaped as the house caught fire.
Part of the plane’s tail was torn off before the left side of the cockpit hit a tree. The right side of the fuselage hit a wooden hut, inside which was a truck filled with tyres and fuel, which exploded. Twenty passengers died on board, and three died later in hospital.
Geoff Bent, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Liam “Billy” Whelan, star striker Tommy Taylor and captain Roger Byrne died at the scene — while the great Duncan Edwards passed away in the hospital 15 days later. A total of 23 passengers died that day and sparing nine players from the death but Johnny Berry and Jackie Blanchflower never played again.
The news shook the world. Jim Murphy arrived in Manchester from his stint with Wales. He was rather upbeat with the fact that Wales had progressed for the World Cup qualification but the club secretary broke the unfortunate news. Alan Hardaker, made a condolence call to Jim, allowing them to withdraw from the forthcoming few matches then.
Media in those days was scattered and in such a disgruntled way that Murphy could only find out about the exact scenario just after landing in Munich. Sir Matt Busby had suffered broken ribs, Duncan Edwards was still critical and Sir Bobby was in great shock of watching the blood of his teammates on the snow that day.
Munich Air Disaster: An injured Dennis Viollet talks to his wife from his hospital bed in Munich
The players’ bodies were brought home and were kept in their usual gymnasium, allowing the club supporters to pay them a visit. In those hard times, the club received letters, letters for the deceased players’ family, money for the commotions and much more.
Local residents offered charity help for the departmental assistance and the supporting guards were full of grief, guarding the bodies with hearts, having seen them play on the very same legendary pitch of Old Trafford.
In those particular days, Jim Murphy was posed as the Interim manager and the voice of Sir Matt Busby against the board, who all wanted to shut the club with immediate effect, as a tribute.
Murphy laid the importance that the club’s longevity would depend on the actions they took then. Going against the owners, he conducted trials from scratch for their 22nd February league match with his coaches and Gregg while Busby and Charlton were still unavailable.
They had opponents but none enemies
Everybody knew what was happening with the Red side of Manchester. Walton Wanderers, an amateur club came in front to assist Jim and resurrect the club in any way possible. As reported by the Independent, the then president of Real Madrid, Santiago Bernabeu crossed many barriers to help and seek assistance for this English club.
Bernabeu and Busby grew out of mutual respect for each other’s teams and led to some remarkable displays of generosity and charity when United were at their lowest. It grew out of the European Cup semi-final of April 1957, which Madrid won 5-3 on aggregate but were held to a stirring 2-2 draw in the second leg at Old Trafford.
Bernabeu was so impressed by the spirit and quality of United’s young side that he offered Busby a job. The Scot, though, was desperate to win in Europe with United and said no.
Ten months later, air crash in Munich, killed eight first-team players and the dream of Busby’s side conquering Europe looked over. United lost their semi-final to Milan three months after the crash but Milan were beaten 3-2 by Real Madrid in the final. Bernabeu, dedicated the win to his fallen friends from Manchester and even offered United the trophy, though it was turned down.
If that offer was purely symbolic there were material pledges too, most significantly the offer to loan United the world’s finest footballer, Alfredo di Stefano, “the Blond Arrow”, for the 1958-59 season. “Bernabeu went to see Di Stefano about this,” Ludden said. “He was willing to go until the end of the season, United paying half his wages and Madrid the other half. But the Football Association blocked it as he would be taking the place of a potential British player.”
So Madrid helped in different ways. They made a memorial pennant with the names of the Munich dead, called “Champions of Honour”, which was sold in Spain to raise money for United. There were offers to the injured and bereaved to recuperate at Madrid’s luxurious facilities in Spain at no cost.
There was also a series of fund-raising friendlies between the two teams. As well as the human and sporting cost, the Munich disaster had hit United’s finances. Real Madrid usually charged £12,000 for such games, but Bernabeu told United “pay what you can afford.”
These games were not just fund-raisers, though. “United could not even dream of Europe, it was more a case of staying up [in the First Division],” said Ludden. “So Busby’s idea was to keep the idea of Europe alive for the fans and players. It gave the players a level – of Ferenc Puskas and Di Stefano – they had to get to if United were to get back in Europe.”
The Trinity and the rise
Despite everything and leading a team of school kids and amateurs, Jim Murphy reached the finals of the FA Cup, where Matt Busby set foot on the field, finally after the recovery of three months. Busby was reported to be emotional of not seeing the likes of Pegg, Edwards and his old boys smoking pipes in the tunnel, hopping in as stretching and being ecstatic for the forthcoming 90 mins on the field.
Munich Air Disaster: Together, Jimmy Murphy and Sir Matt Busby helped resurrect Manchester United
Busby was ambitious and the club owes a lot to him. After 1958, United saw a drought of trophies to finally complete the European dream in 1967-68. Had it not for the air crash, United would have earned the trophy a decade earlier.
In 1968, Busby had Charlton as his main man upfront, the star of the team but a great team does not strive on just one superstar. Sir Matt brought Denis Law and George Best to form a trinity, whose statue was erected just outside of the Old Trafford not so long ago.
Sir Bobby Charlton retired from football being the top scorer of Manchester United, later earning his knighthood but Wayne Rooney set a new record with scoring 253 goals while wearing the red shirt week-in-week-out.
Manchester United have flourished but the potentiality of the success of Busby Babes is till deemed high with the amount of success they earned in just a couple of years. Duncan Edwards was deemed as one of the best players to have ever put feet on the field.
While many managers came and went but only Sir Alex Ferguson has come close to exceeding Matt Busby’s success at Manchester United. Having been in charge for 24 years, Busby managed 1,120 games, winning 565 of those and losing just 292, with 2,286 goals being scored during his time.
In December 1970, Busby briefly returned to the United managerial role for 21 games, whilst the team were searching for a new manager. He won 11 games, with United scoring 38 goals. Sometimes, the class is permanent.
GLORY GLORY MANCHESTER UNITED
Sir Bobby Charlton
“There was no screaming, no sounds, only the terrible shearing of metal. Something cracked my skull like a hard-boiled egg. I was hit again at the front. The salty taste of blood was in my mouth. I was afraid to put my hands to my head.”
“My strangest souvenir was the pack of playing cards. I had not the slightest bruise on me, and my pocket was not ripped, yet the top quarter-inch of those cards had been sliced off and had disappeared. The cut was so clean. How they came to be like that was a total mystery.”
What Duncan Edwards told United assistant Jimmy Murphy from his hospital bed
“Keep the red flag flying.”
Busby instructs Jimmy Murphy from his hospital bed
“United will go on.”