The Busby Babes: Munich remembered
It is the summer of 1968 and on Wembley's hallowed turf, underneath the famous twin towers and in front of 100,000 fans Manchester United have just beaten Benfica 4-1 to lift the European Cup. On the pitch the celebrations soon engulf Matt Busby. One by one his players find him, shake him by the hand and embrace him. Each expressing in these brief emotional moments feelings of joy, of thanks, excitement and something more; empathy.
It can be seen best in the fleeting glimpses the archives show of Busby with George Best and with Manchester-born Nobby Stiles, who shares a particularly poignant exchange with his manager. Ten years on from February 6th, 1958 and Busby and United had achieved greatness. It was an achievement born out of the necessity to honour the memories of Busby's Babes who died in Munich.
The scale of the Munich air disaster, the sheer tragedy of the events and their subsequent impact is difficult to impart to a new generation of football fans. This was a team that had achieved considerable success and while so-doing won the hearts of a nation, not just the red half of Manchester.
Two consecutive league championships, a runners-up place in the 1957 FA Cup final, five back-to-back FA Youth Cups between 1953-57, a place in the 1957 European Cup semi-finals and the same again in 1958. The Busby Babes were on the brink of greatness, the future was theirs. There seemed to be no limit on what they could achieve.
That they had managed to accomplish so much is remarkable in itself, but it was the manner in which it was achieved that endeared so many to that Manchester United team. It was a side that not only played with style and panache, but they did so with players who broke the mould.
The commonly held belief at the time was that to compete at the highest level required experience in every position, blooding a youngster represented a considerable risk. While Busby recognised the importance of experience he believed that youth was an undervalued asset and could give him the edge. So rather than buying seasoned professionals, as was the norm, Busby built a side around youth; it was a gamble, but one that paid off. The average age of his 1956 championship winning side was just 22. The average age of the side which flew back from Belgrade in February, 1958 after securing a place in the European Cup semi-finals was 23.
Busby is a close as you can get in football to being regarded as a pioneer, as a visionary; with his ground-breaking youth scheme he re-wrote the way football teams were constructed and by recognising the potential of the European Cup he embraced a new frontier.
Under pressure from the English football authorities champions Chelsea did not enter the European Cup in its inaugural season in 1955-56, but despite the same opposition Busby led his championship winners into Europe for the competition's second season and managed to reach the semi-finals where they lost to Real Madrid.
After securing the league title again in 1956-57 United qualified once more for the European Cup in the 1957-58 season, and after their success in the competition the previous season United were automatically amongst the favourites.
Those walking the corridors of power at the Football Association and the Football League were diametrically opposed to the European Cup fearing it would undermine the integrity of the game at home, and so strove to make United's decision to compete as difficult as possible by dismissing any pleas to alleviate fixture congestion. Under new league rules any team competing in Europe had to be back in England a full 24 hours before their next domestic fixture. In fact United's decision to charter a plane from British European Airways for that ill-fated round trip to Belgrade in February 1958 for the European Cup quarter-final against Red Star owed itself to this ruling.
In the previous round United had struggled to get home in time for their league fixture against Birmingham City when their flight home after a game against Dukla Prague was delayed. This time Busby wanted no such delays, no such worries ahead of United's vital game on Saturday February 8th against league leaders Wolves, a game of great importance to Busby who was aiming to secure the league title for a third straight season.
So against this background of opposition from the powers that be and restrictive time constraints Busby and his young convention-defying team, which was already on the path to glory, began its last fateful journey together.
Having beaten Red Star 2-1 at Old Trafford a draw would be enough to see them into the semi-finals of the European Cup for the second successive season. On an icy pitch in Belgrade on the February 5th United raced into a 3-0 lead but, perhaps betraying United's youthful naivety, Red Star got back into the game. Nevertheless, despite a 3-3 draw on the day United won 5-4 on aggregate and secured a place in the semis.
The players and club officials enjoyed a cocktail reception at the British Embassy after the game before beginning their journey home the following day aboard BEA Flight 609. The Elizabethan class aircraft, the 'Lord Burleigh', landed in heavy snow for refuelling at the Munich-Riem airport in West Germany. It would never to fly again.
Twice the aircraft tried to take off, and twice it failed. After each attempt the passengers were all asked to return to the terminal building. The second time Duncan Edwards, like some of the other players, was convinced they would not be travelling home that afternoon, and so sent his landlady a telegram which read: 'All flights cancelled. Returning home tomorrow. Duncan.' The telegram was delivered at 5pm.
Despite their reading of the situation the passengers were called to the plane for a third time. In the cabin the laughing and joking of the previous attempts was replaced by a sense of apprehension. At 3.04pm Captain James Thain attempted a third take off. As a result of the slush and snow on the runway the plane could not reach take off speed and so failed to gain height.
The plane crashed through the airport's perimeter fence and careered into an unoccupied house. The port wing and part of the tail was ripped off and the house caught fire. The port side of the cockpit slammed into a tree, the starboard side of the plane hit a wooden hut causing the fuel truck and tyres it housed to explode.
Twenty-one of the 44 people aboard perished in the crash, while a further two were to succumb to their injuries in hospital. Seven of the players who had played in Belgrade a day earlier died instantly: Geoff Bent (25), Roger Byrne (28), Eddie Colman (21), Mark Jones (24), David Pegg (22), Tommy Taylor (26) and Liam 'Billy' Whelan (22).
Duncan Edwards lost his fight for life 15 days later on February 21, while the careers of Johnny Berry and Jackie Blachflower were ended as a result of the injuries they sustained. The bodies of the dead were flown back to Manchester and lay overnight in the Old Trafford gymnasium before being collected by the families.
Over 100,000 people lined streets as the hearses delivered their coffins to the stadium and thousands more lined the streets for the subsequent funerals and memorial services, while two minutes of silence were observed at matches across the country.
Busby himself, the father of the team, suffered fractured ribs, a punctured lung and injuries to his legs. So grave was his condition that the last rites were administered in the hours following the crash. Two weeks on and entombed in an oxygen tent Busby was again read the last rites.
Remarkably he recovered enough to continue his convalescence in Switzerland where he was accompanied by his wife, Jean. Busby did not return to Manchester until April 18. He made his journey by rail and sea.
In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, amid the grief, shock, sorrow and pain there was James Patrick Murphy, Busby's assistant and the man who did all in his power to keep the club functioning. Manchester United owes a great debt of gratitude to Jimmy Murphy, it is thanks to his dogged determination and devotion that the shattered club and community were able to continue.
Bobby Charlton recalls that on a visit to the Rechts der Isar Hospital in Munich Murphy was a tower of strength as he tended to the injured players and relayed to the infirm the scale of the tragedy and the grief being experienced in Manchester. In Charlton's autobiography he remembers how Murphy's heartening displays of strength were revealed to have been a brave face worn to protect others: 'One day he was discovered in a back corridor of the hospital, sobbing his heart out in pain at the loss of so many young players.'
Murphy implored the survivors to fight through the suffering for the good of the club and the memory of their fallen team-mates. It was Murphy who took charge as Busby fought for life and Murphy who sought to find the players necessary to field a team for the first game after the disaster.
Through death and injury the United squad was decimated, such was the shortage of players facing Murphy that players were brought in from outside the club and, 17-year-olds were called up from the second reserves.
In stark a illustration of the problems facing the club, United winger Kenny Morgan recalls: 'I was back playing about a month after the crash. I shouldn't have played until the following year. But there were no players at United. All the wingers were killed.'
Morgan, who was only rescued hours after the crash when two German reporters were scouring the wreckage for the film of the Red Star game, never reclaimed the form he showed before the disaster.
On February 19th 60,000 fans crammed into Old Trafford for the postponed FA Cup 5th round tie against Sheffield Wednesday; it was United's first game after the disaster. In the programme for that game 11 blank spaces appeared where the United players should have been. Amazingly, two of the survivors took the pitch for what was to be a 3-0 win; Bill Foulkes, who Murphy made skipper that day, and Harry Gregg who just two weeks earlier had helped pull survivors from the wreckage, including Charlton and Busby.
United went on to reach the FA Cup final, but lost at Wembley to Bolton Wanderers, they were also defeated in semi-final of the European Cup by AC Milan. As a mark of respect UEFA invited United to compete in the competition the following season, but the invitation was declined.
While tragedy and football are no strangers, from the relatively recent disasters at Heysel and Hillsbrough to the 66-fans who died at Ibrox in 1971 and 1949's Superga air disaster, which claimed the lives of 18 Torino players, the events and aftermath of Munich still resonate.
Perhaps the sense of loss was so acute and is still remembered today because it stemmed from the loss of young, talented people not yet close to fulfilling their potential.
The Babes may not be young by today's standards when 21-year-old footballers are far from a rarity. The same was not true in 1958. The youngest to perish was Eddie Colman just 21 years and 3 months old; the eldest, the captain of the side, Roger Byrne, who died aged 28.
While the city of Manchester and United as a club felt the loss most acutely, Munich was also a tragedy for English football, European football and the game as a whole and perhaps this is why their memories remain so cherished. Of those that died Tommy Taylor was already an established part of the England national team with 16 goals in 19 appearances, as was Byrne with 33 caps to his name, while David Pegg had just broken into the national side and Duncan Edwards had broken the post-war record as the youngest player to represent England aged just 18, he went on to win 18 caps.
Charlton still says Edwards is the best player he ever saw play the game. That Charlton played with and against players of the calibre of di Stefano, Beckenbauer, Pele and Best makes such a statement all the more remarkable and further echoes the tragedy of talent lost.
Another reason the Babes are still important today is that their legacy has always been at the forefront of everything Manchester United stands for and strives to attain, and it is as important today as it was 50 years ago.
From the 'Flowers of Manchester' banner inside Old Trafford to the ethos of fast flowing football, complete with an emphasis on youth, employed by Alex Ferguson today, the memory and achievements of Busby and his Babes informs and moulds the club.
Players: Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Duncan Edwards, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor, Liam Whelan.
Journalists: Alf Clarke, Don Davies, George Follows, Tom Jackson, Archie Ledbrooke, Henry Rose, Eric Thompson, Frank Swift.
Also killed: Walter Crickmer (club secretary), Bert Whalley (chief coach), Tom Curry (trainer), Capt Kenneth Rayment (co-pilot), Bela Miklos (travel agent), Willie Satinoff (supporter), Tom Cable (steward).