The 6th of February marks the anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster and is a date that will never leave the memories of Manchester United fans. It remains one of sport’s biggest tragedies and the events that unfolded on the icy runway in 1958 shook English football to its core.
Under the management of Matt Busby, United had won the First Division title in 1952 with a team of experienced professionals. However, it was the faith the manager, along with his assistant Jimmy Murphy, displayed in youth a few years later that really put the club in the spotlight. In 1956 and 1957, United won back to back league titles for the first time in the club’s history, with a team famously filled with talented players just barely out of their teenage years.
The Busby Babes, as they came to be known, played with a fresh exuberance that made them vastly popular among the viewing public. Duncan Edwards, Eddie Colman and David Pegg were all England internationals and Irish forward Liam Whelan was a prolific goalscorer. Tommy Taylor was a feared centre forward and Mark Jones was an imposing centre half. The captain, Roger Byrne, who was older than the rest but still only in his late twenties, was England’s best full-back with 33 international caps to his name. Simply, they were a team ready to dominate English football for years to come.
In 1955, the advent of the European Cup had caused a stir in England as the reigning champions, Chelsea, had been refused permission to enter by the FA. However, when United were crowned champions a year later, Busby defied the same refusal. As England’s representative’s, United reached the semi-finals where they were beaten by a Real Madrid side that would go on to lift the trophy, the third of five consecutive wins.
In the 1957/58 competition, United were once again doing well in Europe, and by February they had reached the quarter-finals against Red Star Belgrade. The Babes had beaten the Yugoslavian outfit 2-1 at Old Trafford in the first leg before travelling to Belgrade for the return tie. A 3-3 draw in the second leg was enough to send United into the competition’s last four, but it was the final game many of the team would ever play.
The Wreckage At Munich
United left Belgrade after the game, flying home via Munich – where refuelling was scheduled. Conditions in the German city were less than ideal, but clearance was still given for the plane to depart. After two failed attempts to take off, all the passengers left the aircraft to return to the terminal building, before one final attempt was made. There were nerves amongst the group and Whelan was even heard to have said: “This may be death, but I’m ready”.
On the third attempt the plane skidded off the end of the runway, crashing through a fence and into a house on the other side of a road. Twenty of the passengers on board were killed instantly. Among these were seven United players: Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, Tommy Taylor, Geoff Bent, David Pegg and Liam Whelan. Duncan Edwards died in a Munich hospital two weeks later. United also lost coaches Bert Whalley and Tom Curry, as well as club secretary Walter Crickmer. Eight sports journalists who were travelling with the team also perished, including Frank Swift, a legend on the blue side of Manchester from his time as a goalkeeper with City.
Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes both survived, as did Harry Gregg, who famously disregarded his own safety to pull others from the wreckage. Johnny Berry and Jackie Blanchflower survived, but neither ever played football again as a result of their injuries. Matt Busby was also seriously injured and was even read the Last Rites as he lay on his hospital bed. He spent several months under care in Munich before he was well enough to return home.
For a long time, Busby blamed himself for what happened, even considering quitting because he couldn’t stand the guilt. He felt his insistence at playing in Europe and his failure to challenge the aircraft pilot over the final and fatal attempted take off had unnecessarily cost many of his player’s their lives. It was his wife Jean who persuaded him to stay on, so that those who had died had not done so in vain.
In 1968, ten years on from Munich, Busby did finally realise his dream as United beat Benfica at Wembley to win the European Cup, though the memories of those who perished will never fade.