Today marks the 55th anniversary of The Munich Air Disaster of 1958, the darkest day in the history of Manchester United. 23 people including eight United players died that day and its impact is still not forgotten today.
The tragic events of that day shape the history of our club as, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, a Jimmy Murphy inspired United carried on.
I want to share some university research I did with you back in 2011 as it seems appropriate on its anniversary. The disaster of 1958 is not particularly known in the modern day game and until the 50th anniversary tribute match in 2008, even the majority of modern day fans did not have a grasp of the severity of the tragedy.
Even from a neutral perspective, the story is horrifying yet gripping and you find yourself willing the team, the fans, the city, all to push on together.
Part I: Introduction to the team
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.
Age shall not wear them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them.
As a Manchester United fan, I can tell you about how wonderful it was to watch United come back from 1-0 in the 88th minute to win the Champions League 2-1 in 1999 and I can tell you how incredible it was to sit in the Stretford End of Old Trafford and watch Dimitar Berbatov score a hat-trick against Birmingham in the Premier League.
I cannot, however, describe to you the power of the football revolution spearheaded by Manchester United manager Sir Matt Busby and his Babes in 1950s Britain, for their reign was tragically cut short by the unfortunate events of February 6 1958 in Munich. Captained by Roger Byrne, who was called by some the ’father of the team’ at just 28 (highlighting the youth in a team whose average age was just 22) the Busby Babes were renowned for their ‘inspiring forward play’ which so many fans adored and idolised.
Winning consecutive Championships in 1955/6 and 1956/7 and reaching successive European Cup semi-finals in 1956/7 and 1957/8, United became one of the most successful teams in Europe and were strongly tipped for European glory. Michael Crick noted how a ‘transformation in popularity came after the first Busby Babes championship victory in 1956’. This wave of enthusiasm amongst the fans boosted average attendances at Old Trafford from 39,254 in 1955/6 to 45,481 in 1956/7. This was, of course, short lived for the Babes as the tragedies of that fateful day destroyed what could have been one of the best football teams ever seen.
Manchester United were a force to be reckoned with on the European scene, despite being relative novices in comparison to Real Madrid, for example, who were European champions for five successive years between 1956-60. After beating Shamrock Rovers and Dukla Prague in the preliminary stages of the competition in 1957/8, United were drawn against Red Star Belgrade of Yugoslavia in the next round. On 21 January 1958, Manchester United beat Red Star 2-1 in an enthralling game at Old Trafford. The return leg was poised to be a tense affair and the event itself did not disappoint; after sprinting into a 3-0 lead thanks to goals from Bobby Charlton (2) and Dennis Viollet in the first half, Manchester United suffered a lapse of concentration and let the game slip to 3-3.
This matter was irrelevant overall. United went through 5-4 on aggregate to meet AC Milan in the semi final. Attention then returned to the league match back in England against Wolves. During the previous round Manchester United had had difficulties returning from the Dukla Prague game due to fog over England, which forced their flight to divert to Amsterdam, from where the team had to continue their- journey by ferry to Harwich and train to Manchester.
This escapade took its toll on the team which then drew a league game 1-1 with Birmingham. In order to try to prevent a repetition of such an event after the Red Star Match, United planned to fly back to England by chartered flight with British European Airways to ensure that the league match against Wolves would not be missed. Alan Hardaker, the Football League secretary, voiced the body’s opinion on European football as being full of ‘too many wogs and dagoes’, and Sir Matt Busby was all too aware that he could ill afford to give Hardaker, or the Football League itself, any reasons to be able to argue against Manchester’s new adventures in European football. As long as Manchester United fulfilled League fixtures, there was nothing that Hardaker could do about United entering Europe. The Football League’s negative stance towards the European fixtures did, however, increase the pressure on Manchester to return to England as quickly as possible after European matches.
On 6 February 1958, British European Airways Flight 609 carrying the Manchester United team on their victorious return to England crashed into surrounding housing at Munich Airport after failing to take off three times and exploded in a catastrophic fire. Despite 2 earlier, unsuccessful take-offs, the decision was made to have a third attempt at getting the flight off the ground. It was this final attempt on which the Flight 609 crashed so tragically through the end of the runway. The late Frank Taylor, a journalist who was on board the plane and survived, embodied the panic on the plane at the time of the crash in his memoirs:
“This couldn’t be happening to me. This was crazy. I could hear, as though far away in the distance, a tremendous rending and grinding of metal, and it was only when the airliner started to buck like a wild thing that I realised it was our aeroplane which was being ripped apart, as it slide helplessly along the ground. There was a tremendous hammering on the fuselage near my head, as though a giant was getting to work with a sledgehammer…Further down the fuselage, Matt Busby also felt the machine lurch to the right. Up went his hands to protect his face. Then he too lost consciousness. I believe we two were lucky that we did pass out, or the memories might have been much harsher to bear.“
Of the 44 people on board, 23 died in the crash (8 of them Manchester United players): Geoff Bent (25, Defender), Roger Byrne (28, Defender), Eddie Colman (21, Midfielder), Duncan Edwards (21, Midfielder), Mark Jones (24, Defender), David Pegg (22, Attacker), Tommy Taylor (26, Centre Forward) and Billy Whelan (22, Attacker). The loss was not only felt by Manchester United and its fans, as highlighted throughout this study. It was a loss felt on a variety of levels, both domestically and nationally. The news did, however, strike at the heart of Manchester and its communities and even today, the memory of the Busby Babes is especially poignant as a result.