The Munich Air Disaster: Part III – Profiling the Busby Babes

by Sam Peoples

Following the crash, everything was different: the team, the players, the fans and the image. Charles Buchan expressed such sentiments when he described how the disaster affected him and how the loss was something greater than just a football team:

To me personally, it has been a great shock. I had seen them, at Highbury the previous Saturday [United won 5-4], give a wonderful exhibition of Soccer, one of the best for many years. I thought then, United, blossoming further with more experience, would become the finest Soccer machine of the century’.

This chapter will consider the most direct impact of the crash: on the team itself and those who broke into the team in the following seasons. Of the 11 men who lined up against Red Star Belgrade for the Busby Babes’ last fixture together, 7 either perished or lost their footballing prowess following the crash and in total, 8 players lost their lives in the crash. This chapter will consider these players, their fates and how some coped with the event and aftermath of the crash, using Bobby Charlton’s autobiography as a key source and focus.

Roger Byrne, who died at the scene of the crash, was not one of United’s most famous players but he represented the ‘perfect, resolved leader’ that any team required to be successful. In an interesting fact Roger was actually born in Gorton, the birthplace of Manchester City F.C but he was United through and through. His role as Captain helped him to gain 280 appearances and meant that he was an integral element of the Busby Babes. Even though he was only 28, he was considered a role model in the eyes of others as he represented a true professional for Manchester United. He was a gentleman, and even wrote a weekly column for the Manchester Evening News, providing a direct link between the players and the fans, something which Bill Foulkes took over upon Byrne’s untimely death. Tragically, not to his knowledge, he was soon going to become a dad. His wife broke the heartbreaking news that she was preparing to tell Roger he was going to be a father when the flight landed in England. He never learned of his child. Not only prolific for Manchester United, Roger had 33 caps for England prior to the crash and would surely have been part of the 1958 World Cup campaign if he had not died, alongside other England internationals Duncan Edwards and Tommy Taylor.

Tommy was one of Manchester United’s great traditional centre forwards and he also became the most expensive as Busby spent a record £29,999 on Taylor (avoiding the extra £1 to stop him becoming the English games first £30,000 man). He proved his worth with 131 goals in 191 appearances for United at the age of 26. He was a prolific goal-scorer, renowned for his heading accuracy and was considered by some as the ‘most powerful header of the ball in the English game’. He took his goal-scoring ability onto the international scene and in the World Cup 1958 qualifying campaign scored 8 goals en-route to the finals which he was tragically never able to play.

Billy Whelan was an Irish international inside forward from Dublin. At just 22 he had the world at his feet and what good feet they were. He emerged from the 1956/7 season as United’s second highest goal scorer with 33 goals in 53 appearances in all competitions, second only to Taylor’s 34 in 44 appearances. Only on the plane as a reserve, Billy did not play in the game against Red Star Belgrade, much the same as Geoff Bent. Geoff, 25, was Roger Byrne’s understudy and due to Roger’s consistency of fitness, Bent hardly managed to get appearances, only clocking up 12 appearances over 7 years. Alex Murphy believes he was good enough to walk into any other First Division team, such was his ability, but his Salford roots led him to be a loyal servant of Manchester United up until the crash that took his life.

Another Salford local was Eddie Colman who was the youngest player who perished, alongside Duncan Edwards at 21, and was considered to be an integral part to the United system. Referred to as ‘snakehips’ for his ability to swerve away from challenges, he represented the perfect partner for Duncan Edwards to create a balance in the midfield, contrasting Edward’s physical presence with his silk like touch and evasive runs. Steve Fleet, an ex-Manchester City goalkeeper who played for them at the time of the Munich disaster, recently gave a short interview to Steph Doehler for a fanzine magazine The Battle of Manchester, produced for the Manchester derby on 12 February 2011. Steve was best friends with Eddie from childhood and he reminisced about how they used to joke together about how ‘great it would be to earn a living playing sport’ but what is poignant about the interview is how it becomes apparent upon reading that the death of every player dramatically affected a lot of people. Steve was given the unforgiving task of telling Mr and Mrs Colman that their son had perished in the accident, what he refers to as ‘the hardest thing he had ever had to do’. It emphasises how those lost in Munich were not just football players but loved individuals. Accounts and recollections such as Steve’s humanise those who we only know through memories and give a depth to the disaster we would otherwise not be able to grasp.

Another highly rated player who was cut down by the tragedy was David Pegg, a 22-year-old south Yorkshire-man who clocked up 150 appearances and 28 goals in his short United career. He had lost his place to Albert Scanlon in the starting line up but with Real Madrid scouts openly admiring his ability, his future at United was certainly bright. He had links with England but tragically perished with just 1 cap to his name from a 1-1 draw with Ireland in 1957. Mark Jones, 24, was another South Yorkshire-man who played centre-half for United at a time when traditional, bulky centre forwards were prominent in English football, with Nat Lofthouse and Tommy Taylor symbolising this. Capturing 121 appearances for United, he was always fighting for his place with Jackie Blanchflower but for the Red Star Belgrade game, he was in possession of the starting spot. Although Jackie Blanchflower did not die in the Munich Air disaster, his injuries were so severe that he never played for Manchester United again.

Duncan Edwards, known affectionately as ‘Boom Boom’ to his team-mates, was considered by some as the greatest youth prospect ever seen. At just 21, he had already accumulated an impressive 177 appearances with 21 goals for United and 5 goals in 18 appearances internationally for England. Bobby Charlton once said that Duncan was the only player who made him feel inferior on the pitch and his death represented the greatest individual tragedy from the Munich disaster. Together, these players were all integral to the successes of the Busby Babes and were, collectively, irreplaceable.

It was not only with player losses that Manchester United suffered from the crash with Tom Curry (Trainer), Walter Crickmer (Club Secretary) and Bert Whalley (Chief  Coach) all losing their lives in the accident as well. Curry was regarded by Sir Matt Busby as the best trainer in football. He had been a trainer at Manchester United since the middle of the 1930s. Bert Whalley was made first team coach when Sir Matt became manager and had even played for United between 1935-1946. Walter Crickmer was a long standing member of the United backroom, having served for 32 years as club secretary as well as having managed Manchester United between 1931/2 and 1937/45.

Although Sir Matt Busby survived the crash, he was a remarkably different man after the incident. He only came back into football after his wife, Sandy, calmly told him ‘you know Matt, the lads would have wanted you to carry on’. The tracksuit management Busby personified pre-Munich was not the Busby that returned after. He left that sort of work to Murphy, Crompton and McGuinness (the new look training team at Manchester United). Instead, Matt Busby became more of a recluse in the office, ‘a distant, unapproachable figure’ at United. Arguably the most influential member of the backroom staff alongside Sir Matt Busby was Jimmy Murphy. Jimmy, Sir Matt Busby’s assistant manager, was only not on the plane that day because Jimmy was also manager of the Wales football team and they had a World Cup qualifier the same evening with Israel. Without Murphy, Manchester United may not have recovered as they did. Jimmy led a make-shift United team to their second consecutive FA Cup final later in the 1958 season against Bolton. Sir Matt Busby knew he had a loyal assistant manager and believes that without Murphy by his side, he would ‘never have reaped half the honours that came his way at Old Trafford’.

Part 4 looks at how Manchester United coped with the Munich Air Disaster and how the club began to rebuild.

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