On 6th February 1958, Manchester United suffered one of the grimmest fates ever to befall a sports team. Sir Matt Busby, manager of the great team, once said, ‘My life had been spared, though it still hung on only by a thread. I wanted to die.’ That is how close ‘The Busby Babes’ had become and just how tragic the crash in Munich was.
An aeroplane carrying the whole United squad, a number of journalists and the crew, which was a total of forty-four people, crashed on take-off from Munich airport. Twenty-three people died, including eight players and several more were injured.
The aircraft, stopping to refuel, after a journey back from a European Cup tie in Belgrade had had two attempts before the crash to take-off. When a third attempt was made, at 3.04pm, the aircraft failed to get airborne. It overshot the runway, went through a fence and crossed a road before one of the wings struck a house. Seven of the players, Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Billy Whelan, were killed instantly, along with the club secretary, the first team trainer, the first team coach, eight sportswriters, one of the aircraft crew and two other passengers. In the weeks following, the plane’s co-pilot and the great Duncan Edwards passed away. Edwards was perhaps the most talented young English footballer to have ever been produced. This brought the final death toll to twenty-three.
In the aftermath of the crash, no one knew whether Manchester United would carry on but rebirth was part of the tradition that Busby built for the club. They would come fighting back despite the devastation and play on for their fallen colleagues and friends. It was a heartbroken Jimmy Murphy who returned from Munich with the monumental task of resurrecting Manchester United. Matt Busby was obviously severely ill in hospital and it was now up to Murphy to resurrect the club and continue with the season.
It was the performances in the matches afterwards that won the hearts of the nation. The Sunday after Munich, United’s game against Wolverhampton Wanderers got postponed under these extreme circumstances but the rest of the football league games went ahead. At three o’clock, football grounds up and down the country, with their flags at half mast, were hushed as supporters and players alike, wearing black armbands, stood with heads bowed as referees indicated a period of two minutes’ silence by a blast on their whistles. Similar tributes were paid on the continent. It was a phenomenal tribute from the whole of the footballing world to the tragedy.
It was announced later on the 12th February that their fifth round tie in the FA Cup was to be postponed until the following week and would be played under the floodlights at Old Trafford. On the night, the team which was announced had two members who were involved in Harry Gregg and Bill Foulkes, the captain for this game. Gregg, who had gone back into the wreckage of the plane to save his colleagues after surviving. They were a shadow side on paper that night but were driven on by the spirit of the team that had tragically lost their lives. Miraculously, this makeshift United team managed to win the match 3-0 and set up a quarter finals meeting with West Bromwich Albion. It was a feat that will have won a place in the memory of the 60,000 fans who saw it.
However, two days later, Duncan Edwards died in Munich.
The headline ‘another loss for United’ read out at the top of the Manchester Guardian that day, making people put the match two days earlier into perspective. Many years later, Bobby Charlton paid a tribute to his teammate, ‘the best player that I’ve ever seen, the best footballer that I’ve ever played with for United or England, and the only player to have made me feel inferior.’ This was a tremendous compliment to Duncan made by such a phenomenal player and person in Charlton.
It may have been a tremendous spectacle and miracle that United had come out on top but with some of the Babes still suffering in hospital, the celebration of making the FA Cup Quarter Final was put on hold. It was also announced on that day that Matt Busby was now out of danger. This was somewhat better news for everyone that their great manager would be alright. On 19th April 1958, Busby left Rechts der Isar Hospital to return home.
Under the guidance of Murphy, the presence of Busby and the return of Charlton, United would reach the final of the FA Cup that year and would eventually lose to a Nat Lofthouse inspired Bolton Wanderers side. The level of achievement, after such an emotional few months won over everybody in the country and United only grew in stature in the aftermath. The news footage immediately after the crash said ‘United had high hopes for the FA Cup, but now those hopes had been dashed’, they had proved this statement wrong, that there was still fight left in them and maybe they could move on from such a great loss.
Whether the plane should have been allowed to take off for a third time on the slush covered runway is another story but the fact is it was a devastating tragedy and everyone in Manchester and Britain mourned it. Manchester had lost one of the most promising teams that everyone had come to love.
Sir Matt declared in the Manchester Guardian on the 18th April 1958 that he could still lead his side into the FA Cup final, just three months after he nearly died in the crash. This type of fighting spirit was one of the main attributes of ‘The Busby Babes’ as they had come to be known, one of the qualities which made people fall in love with them. It is an event etched in the memory of a generation.
The tragedy was felt all over the world. For example, even in America it was on the news at the time. It was reported that ‘it is for Americans as if the Milwaukee Braves had been aboard’. The Braves were America’s first ever and at the time the biggest Major League baseball team around so they were comparing Manchester United team to them. The report also stated that ‘it would be a bitter loss to the world of sports’. The effect of the crash was extremely widespread as proven by this American footage.
However, the effect it had on the city of Manchester was where it was most greatly felt. People had come to love this team. As Bobby Charlton once said, ‘Before Munich it was Manchester’s club, afterwards everyone felt they owned a little bit of it.’ This sentence, said by such an influential man and one that was involved in Munich summed up the mood of the nation and the devastation that was in the air in the aftermath of the tragedy, people all over the country were in disbelief.