Today marks the 60th Anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster, when 23 people were killed, including eight Manchester United players.
Many of those killed were then household names, such as England stars Tommy Taylor, Duncan Edwards and Roger Byrne, all of whom would have played in the World Cup Finals in 1958, probably in 1962, and possibly in 1966.
There are now only two living United survivors from the crash, Sir Bobby Charlton and goalkeeper Harry Gregg, who heroically went back into the burning fuselage of the wrecked aircraft to rescue injured passengers.
It’s no exaggeration to say that February 6th 1958 changed my life. It’s from the time of that terrible tragedy that I became a United supporter. When United played their first match less than a fortnight after the crash, in the FA Cup against Sheffield Wednesday, 17 players were unavailable through death or injury. Yet United won 3-0, all the goals being scored by 17-year olds from United’s youth system. Having seen the highlights in cinema newsreels, I was hooked.
In an emotion-driven Cup campaign, the hastily patched up team amazingly got all the way to the Cup Final against Bolton Wanderers. United lost to two goals by legendary centre-forward Nat Lofthouse, but the extraordinary Phoenix-from-the-Ashes recovery caught the imagination of people across the world.
But it wasn’t only the glory days of United’s recovery that changed my life, it was the philosophy of the stricken manager, Matt Busby, who was horribly injured and nearly didn’t survive, given the last rites twice. Matt’s team before Munich, where the team was flying home after a European Cup tie, had an average age of only 21.
United’s team were known as the ‘Busby Babes’ because of the way so many players came through the youth ranks, players such as Bobby Charlton and fellow World Cup winner Nobby Stiles, not forgetting George Best.
Youthful talent was supported, nurtured, trusted and encouraged at Old Trafford in a way that was strikingly unique and distinctive. Over 75 players from the youth ranks got their chance in the first team in the 25 years Sir Matt was manger. Even those who didn’t ultimately make the grade at United often had good careers elsewhere.
When United became the first English team to win the European Cup in 1968, with a 4-1 scoreline against Benfica 10 years after Munich, no fewer than nine members of the winning team were ‘homegrown’, coming through youth teams and reserves.
I was eleven when the crash happened and I learned a lot about death, grieving and loss at that time, including seeing an adult cry for the first time when our ‘babysitter’ came to make supper and was in tears, asking for us to put on the wireless to hear the latest about the disaster in Germany.
But it wasn’t just the awful facts of death and terminal injury that made their mark on me. As I devoured everything I could read about United and Busby, I became very struck by his belief in encouraging youth and creating an environment where talent could flourish without inhibition.
Matt was a kind and compassionate man who, having lost his father as a child in the trenches of World War One, knew about loneliness and exclusion. He was determined to create a family atmosphere at Old Trafford, and treat the children and youngsters in his charge with due respect and consideration. He was modern and forward-thinking in the way he gave such profound support to his players, who revered him for the rest of their lives.
I was captivated by Matt’s philosophy as a child, and was determined to live by similar precepts when I grew up and entered the world of work. The biggest compliment I had when head of a BBC TV documentary department was when I was seen consoling a distressed assistant producer. “Ah,” said the person overhearing my words, “it’s the Matt Busby School of Management in action.”
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