While I can’t recall the first conversation I had with my dad about the Munich Air Disaster, the knowledge of this huge piece of our club’s history is something that has always been apparent.
Sir Matt Busby’s statue stands outside the ground and “we’ll never die” is sung most weeks. The reminders of Munich are always with us.
It wasn’t until United’s young side of the 1990s emerged and began to dominate that it really struck me what a huge impact the crash must have had on Mancunians living through it. My dad’s uncle stopped going to watch United and traded his attendance at the football for Old Trafford the cricket ground instead. I’d love to have the opportunity to be a little lad in his terraced house in Whalley Range again and speak to him about the Babes. It was only when reflecting on the achievements of the ‘Fergie Fledglings’, or ‘Class of 92’ as they’re now known, that I really understood his decision for the first time.
Of course, the loss of eight of your players would be devastating regardless of how good they were, but to think of all the incredible potential that was taken away made it all the more painful.
Imagine if our Double winning side of ’96 had suffered a similar fate. David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, the Nevilles, Nicky Butt. Think about their contribution after that year and imagine what United would have looked like without them. Look at what they went on to achieve in the years that followed. Back to back titles on several occasions, the Treble, fearless and exciting football played by lads who had always dreamed of wearing our shirt. By all accounts, the Babes were even better. Bob Paisley claimed they would have dominated English and European football for a decade.
My favourite book about the disaster, Manchester’s Finest, details the account of David Hall, a Mancunian who was 11 at the time of Munich. It also includes anecdotes and memories of other United fans who watched the Babes too. They’d be on the same buses as the players and walk along Warwick Road with them on match days. One account is of a woman who had spoken to Tommy Taylor just days before the crash after our win against Arsenal at Highbury. Reading their pain and trying to imagine how it would have felt for Mancunians at the time is hard.
The clock on the kitchen wall above the electric fire was pointing to five to six when the side door burst open and my dad came rushing into the kitchen. It was a moment that time stood still, one that is still clearly etched on my brain fifty years later. Even now I can hear the words he blurted out.
“United have been wiped out.”
For a few seconds I didn’t understand what he was saying. We were in a state of shock. It was as if we’d just been told that members of our own family had been killed in a terrible accident.
Fans congregated at Old Trafford day after day and rumours suggested that Busby had died. The shock and grief is unimaginable.
This United team were pioneers. The Football League hadn’t wanted any English side to compete in the European Cup but Busby defied them and accepted the invitation despite the pressure from Alan Hardaker, the Football League secretary. He put the same pressure on Chelsea the season before, claiming European opposition teams were full of “wogs and dagoes” and they bowed to it. But Busby saw the value of playing in a competition that Hardaker claimed was a “waste of time”.
We were knocked out by Real Madrid in the semi-finals in our first attempt to win it but Busby wasn’t put off. United came back a second time and again booked their place in the semis after knocking out Red Star Belgrade.
United were still competing to retain the title though and Hardaker insisted that the team fly home on Thursday otherwise they would have to forfeit the game against Wolves at the weekend.
Ahead of that third attempt, Tommy Taylor and David Pegg moved to the back of the plane as they thought it might be safer there, but contrary to urban legend, they didn’t swap seats with Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet to do so.
After the plane went down, Harry Gregg was told to get away from the wreckage by the pilot, Captain Thain. “Run you stupid bastard, the plane’s about to explode!” So Gregg began to run but heard a baby crying. He called to the others around him who were fleeing for safety but they didn’t look back.
So Gregg went back in to the plane alone, found the baby, and brought her and her pregnant mother out to safety. Four years ago, Gregg met up with ‘baby’ Vesna and her brother Zoran who are both now in their 50s.
He returned to the plane, this time around the back, and found Charlton and Viollet, who he thought were dead. He dragged them, like “rag dolls”, away from the plane regardless.
Gregg went back again and saw that the tail end of the plane was in flames, and this was when he discovered Busby who was holding his chest in pain. After rescuing him, he started calling out for Jackie Blachflower, only to come across him crying, with the body of captain Roger Byrne lying on him. Blanchflower’s arm was bleeding badly so Gregg used his tie as a tourniquet.
A doctor came on the scene just for explosions to go off in the plane, knocking the doctor off his feet in to the snow.
Despite his incredibly courageous behaviour, Gregg has always played down his role as the Munich hero. “One day you will have to stand or run,” he later reflected. “You don’t know how you’re going to react till it comes. I’m proud of my record as a goalkeeper. I want to be remembered for what I did on a football pitch, not for what happened in an accident.”
Charlton was still strapped in to his seat when he came round after the crash, where Gregg had dragged him to. Viollet was lying next to him but was conscious, amid bodies around them in the snow.
German civilians showed up to help before any firefighters or ambulances. One man had a van and he put Busby and Blanchflower in the back to take them to hospital.
Charlton’s initial memories of being on the ward were of feelings of “rage”, that this had happened to the team that was “supposed to conquer the world”. As the days passed and Charlton was still in hospital, funerals of his friends and teammates were taking place back home.
After summoning up the strength to do so, Charlton went to visit Duncan Edwards in one of the rooms above him, where he and Sir Matt had been in oxygen tents. “I’ve been waiting for you,” Edwards told him. “Where the bloody hell have you been?”
Edwards, who some, including Charlton, claim was the greatest ever, lived for two weeks after the crash, much to the surprise of the hospital staff. It was put down to a result of freakish strength and willpower but he eventually succumbed to his injuries.
Busby remained in hospital for nine weeks and faced some particularly testing times in light of the disaster. He felt the guilt of surviving the crash while also taking on the responsibility for United travelling across Europe.
When speaking to Johnny Berry, a player who survived but suffered career ending injuries, Busby had to console the player of Taylor’s failure to come and visit him. Berry claimed Taylor was a bad friend for not coming to check on him, not knowing that Taylor had died. Busby had been told not to let Berry know the news as he was still struggling to come to terms with his own injuries.
Back home, some members of the board suggested that the club should close and then re-open at a later date when the situation and damage was clearer. Jimmy Murphy, who went on to take charge of the team in Busby’s absence, was one of the people who opposed this idea.
Murphy and Busby had been friends during World War II. Busby had seen Murphy giving a team talk in Italy to a band of troops and made him his chief coach when he was appointed as United manager. Murphy, who had been responsible for scouting and training the Babes since 1947, loved the players as much as Sir Matt, and had been instructed to “keep the flag flying” by the manager. There was no chance of the club being closed down under his watch.
“Don’t tell me what can’t be done,” he told the board. “When Matt Busby brought me here, they told me we’d never make a go of it, that it couldn’t be done. That Manchester United would never make a success. Told us we couldn’t win the league, playing kids. Told us we couldn’t match the best teams in Europe. And every bloody time we proved them wrong, so with respect sir, it can be done, it will be done, I’ll make sure of it.”
Murphy had escaped the disaster as he had been managing Wales in a World Cup qualifying game and learnt about the crash upon returning to Old Trafford. Busby’s secretary broke the news to him and he unsurprisingly broke down in tears.
Less than two weeks after the the tragedy, United played their first game, with blanks where the names of the players should have been in the matchday programme. The team was made up largely of academy players.
United’s hopes of retaining the title understandably faded, finishing ninth in the table, but reached the FA Cup final for a second consecutive year. Four crash survivors played in 1958, with six players from the final a year earlier among the dead and a further three unable to play because of their injuries.
Bolton won 2-0 thanks to two goals from Nat Lofthouse with the second particularly controversial, with the striker pushing Gregg over the line with the ball in his hands.
Yet this wasn’t to be the end of United. Busby lead his boys back to Wembley five years later and they won the FA Cup, beating Leicester 3-1. Two years later United won the league for the first time since Munich and Busby’s mission to win the European Cup continued. United were again knocked out in the semi-finals.
United won the league the following season and again gained entry in to the competition Busby was desperate to win. And this time, in 1968, they were successful, becoming the first English team to win it.
Charlton gave United the lead against Benfica before Jaime Graça equalised 10 minutes from time. In extra-time, George Best gave United the lead before Brian Kidd, another academy graduate and who turned 19 that day, put United 3-1 ahead two minutes later. Charlton scored the fourth and United were champions of Europe. Busby finally reached the Promised Land.
“There was never a day went by when the old man didn’t think about Munich,” Charlton later reflected. “Those were his kids who died that day. Sir Matt never really got over it. He’d been one of the pioneers of European football, and I think he always felt responsible. He was really satisfied when we won the European Cup in ’68 – but he’d rather have done it with his beautiful boys. The final against Benfica was the biggest game any English club had played in, and for those of us who had survived Munich it was a doubly emotional occasion.”
After the final whistle, Charlton and Busby silently clung to each another. “I didn’t say anything to the old man, because I didn’t need to,” Charlton continued. “I knew exactly what he was thinking, and how he was feeling. It was a big thing for the club, but it was a bigger thing for him personally. The lads who were killed in Munich had been his babies.”
We’ll never die.
Roger Byrne, David Pegg, Eddie Colman, Duncan Edwards, Tommy Taylor, Billy Whelan, Mark Jones and Geoff Bent.
The Flowers of Manchester.
— @redarmybet (@RedArmy_Bet) February 3, 2018