Sir Bobby Charlton has dedicated his career to Manchester United, spending an incredible 43 years on the books at United. He represented the club as a player for 19 years, before rejoining the club on the board of directors in 1984.
He was just 20 years old when aboard the flight which crashed in Munich, where 23 lives were lost. Had he not swapped places with Tommy Taylor before the third attempted take off, he would have been amongst the players who died.
On the 50th anniversary of the disaster, Charlton has spoken to MUTV about the lead up to the tragedy, the crash itself, and what was to happen afterwards.
The two games against Red Star Belgrade were tight. We were only a goal ahead after the home game, which was strange because we normally took control at home. Confidence was high that we could beat them, but they had good players like Šekularac and Kostic, who scored from a free kick, bending it over the wall. We were ready for the tie because we’d had tough games already. But when we were drawn against Red Star it was a new challenge for us because we’d never played anyone from that part of the world before. They were very efficient and had a volatile crowd. But we were well prepared and within the first half hour were 3-0 up against one of the best teams in Europe, and this was to get into the quarter-finals!
The pitch was bad. It was muddy, it had been drained and had thawed, but there was a crust of snow and ice on the top – making the ball ping about. It was great for shooting, though. And then we started cruising, taking things easy and got ourselves into all sorts of trouble. I think it was inexperience, playing in Europe was new to us. Back at home, we’d never lose a three-goal lead. Then, with five minutes to go they equalised and it was very tense, thankfully the referee blew his whistle and we were through – it was fantastic.
The weather was bad. There was snow on the runway and the facilities airports have these days were not available. The pilot had three attempts at taking off. After two we came back and stayed in the airport. Eventually the officials said it was okay to go. The slush on the runway was the problem. The plane, the Elizabethan, took a long time to take off as it needed a long runway but it didn’t make it. Even now it’s hard to take in.
We went through the outer fence and everyone knew then something wasn’t right. It was a dreadful thing, the worst thing to happen in a sporting context – young players at their peak taken away. People were so excited about what United were doing in Europe – we were representing our country.
I didn’t know where I was. I was still sitting in my seat – which had somehow been ripped from underneath the plane. I thought I’d just closed my eyes. Afterwards, Harry Gregg and Bill Foulkes said I’d been unconscious for quarter of an hour. In that time they’d been going in and out trying to help people out. It was a very brave thing to do – the plane was on fire and broken in half. Those two ought to be thanked for what they did.
The first two times we failed to take off I had taken my coat off leaving the plane. For the third time I didn’t, because I thought if I have to get off the plane again I wanted to have it with me because of the cold. After the crash, when I saw Matt Busby near me in a pool of water, I put my coat underneath him. It was clear he was seriously injured.
We reached the hospital and tried to see the rest of the players. I remember it very clearly, sitting in that waiting room. I had concussion and cuts on my head, but I started ranting and raving at this poor lad. A medic put an injection in my neck – and I don’t remember anything else until the next morning.
There was a young lad in the same room as me the following day and he had a newspaper – he told me all about the accident. His English wasn’t great, but he was gesturing. Then I went through the list of players in my mind – and he told me if they were alive or dead.
There were a lot of men on the flight who were just guests. There were people on the plane such as journalists, representatives from the embassies and their staff from Belgrade coming to England for a stay. They were all killed, too. Frank Swift – a great goalkeeper who played for England and Manchester City, a great name in the football world, then a journalist, also died. I’m just so fortunate that I was able to walk away from it. Duncan [Edwards] was seriously ill – but he didn’t pass away immediately. People tell me that perhaps with today’s medical advances he could have been saved.
He was in the Army with me and it was a huge shock for him to die. We lost staff members, too. Bert Whalley, Jimmy Murphy’s assistant, Tom Curry, the old trainer who organised the boots, equipment and training and, of course, the club secretary Walter Crickmer – we lost them as well.
Once the accident happened we suddenly thought about how it would never be the same again. By that we meant would we repeat performances that resulted in us beating Arsenal twice that season by playing excellent football with confidence? We were so good as a team that when Munich happened it was so bad. It was demoralising for everyone; the families, the players, the fans. It was unbelievable. You hear about these things and think it’ll never happen to you.
Looking on the brighter side – Harry Gregg and Bill Foulkes came back to play, I followed after that and we had to pick ourselves up. It was our quest that Manchester United win the European Cup because if it hadn’t been for that accident we would have done it that year – of that I’m certain. We feared no-one, no challenge was too big.
We knew it would take a long time to rebuild. Matt Busby said it would be five years before we would win a major trophy. Almost five years to the day we lifted the FA Cup. And 10 years later we were champions of Europe. Winning the European Cup was a debt of gratitude to those that died – they had started the cause that we were fighting.
That night in 1968 was something special. Everyone in the world wanted us to win at Wembley and doing so was part of the history – it was important we managed it.
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