Earlier this month, on February 6, the world of football in general and in particular Manchester United, the richest club on the, commemorated the 60th anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster, a dreadful tragedy that claimed 23 lives, prevented a group of young men from fulfilling their seemingly inexhaustible potential, and that grew, perhaps inevitably, into a tremendously sensitive subject.
Participating for the second time in the fledgling European Cup, Manchester United had eliminated the champions of Yugoslavia, and the team, together with a contingent of journalists and club officials, was on its way back from Belgrade to Manchester when a scheduled refueling stop in Munich ended in disaster. Manchester United only found the recipe to sustained success after the Second World War, largely thanks to the shrewdness of its Scottish manager Matt Busby, who joined the club in 1945, and the generosity of James W. Gibson, club president and chairman of the board from 1931 to his death in 1951. In this sense, Manchester United’s emergence from the ashes of the ruined Old Trafford stadium, bombed to near extinction in 1940, in a way mapped the progress of the whole country in the immediate aftermath of the biggest conflict the West has ever known.
Despite winning the league in 1952, Busby knew that his side would need rejuvenation in the immediate future—after all, this generation of footballers had sacrificed a large chunk of their careers in armed combat. Busby also understood that only through the development of an accomplished, efficient and extensive academy could the future success of the club be made sustainable. Thus, he deployed a major network of scouts well beyond the reaches of Greater Manchester and invited dozens, sometimes even hundreds, of children every week for trials at the club’s training ground, eventually assembling a small army of exceptional young players, the Busby Babes, who in the second half of the 1950s regaled the Old Trafford faithful with the best football in the country.
Up to that point football had been mirroring life, like it so often does: at a time when Britain learned that being on the winning side of a war didn’t spare the country from the deprivations of rationing and the hard toil of reconstruction, England was also awakened to the fact that even if they had invented the game football had evolved drastically over the previous three decades on both sides of the Atlantic. When the US team eliminated England in the first round of the 1950 World Cup with a goal by the Haitian forward Joseph Gaetjens it was brushed aside as a fluke. No such claim could be made when Hungary demolished England home and away in 1953, playing a style of football the English hadn’t even suspected existed. By the time an England side with such luminaries as Billy Wright, Nat Lofthouse (the Lion of Vienna), Tom Finney (the Preston Plumber) and Stanley Matthews (the Wizard of Dribble), was eliminated by the reigning champions, Uruguay, in the quarter finals of the 1954 World Cup it was undeniable that time had passed British football by.
For the 1955/56 season, though, Manchester United was able to field an embarrassingly talented team, with Duncan Edwards, perhaps the most promising of the lot, joining Bill Foulkes and Eddie Colman, Roger Byrne and Dennis Viollet, Mark Jones and John Doherty, Jackie Blanchflower, Tommy Taylor, David Pegg and others to seal an emphatic championship win in which the team remained unbeaten at home. United were crowned champions again the following year, and come 1957/58 it was miles ahead of everyone else, even if by February the team trailed Wolverhampton Wolves (which a few years earlier had proclaimed itself the best club in the world) by six points in the league.
In their second season in Europe, United managed to navigate a tough quarter final tie against Red Star Belgrade, whose young star Dragoslav Sekularac, the White Pelé, struck an immediate though all too brief bond with Duncan Edwards. After a long night out in the Yugoslavian capital, the team was meant to make its way back to Manchester aboard a chartered British European Airways flight. The conditions as the Airspeed Ambassador departed weren’t great and they got even worse once it reached Munich. Having refueled, the BEA captain had to abort two attempts to take off due to technical issues, and by the time the third effort got underway, about half an hour later, the airstrip had accumulated too much slush, slowing down the Ambassador’s progress at the critical time. The aircraft overran the runway, lost a wing, hit a nearby house and collapsed into a heap of raw fuselage and fuel. Twenty-one of those aboard were killed instantly, including a steward, three of the club’s staff, eight journalists, two courtesy passengers and seven players: Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, David Pegg and Billy Whelan as well as Eddie Colman, Mark Jones and Tommy Taylor, who together with Duncan Edwards had moved to the back of the plane, deeming it safer. Edwards himself succumbed to injuries a fortnight later, while Captain Ken Rayment, the co-pilot, died the following month. Meanwhile, Matt Busby agonized for weeks and was famously given his last rites—twice.
But Busby pulled through and was back at the helm of the first team at the start of the following season. He famously won the European Cup ten years later, when United’s cycle of pain came full circle. Standing by his side were Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes two of the survivors of Munich. But in the database of football knowledge shared by fans around the world the original Babes rank far above the Busby Babes 2.0 that beat Benfica in 1968. Had it not been for Munich the Babes would have prevented Real Madrid from winning the first five editions of the European Cup (even though they had lost to Madrid the year before); had it not been for Munich the Babes would have dominated English football for a decade (even though they trailed Wolves by six points at the time of the accident); had it not been for Munich England would have won the World Cup in 1958 (even though, in all fairness, at least half a dozen teams make similar claims every four years). Munich turned Duncan Edwards into a legend, vastly superior to any player of mere flesh and blood, and it instantly elevated the victims to the category of heroes.
Oddly, however, the same treatment did not apply by default to the players who actually survived the traumatic experience. It’s true that by the end of 1958, at a time when it was still uncertain whether Manchester United would survive as an institution at all, a special fund had raised more than £50,000 and was distributed among dependents of the victims and the survivors. Among the latter only Bill Foulkes and goalkeeper Harry Gregg made it out of the wreckage by their own means, with the latter famously ignoring the pilot entreaties to move away from the burning plane to rescue a number of victims. Both Foulkes and Gregg were there for United’s following game, against Sheffield Wednesday, and both stayed with the team, Foulkes until 1971 and Gregg, hampered by recurring injuries, until 1966.
Johnny Berry and Jackie Blanchflower weren’t so lucky: they both struggled mightily and were forced to retire from their injuries. Unhappily, once it became obvious they would not be able to come back they were asked to leave their club-owned homes to make room for their replacements. Furthermore, after the 1958/59 season Busby and the high brass at United seemed intent on severing all ties with the tragedy, dismissing Kenny Morgans, the youngest of the Babes aboard the Ambassador, in 1960, once it became obvious he would be unable to regain his form; Albert Scanlon, who performed well in 1958/59 was sold to Newcastle United in 1960, failing to make an impact at football thereafter, and struggling, not least financially, for the rest of his life; Dennis Viollet, who remained a prolific scorer, was shipped off to Stoke in 1962, where he enjoyed reasonable success. Only the case of Bobby Charlton, the poster face of United’s miraculous recovery, was drastically different. He became an ambassador of sorts of the club and the official representative, as it were, of the overcome horror, going on to become not only a local but a national hero by winning the World Cup with England in 1966 and the European Cup in 1968.
Manchester United got closure with the European Cup in 1968, but the survivors of the accident, all but three of them (Charlton, Foulkes and Busby) scattered by then, wouldn’t enjoy the same privilege until 1998, when the club finally agreed to hold a testimonial (to coincide with the retirement of Eric Cantona), the proceeds of which were donated to the players involved in the accident—approximately £50,000 each.
That United were overwhelmed by the magnitude of the loss experienced through the Munich Air Disaster is an understatement, but in the same measure it’s hard to understand (and impossible to judge) the devastating effect an accident of that sort would have had on the club and the people around it. With Busby fighting for his life, all that was left of the backroom staff was the chairman, assistant coach Jimmy Murphy and the two ladies in charge of doing the laundry at Old Trafford. And yet, those were hardened times, times in which the recent experience of war had made death a more regular presence in the ordinary life of everyman. Manchester United undoubtedly could have reached out earlier to its heroes, could have done more to ensure they spent their old age in comfort, at least monetarily. After all, if the world changed drastically in the second half of the century, the world of football went into overdrive, and by the 1980s, let alone the new millennium, the sort of resources available to clubs, especially clubs such as Manchester United, would have been unimaginable just a decade earlier. And yet, after all is said and done, there is a certain sense of inevitability to the controversy that has surrounded, in recent years, United’s handling of this impossibly delicate affair—no matter how the club might have behaved, one gets the feeling that criticism would have followed suit. That’s just the way first rate tragedies work.
Published by the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on Saturday February 24, 2018.