When I was growing up, I often wondered why so many football fans had a soft spot for Manchester United even if their football allegiance lay elsewhere. Whenever they played in Europe my Charlton Athletic supporting dad and so many of his friends and relatives were always keen to see and talk about their European matches in particular.
Why was this? Well, the answer is to be found in the dramatic events of February 6th1958.
At the time Manchester United had a young team built by manager Matt Busby largely from players from their youth section. They were widely referred to as the Busby Babes.
United were travelling back from a European Cup tie in Belgrade where they had beaten Red Star Belgrade to reach the semi-final of the European Cup (now Champions League) when their plane veered off the runway at Munich airport following a refuelling stop.
The flight stopped to refuel because a non-stop flight from Belgrade to Manchester was beyond the range of the charter plane used. After refuelling, the Captain abandoned take-off twice. He made the decision not to abort the flight and stay overnight in Munich and tried to take off for a third time. By that time, snow was falling, causing a layer of slush to form at the end of the runway. After hitting the slush, the aircraft ploughed through a fence beyond the end of the runway and the rear wing was torn off when it struck a house. The plane exploded into flames.
There were 44 people on the ill-fated flight. 20 died in the plane and 3 died later in hospital. 8 of the dead were players including their star man 21-year-old Duncan Edwards. He was an England international and according to my dad would have been a star in the 1966 World Cup when he would have been 29 years of age. Sir Bobby Charlton and Sir Matt Busby both survived the crash but spent some time in hospital in Munich. Busby was given the last rites twice. He was renowned for his wise sayings which could fill a book. I like “There should be no conceit in victory and no despair in defeat.”
It was later formally established that the crash was caused by the snow and slush on the runway, which slowed the plane too much to enable take-off.
At the time of the crash Manchester United were in with a chance of winning the old First Division Championship (now Premier League) for the third successive year. The team was on an 11-match unbeaten run.
The crash not only derailed the team’s league title ambitions that year but also destroyed what promised to be one of the greatest teams in the history of English football.
It took 10 years for the club to recover after the tragedy, but Busby rebuilt the team and won the European Cup in 1968 beating Benfica 4-1. I remember watching the final at Wembley on TV and can still picture George Best’s iconic solo goal. What a player he was.
Football Clubs are defined by their history and the great players who played for them down the years. It is 63 years since that fateful day in Munich and like the Hillsborough tragedy it is right, and it is respectful that as a football family we remember and honour the memory of those who died in such tragic circumstances.
Peter Varney – Chairman, Integral Sports Management