One cold and bitter Thursday in Munich, Germany,
Eight great football stalwarts conceded victory.
Eight men will never play again, who met destruction there,
The flowers of English football, the flowers of Manchester.
The story of the Busby Babes is one told often but one that isn’t told often enough.
As the song states on a cold Thursday in Munich following Manchester United’s European Cup quarter final win over Red Star Belgrade, a great tragedy befell the plane carrying Sir Matt Busby’s team ‘The Busby Babes’.
Stopping over in Munich to refuel as a non stop flight from Belgrade to Manchester was impossible in those times, the plane attempted two take offs which had to be abandoned, adverse weather conditions had started to set in but a third attempt was made. It was this third attempt that brought calamity as the plane failed to leave the runway, skidding to it’s end before ploughing through a fence at the end of the strip.
One of the plane’s wings was torn off as it smashed into a house, part of it’s tail went too. The left side of the cockpit hit a tree and the fuselage or the main body of the plane which would have been holding the players hit a hut.
There were 23 fatalities, 8 of whom were Busby Babes:
Liam ‘Billy’ Whelan
and of course Duncan Edwards who passed away in hospital a number of days after. It wasn’t just players who lost their lives though, club staff like Tom Curry, Walter Crickmer and Bert Whalley also passed away as well as a number of journalists and civilians.
There were survivors from the wreckage, Sir Matt himself pulled through as did players like Billy Foulkes, Albert Scanlon, Harry Greg, Jack Blanchflower, John Berry, Kenny Morgans, Dennis Viollet, Ray Wood and Sir Bobby Charlton.
It is in moments of problems and crisis rather than prosperity that we see the true nature of people and a man that should be eternally praised is Harry Gregg. Rudyard Kipling spoke of the virtue of being able to keep your head when those around you are losing theirs and that is exactly what Gregg did. Nobody would have condemned anybody for panicking in such an instance but Gregg remained calm and showed a bravery like no other, defying calls to get away from the plane that could explode at any time and instead went back to rescue some of the passengers.
He helped rescue Viollet and Charlton as well as tending to Sir Matt and Blanchflower but he also saved a mother and her daughter, Vera and Venona Luki?. What is even more remarkable about Gregg’s act of selflessness is the fact that Vera was pregnant at the time so in saving mother he also saved child, a son to be named Zoran.
England wept at our plight, a tragedy that saw young men who had been full of life just 24 hours previously extinguished. Their youth and zest would be forever immortalised by us the fans who celebrated the ‘Bouncing Busby Babes’ and whilst we can be happy that they will be forever remembered in their youth we must think what if the disaster hadn’t taken place?
I have only seen footage but it does not do justice to a team that had the world at it’s feet, they had already won the title in 1956 and 1957 Sir Bobby Charlton described Duncan Edwards as “the only player that made me feel inferior” and in speaking of his death said it was “the biggest single tragedy ever to happen to Manchester United and English football”.
Lofty praise indeed add to this Tommy Docherty said
“There is no doubt in my mind that Duncan would have become the greatest player ever. Not just in British football, with United and England, but the best in the world. George Best was something special, as was Pelé and Maradona, but in my mind Duncan was much better in terms of all-round ability and skill.”
and you begin to get a fuller picture of what the world were prevented from seeing.
Of course we bounced back and the tragedy made United stronger, just 10 years later Sir Matt was at the helm of a team that again forayed into Europe but this time would not be prevented, would not be denied from the ultimate goal of raising the European Cup but the tragedy is something still felt 53 years later.
It is ingrained in our club, something not to be forgotten but to be remembered and even celebrated that we were even blessed to have seen this team even if only briefly.
The disaster was an event not just in the history of Manchester but also England and world. It was an event on a world scale as well as a personal scale, the people that died were husbands, sons, brothers and a wife, people who had lives beyond football.
The disaster also showed the power of man, our ability to overcome such adversity as well as our ability to rise above an situation placed in front of us, things that should be celebrated amidst the mourning.
So let nobody forget what happened on this day in 1958.
Rip to all those who lost life in Munich on that day.
RIP to the Flowers Of Manchester, the greatest team the world never saw.