Sadly, no history of Manchester United Football Club would be complete without reference to the events of February 6th 1958. Known solemnly as the Munich Air Disaster, the tragedy destroyed the original Busby Babes – the brilliant side of the late 1950s that was surely destined to succeed in Europe.
In total, 23 of 44 passengers lost their lives on that day and it’s time to remember those events and to honour their passing.
Having won the first division title at the end of the 1956/57 season, Manchester United had qualified for the European Cup the following year and Matt Busby’s side were making strong progress. In the days before Champions League Football, the original European Cup competition was a swift affair and, having brushed aside Czechoslovakia’s Dukla Prague in the first round, United were straight through to the quarter finals where they faced Red Star Belgrade.
The first leg took place at Old Trafford and Manchester United claimed a narrow, 2-1 lead thanks to second half goals from Bobby Charlton and Eddie Coleman. The second leg in Belgrade took place on February 5th and once again, it proved to be a battle.
United seemed to have the game won as they claimed a 3-0 lead by half time. Bobby Charlton was on target once again with a double strike while a second minute effort from Dennis Viollet had opened the scoring. Red Star fought back in the second period but a 3-3 draw on the night was enough to see United progress.
The team should have been in celebratory mode but the tragic events that followed would tear the heart out of the club.
The following day – February 6th 1958 – the United squad, plus staff, journalists, other passengers and crew, made their way back from Belgrade in poor weather. Their Airspeed AS-57 Ambassador Plane on BEA flight number 609 had made a scheduled stop for fuel in Munich and was struggling to take off again in poor conditions.
On the slush covered runway, two attempts to take to the air and complete the journey were thwarted. Boost surging was behind the aborted take offs and Captain James Thain was then left with two options. An overnight stay in Munich was available but, fearing that the aircraft was too far behind schedule, he attempted a third take off.
The actions were to prove fatal: Amidst falling snow, the aeroplane hit slush at the end of the runway and the pilots lost control. The left wing of the craft was torn off as the plane careered into a house and a major tragedy was about to unfold.
Immediately, it was obvious that this was a serious incident and that there would be multiple casualties. Only 44 people were on board this small aircraft but more than half would lose their lives as a result of that tragically unwise third take off attempt. Twenty would die at the scene and three more, including co-pilot Rayment would die in hospital from their injuries at a later date.
In terms of Manchester United players, no fewer than eight men lost their lives as a direct result of the crash. Tommy Taylor, Geoff Bent, Eddie Coleman, Roger Byrne, Mark Jones, David Pegg and Billy Whelan lost their lives on the day while Duncan Edwards died of his injuries 15 days later. At the age of just 21, Edwards was a phenomenal prospect and one that should have enjoyed a bright future in football.
Three members of Manchester United’s staff plus two crew members, two additional passengers and eight journalists also succumbed. It was an immense tragedy and one that left English football reeling in its wake.
Aftermath and Legacy
Manchester United bravely went on to compete in the European Cup but with a weakened side, they were no real match for their semi final opponents AC Milan. Hopes of an emotional appearance in the 1958 final looked possible when the Red Devils claimed a 2-1 first leg lead at Old Trafford but Milan breezed through by four goals to nil in the return.
During that ill-fated 1957/58 season, United had remained a force in English domestic football. A modest, ninth placed finish in Division One was undoubtedly affected by the disaster but the team did make it through to the season’s FA Cup Final at Wembley. Manchester United fans and many neutrals were willing Matt Busby’s side to succeed but it wasn’t to be.
Once again, this was an emotional ride and the fifth round tie against Sheffield Wednesday was notable as it was the first game for United since the Munich crash. Busby’s team won by three goals to nil before overcoming West Brom and Fulham. Unfortunately, the final was a step too far as a brace of goals from Nat Lofthouse saw Bolton Wanderers secure a 2-0 victory.
Manchester United struggled to put a team together in those early days following the crash. Aside from the fatalities, Jackie Blanchflower and Johnny Berry would never play again due to their injuries.
Some played on, most notably Bobby Charlton who would go on to form a Holy Trinity at Old Trafford. Former Manchester City striker Denis Law signed from Torino in 1962 while a young George Best made his way through the ranks to make his United debut a year later.
Matt Busby was rebuilding and United’s first success – post Munich – came in 1963 when the Red Devils beat Leicester City at Wembley to win the FA Cup. Law opened the scoring while David Herd, who had also been brought into the side following the tragedy, would notch a brace.
Division One success also followed but Busby had his sights set on the trophy that had seemed to be the destiny of his 1958 team. Having won the first division title in 1966/67, Manchester United qualified for the European Cup in the following season.
The previous year, Celtic had become the first British side to win this trophy but from an English club’s perspective, the battle was still on to make history. As it had been ten years earlier, the 1957/58 tournament was played on a straight knockout basis over two legs. United’s progress was fairly comfortable during the early rounds but Busby and his men faced a tough semi final against the mighty Real Madrid.
United edged the first leg by a 1-0 scoreline and on a dramatic night in the return, they held Real 3-3 to progress.
The 1968 European Cup final was scheduled to be played at Wembley so there was something of a home advantage for United to enjoy. Unfortunately for Denis Law, injury forced the Scot to sit out the game against Benfica but his replacement – a teenage Brian Kidd – scored as United ran riot against the Portuguese.
George Best also made his mark and Bobby Charlton scored twice as United won by a 4-1 scoreline in extra time. It was a happy night yet the memory of those who fell at Munich left a tinge of sadness. Anniversaries are rightly held by the club to mark the tragedy and a grim day which English football and Manchester United Football Club can never forget.