Munich at 60: The bitter ironies of football’s worst day

The wreckage of the British European Airways plane which crashed in Munich on February 6, 1958, while bringing home members of the Manchester United football team from a European Cup match.
The wreckage of the British European Airways plane which crashed in Munich on February 6, 1958, while bringing home members of the Manchester United football team from a European Cup match.
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It was a nightmare that had begun on a snowy airport runway in Munich, and ended on the floodlit turf at Wembley.

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Mourners stand in silence as the coffin of Roger Byrne, Manchester United captain, is taken from Flixton Parish Church, near Manchester, for the last journey to the crematorium.

Mourners stand in silence as the coffin of Roger Byrne, Manchester United captain, is taken from Flixton Parish Church, near Manchester, for the last journey to the crematorium.

On the 60th anniversary of the crash that decimated Manchester United, they will bow their heads in respect, not just for the eight players and 15 others who died – but also for the remarkable resurrection that saw Matt Busby’s new team, just 10 years later, become the first English side to lift the European Cup.

It was the sight of George Best dribbling the ball around Benfica’s goalkeeper and sliding it into the net; of Brian Kidd rattling the crossbar and then heading home the rebound; and of captain Bobby Charlton holding the trophy up to the skies, that in May 1968 defined the modern Manchester United.

It had been Busby’s crowning achievement – the personal goal for which had built one of Europe’s best teams and then built it again. A year later, he retired.

A decade before, they had twice given him the last rites. It was weeks until he even knew of the death toll.

The story of Munich is rich in irony. Manchester United had been flying home from a European Cup match against Red Star Belgrade when their BEA AS57 Ambassador crashed on its third attempt to take off from Munich-Riem Airport.

Busby said later that he had been wracked by guilt for pressing for his team to take part in the tournament, against the wishes of the Football League. As a result, he said, he hadn’t felt he could challenge the pilot about taking off in such bad weather.

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He need not still have been in the North of England at all – two years before he had been offered the manager’s job at Real Madrid, the team that had dominated the competition in its first decade.

Only the climactic victory at Wembley, at the height of a golden footballing era in which, less than two years earlier, England had held aloft the World Cup to the same Wembley sky, began finally to ease Busby’s sense of responsibility for the consequences of taking United into Europe, Bobby Charlton now believes.

“Winning the European Cup was something you could aim at to put things right in a way,” Charlton said. “The accident had happened, this great tragedy and loss.

“And if we could win the European Cup for Matt Busby because it was his team, his lads, it would be fantastic.

“I think Matt Busby could feel a lot happier because he probably missed the players more than anyone else. He felt responsible.”

Charlton, who says United could have lifted the Cup in 1958 if not for the crash, will be at Old Trafford this afternoon, alongside the families of current and former players, for a ceremony marking the passage of 60 years. It may be the last big anniversary the survivors will see.

The current United manager Jose Mourinho will lay a wreath on behalf of the club and players, with a minute’s silence at 3.04pm - the time of the fatal crash in Munich. The memorial will include a reading from the former manager, Sir Alex Ferguson.

The commemorations had begun at Old Trafford on Saturday, when United played Huddersfield. Fans were handed a commemorative pack containing a book about the disaster and a letter from Ed Woodward the executive vice-chairman. Munich, he wrote, was “forever woven into the fabric of this club’s history”.

At a ceremony in Germany today, the mayor of Munich will stand alongside some of the surviving doctors and nurses.

Read more:

Tommy Taylor: The Busby Babe from Barnsley who supped pints with Dickie Bird

The Yorkshire Post says: Lost in Munich – the legacy of the ‘Busby Babes’

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