For a football obsessed child born in the early sixties, the fascination shaped by a Father superbly skilled in bringing the history of the game to life, the Munich air crash of February 6 1958 cast a long shadow. With the advent of the 1970s and the widespread arrival into most homes of magazines such as the Radio Times and various football titles, all featuring colour photographs, the black and white images of the tragedy seemed to fix it in a distant era, although in truth it was less than ten years before I regularly started attending football matches.
Although not a Manchester United supporter, when talking of the Busby Babes team – eight of whom perished in the disaster – my Dad always spoke (still does) in the most respectful, highly complimentary way. Along with the club he followed, Wolverhampton Wanderers, they had emerged as the dominant forces in English football as the Fifties drew to a close. By way of sad irony, of which there are many attached to the tragic episode of Munich, is that two days after the crash on Saturday 8 February 1958, Manchester United were due to play top of the table Wolves at Old Trafford, second placed United aiming to close a six point gap on the league leaders. Obviously the match did not take place, the fixture finally fulfilled toward the end of the season when a United team decimated by the crash and now populated by players hastily recruited from other clubs were easily beaten by a Wolves team who had already clinched the title, although to their enormous credit the journeymen recruited to fill the enormous void managed to reach Wembley in the FA Cup Final, where Manchester United were to lose 2-1 against Bolton Wanderers.
While the human tragedies of Munich must always remain paramount when considering the awful events of that February day, the implications for football are also worth a degree of consideration. Returning from a European Cup quarter-final second leg tie away at Red Star Belgrade whom United had overcome to reach the last four – the stop at Munich was for the aeroplane to refuel – such was the burgeoning development of the Busby Babes, the possibility of them winning the trophy that season cannot be ruled out, even accounting for the way Real Madrid were dominating the competition. As the ‘Babes’ continued to improve would Wolves have won successive Championships as the decade drew to a close? Would Spurs have achieved the Double in 1960-61? Five of the young men who lost their lives, Roger Byrne, Duncan Edwards, Mark Jones, David Pegg and Tommy Taylor had all been capped by England and were becoming established international players so who knows what bearing they would have had on the national team, particularly at the 1958 and 1962 World Cup Finals. It is also safe to assume the prodigious talent that was Duncan Edwards would have featured in the 1966 and 1970 tournaments as well.
The history of Manchester United in the 1960s would be vastly different as well. Had Munich not occurred it can be safely assumed the team assembled by manager Matt Busby, who despite suffering life-threatening injuries survived the crash, would have secured a significant haul of trophies. As it was Busby managed to rebuild his shattered squad and by 1963 had compiled a team good enough to win the FA Cup and within two years Munich survivor Bobby Charlton, Scottish international Denis Law and a Belfast-born teenage wonder named George Best, had formed the dazzling ‘Holy Trinity’ of Old Trafford as United won the League Championship for the first time since the Babes had pulled off back-to-back title wins in 1955/56 and 1956/57. The ‘Holy Trinity’ were instrumental in leading United to another Sixties title win in 1966/67 which once again brought entry into the European Cup and ten years on from Munich the dream of becoming European champions was finally realised – Charlton, two years before a World Cup winner with England and centre-half Bill Foulkes, the two Munich survivors still in the United team, finally collecting the European Cup winners medals the crash disaster seemed destined to always deny them.
The first time I ever saw a fixture involving Manchester United was at the age of ten in September 1972 when they played against Wolves at Molineux. In what would prove to be the final full season with United for both, Charlton (retiring in May 1973) and Best (now beholden to a chaotic lifestyle) are part of a team that has stagnated since the European Cup triumph of four years before and easily beaten. Watching brief highlights of the game recently it is a surprise to see how out of sorts they each are, neither more than peripheral figures as the home side dominate in midfield and create countless chances. Forty six years later it occurred to me had it not been for Munich I might have seen Duncan Edwards play that afternoon as being only year older than Charlton he too might have been at the nether end of his career, but once again the awful finality of Munich is brought to bear as Edwards, just twenty one when he passed away, had already been dead for fourteen years.
So is today, the 60th anniversary of the Munich disaster, any more significant than the previous anniversaries when another ten years has gone by? With two of the seventeen man squad who were on board the plane when it crashed on take-off (Charlton and goalkeeper Harry Gregg) still alive, there is an embodied attachment to the fateful day and many can still recall where they were when the news broke, wireless and newspapers the principal source of information. In terms of the milestone yes there is an added poignancy and given the figure there will be increased coverage as those who died are remembered – but the Busby Babes deserve to be revered just as much tomorrow and thereafter as they will be today.
NEIL SAMBROOK is the author of MONTY’S DOUBLE – an outstanding new thriller now available as an Amazon Kindle Book.