Men, women, young and old, just like the assassination of Kennedy, everyone knew where they were when they heard the news: The Manchester United plane has crashed!
I was brought up on stories of the Busby Babes. In adolescence I probably heard more of the tale from my paternal grandmother. Sunday afternoons spent in her little pensioner-bungalow, where clear recollections of someone who wasn’t much of a football fan at all, impressed upon me how important this special and brilliant collection of young men must have been.
The lesson would generally start when watching Brian Moore’s The Big Match, particularly if The Red Devils were on the silver screen.
My grandmother would only ever refer to them as the Busby Babes, the term coined by Manchester Evening News writer Tom Jackson in homage to the English League Champions of 1955/56 and 1956/57, with average ages of 21 and 22 respectively.
Looking back I could understand the local interest around the goalkeeping great, Harry Gregg, whose funeral I was honoured to attend last February on a home trip to Northern Ireland, and Belfast’s Jackie Blanchflower, brother of the revered Danny, who like Gregg survived the crash but injured and broken, never played the game again.
But the name always emerging more than any other was that of a lad from Dudley in the west Midlands. I had no idea where Dudley was (‘somewhere in England?’) but everyone talked about Duncan Edwards’ greatness, not only my grandmother. I learned the meaning of the word ‘colossus’ listening to stories of Duncan.
UK sports-writer Sam Pilger once asked Sir Bobby Charlton, now the only Munich survivor still alive, to describe how good Edwards was, and sitting in a box overlooking Old Trafford, he turned and looked at the pitch his young team-mate had once bestrode.
“He was the only player who made me feel inferior,” Charlton said.
Busby’s assistant, Jimmy Murphy moonlighted by doubling up as Wales manager. A few months before Edwards’ death he took charge of the Welsh team to face England at Ninian Park in Cardiff.
Before the game, Murphy stood in the centre of the Welsh dressing room, going through the strengths and weaknesses of each member of the England side in great detail.
As detailed in the book Manchester United Greats, by David Meek, Murphy talked about 10 players, but not Edwards, prompting one of his team, Reg Davies, the Newcastle inside-forward, to put up his hand.
“What about Edwards?”
“Just keep out of his way son, there’s nothing I could say that could ever help us.” replied Murphy.
Former Barcelona and England manager Terry Venables claimed that, had he lived, Edwards, not Bobby Moore would have lifted the World Cup trophy as England captain in 1966.
Former United and Scotland boss Tommy Docherty was even more lavish. “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 Pele and Maradona, but in my mind Duncan was much better in terms of all-round ability and skill.”
The Germans christened him Boom Boom, after he’d scored a thunderbolt against them in Berlin in 1956, inspiring England to a 3-1 victory.
To put this all in some perspective Edwards with his mighty strength, physique and fighting spirit which kept him alive in hospital for 15 days after the crash, was only 21. He had already played for United 177 times, winning two league championships, three FA Youth Cups, an FA Cup runners-up medal and 18 England caps.
Edwards was both the youngest player to appear in the first division at just 16 years and 184 days and the youngest England international of the 20th century, aged 18 years and 183 days, a record which stood for nearly 43 years before a certain Michael Owen claimed it.
The advent of regular TV football was still some years away, so only some grainy, old black and white newsreels exist of Edwards’ mercurial talent. The legend handed down through the years comes mainly from those with whom he shared a pitch or those lucky enough to see him play in the flesh.
Duncan Edwards had everything it seemed. Everything but time to show the world how good he could become....
There was a talented supporting cast to Edwards seven of which never returned home.
Roger Byrne (29) was the captain and English international full-back, tipped by many to be the man to eventually succeed Billy Wright as England captain.
Byrne was a doubt for the game in Belgrade, and so Geoff Bent (25), with only 12 first-team appearances in the previous 7 years was included as cover. As it happened, Byrne played, so Bent could reasonably be considered one of the unluckiest included on the aircraft’s manifest.
Eddie ‘Snakehips’ Colman was, like Edwards his half-back partner, only 21 and had over a century of first-team appearances to his name. His nickname was reference to his distinct body-swerve technique, the trademark of his game.
Twenty-seven workers at a Manchester box-making firm were dismissed from their jobs for leaving work to attend Colman’s funeral, All were reinstated very quickly afterwards.
Tommy Taylor (26) and Mark Jones (24) each hailed from the south Yorkshire town of Barnsley. Jones was another with in excess of 100 first-team appearances behind him. The loss of Taylor (along with Edwards and Byrne) severely hampered England’s chances at he 1958 World Cup in Sweden.
Taylor played 19 times for his country and scored 16 times.
Signed from Barnsley for £29,999, Busby didn’t want the striker to be burdened with a £30,000 price tag, so gave the Barnsley tea-lady a £1 note from his wallet to make up the shortfall.
United turned down a £65,000 bid from Internazionale for Taylor, which would have been one of the largest fees ever paid in world football at the time.
Outside-left David Pegg (22), another who hailed from Yorkshire, was also an England international and had accumulated 127 first-team appearances for the Babes.
And finally there was Ireland’s Liam ‘Billy’ Whelan (22). Like Bent, Whelan travelled to Belgrade but did not play in the game. A ball-playing inside-forward Whelan was United ‘s top scorer in the 56/57 Championship season with 26 goals, but such was the competition for places, in February ‘58 he was being kept out of the team by Bobby Charlton.
Whelan’s appearances for United fell just two short of the century. His goal ratio was impressive, scoring 52 times.
The Busby Babes played their last game in England on Saturday 1 February 1958, a 5-4 victory over Arsenal at Highbury as they sat second to Wolves in the table pursuing a third title in a row.
A few days later in Belgrade they were defending a 2-1 Champions’ Cup lead over Red Star, from the Old Trafford first-leg. Dennis Viollet and Bobby Charlton’s brace gave them what looked like an unassailable 5-1 lead within 30 minutes, which they held until half-time.
But the Yugoslav champions were far from done, and before an hour of the game had elapsed it was 3-3, United holding on grimly to go through 5-4 on aggregate.
Next day a happy Manchester squad arrived at Belgrade airport for the charter flight home, but the plane was delayed for an hour after Johny Berry lost his passport. It finally left and landed at Munich Airport for refuelling just after lunchtime.
But there were problems when BEA captain Thain attempted to leave Munich, post refuelling. After two aborted take-off attempts, passengers were instructed to proceed to the terminal, at which point it seemed they would stay in Munich for the night.
Duncan Edwards actually sent a telegram to his landlady stating all flights that day had been cancelled and he wouldn’t be home until Friday.
Fifteen minutes later however the passengers were called to re-board the plane.
The third and final attempt proved ill-fated, the plane skidding off the snow-filled runway, breaking through a fence and across a road before hitting a house. The tail was torn off and other parts of the aircraft hit a tree and a wooden hut filled with tyres and fuel, which exploded.
In what forever more was referred to as the Munich Air Disaster twenty passengers perished on board, and three died later in hospital. Manchester United’s great young champion team had been decimated. Seven were dead, the tally rising to eight after Duncan Edward lost his fight for life two weeks later and another, Jackie Blanchflower would never play again.
Former England and Manchester City goalkeeper Frank Swift, working as a journalist for the News of the World was pulled from the wreckage, but died in the ambulance transporting him to hospital.
A patched up side of reserves and loan players amazingly defeated the AC Milan of Cesare Maldini, Nils Liedholm and Juan Schiaffino in the first-leg of the semi-final at Old Trafford 2-1, but predictably the second-leg was lost, Milan scoring three second-half goals to run out 4-0 winners.
UEFA as a goodwill gesture included Manchester United in the draw for the following season’s European Cup competition. They were paired with the Swiss side Young Boys of Berne, but the English Football League denied them entry to the competition as they had not won the championship, their league campaign having crumbled in the aftermath of the Munich disaster.
The games against Young Boys went ahead as friendlies.
Those early English pioneers of the European game who perished on the snowy runway at Munich will never be forgotten.
Their legacy lives on in Manchester United - the team that wouldn’t die.
*Note: Two of the squad, Bobby Charlton (20) and Bill Foulkes (25) who survived the crash, went on to play in the 1968 European Cup Final in which Manchester United defeated Benfica 4-1 after extra time. Ten years after their darkest hour, Matt Busby had built another great side; his dream of European success finally achieved.