The Munich Air Disaster and The Busby Babes

A statue of Sir Matt Busby outside the Old Trafford Stadium, home of Manchester United Football Club at Old Trafford in Manchester, UK. Photo: Visionhaus/Gary Prior (Photo by Ben Radford/Corbis via Getty Images)

February 6th 2019 marked the 61st anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster, a fateful afternoon that claimed the lives of 23 passengers, including eight of Matt Busby’s young Manchester United squad known as The Busby Babes.

The Busby Babes, as they were known by fans and rivals, would forever be remembered in the club’s fabric and history. Here we take a look at how mighty the squad were in their prime, the events before the crash and the team’s legacy.

The Busby Babes and the Munich Disaster

The Architects: Matt Busby and Jimmy Murphy

The 1957/58 season started with Manchester United making the headlines all over England. Under manager Sir Matt Busby and coach Jimmy Murphy, the young side were champions of England the previous season. Often nowadays, when we talk about The Busby Babes, we fail to credit the heroics of the lanky Welshman, Murphy.

Busby was a blue collar worker who would submit the final blueprint. Murphy, rather, was the nut and bolt worker, who would put everything into shape and deliver the finished product. Together, they would nurture a young United squad which raised a question in every rival player’s mind: “how can they win like that when they are kids?”

With the all-new European Cup making the rounds amongst the UEFA-affiliated nations in Europe, United, being champions of England the previous season, decided to take part in it. However, the Football League’s secretary, Alan Hardaker, initially denied the entry of the Red Devils. He believed that it would be best for any English team to not participate in European competition.

Chelsea, in the previous season, did not participate due to pressure from The Football League. Matt Busby, along with chairman Harold Hadman, forced United’s way into the 1957 European Cup. Manchester United became the first English team to play in a European competition. Although Real Madrid, the winners of the 1956/57 competition, defeated them in the semi-finals, following the English league triumph in the successive season, United took part in the 1957/58 season as well.

The Busby Babes Buzzing

United were in a tricky position at the start of the year. The European competition was taking its toll and league matches were becoming tougher day by day. Their previous European fixture with Dukla Prague saw them win 3-1 in aggregate but foggy conditions in England forced United to take a much more exhausting route back. They flew to Amsterdam from where they sailed to Harwich, and then a train back to Manchester. Three days later, they drew 3-3 against Birmingham City, losing valuable ground to title contenders Wolverhampton Wanderers.

Their next European fixture was against Yugoslavia’s Red Star Belgrade in the quarter-finals. A 2-1 win at Old Trafford meant United required a draw away to qualify for the semi-finals twice in as many years. At the weekend, United went to Highbury to win an exciting 5-4 clash against Arsenal. It was a fantastic exhibition of attacking football from the Busby Babes as goals from Tommy Taylor, Dennis Violet, Bobby Charlton and Duncan Edwards saw them breeze past The Gunners. The match also marked the last time many of the players would play in English soil.

European Cup: A Costly Affair

A risky away tie at Belgrade and a crucial league tie against Wolves on Saturday saw United in a chaotic situation. Matt Busby rang up the Football Association and asked them to delay the fixture for a day. Out of options, they decided to charter a British European Airways plane to return by Friday, 24 hours ahead of the clash. A nerve wrenching 3-3 draw in Belgrade saw United qualify for the semi-finals 5-4 on aggregate. After the match, a cocktail party was thrown at The British Embassy at Belgrade. There was an air of jubilation around the players.

On their way back, the plane stopped at Munich to refuel. While at Munich, the plane refuelled and tried to take off, but heavy snow on the runway and an odd accelerating engine forced the captain to abandon take off. A second take off was scheduled half an hour later, but that too was called off. An air of nervousness surrounded the players and passengers. Full-back Bill Foulkes remembered: “David Pegg got up and moved to the back: ‘I don’t like it here, it’s not safe,’ he said and went off to sit with the other players. I saw the big Frank Swift back there. He also felt that the rear was the safest place to be. I kept the deck of cards firmly inside my jacket pocket.” The plane prepared for a take off for the third time, and disaster struck.

The News Breaks: Manchester’s Dearest are No More

Back in Manchester, the news broke at late evening. Jimmy Murphy, who was also the Wales manager at that time, had a World Cup qualifier against Israel on the very same day. Wales won 2-0 and an ecstatic Murphy went to the club after returning from Israel when Busby’s secretary, Alma George, broke the news to him. “The words were ringing in my head, my head was in a state of confusion,” Murphy said. A Manchester Evening News headlines read as: ‘UNITED CUP XI Crash: 28 Die’.

Within an hour or so, news started filtering out in the street that Manchester’s dearest boys are no more. Some of the relatives and supporters had already gone out to Manchester airport to welcome the team home in triumph. Chief scout Joe Armstrong was rushed to the airport where he apprised them with the news. Jean Busby, wife of Matt Busby, collapsed in tears as wives and girlfriends of players clutched onto each other.

In Munich, it was complete mayhem at the Rechts der Isar hospital. Edwards and Busby were kept in oxygen tents, Bobby Charlton had a bandaged head and Jackie Blanchflower was nursing a badly gashed arm. Dennis Viollet had a gashed head and facial injuries. No one had a clue about how many survived and how many did not. Bill Foulkes recalled: “We were about to leave the hospital when I asked a nurse where we should go to see the other lads. She replied ‘others? There are no others, they are all here.’ It was only then that we knew the horror of Munich. The Busby Babes were no more”. The doctors still claimed that Duncan had a great chance of survival.

Manchester United Will Go On

The Football League called off the match between Manchester United and Wolves at the weekend. An announcement was made regarding the postponement of The FA Cup tie against Sheffield Wednesday. On Saturday afternoon, the Old Trafford Stand, which hosted 60,000 odd supporters on a game week, stood deserted. Jimmy Murphy faced the board of directors where they shockingly decided to shut down the club. Murphy gave an answer which forms the very principle on which Manchester United lies till today.

“I know these players better than anyone else in this room. I found them, nurtured them,  stood with them, in the winds as well as the snow. And they repaid this club with their skill and passion and now with their lives. When Matt and I started this, nobody believed we could win something with these young lads. Nobody believed Manchester United could ever replicate success. We cannot win the league with kids, we cannot match the elite teams in Europe and every time we proved them wrong. It is not about their memory, it is about who we are, showing we will not be bowed down by tragedy, because how we are in the future will be founded on how we behave today” Murphy signed off.

The United Way

They come back the United Way. Murphy quickly signed a number of players by which United could make an emergency team. Among the survivors, Harry Greg and Bill Foulkes were the only ones fit to play. Stan Crowther from Aston Villa and Ernie Taylor from Blackpool got a free transfer. Shay Brennan and Mark Pearson from the reserves secured promotion into the first team. Together, they put up a team to face Sheffield Wednesday.

Charlton said later: “The very thought of ‘How am I going to pass to a player knowing it’s not Duncan?’ shook me from the inside”. He went to the stadium and sat with Jimmy Murphy in the dugouts. The next morning after the match, Charlton was back in training. The front cover of the match program read “Manchester United will go on”.

The Flowers of Manchester: Gone but Never Forgotten

United defeated Wednesday 3-0 to progress into the next round. With a handful of players who hardly knew each other until the morning, Murphy took them together in the field to make them play as one team. Manchester United went on to reach the FA Cup final that season. With a team of reserves and some non-professional footballers, United made a miraculous achievement. It was an impossible feat coming only three months after the crash that devastated the team. In the toughest times, the spirit, passion, and the zeal to win made the club go on. The mentality of the club changed after the tragedy and that legacy has been carried on till today.

Before the final, Sir Matt Busby paid a visit to the dressing room with the help of a walking stick. United wore shirts that featured a phoenix out of flames, rising from the ashes. Murphy said in the dressing room pre-match, “To come this far has been a miracle. We have already won just by being here.” They were beaten 2-0 by Bolton Wanderers.

What makes the Busby babes different from the other great teams in the history of football is the fact that they were not only the best team of their time they were the most loved team too. The whole country loved them, irrespective of rivalries. When the club was going through a rough patch and had no money to make new signings, kids donated from their pocket money, wives donated from their savings at the time of the tragedy. All of these did not come only due to the love towards the club, it came for the love of these lads too, and the love is what has kept them alive among the memories of the fans worldwide till day.

Sir Matt Busby went on to manage Manchester United until 1971 and finally got his hands on European glory. Ten years from the crash, Charlton captained the United side which boosted the qualities of Dennis Law and George Best to win the 1968 European Cup. Sir Matt Busby did achieve the dream. His revolutionary concept of winning with a young squad paved an example for future greats to win the game with youths. Manchester United kept the red flag flying high.

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