Much like present day, in the mid fifties Manchester United were dazzling football fans everywhere with their skill and triumphs on the pitch. The team had entered the 1956-57 European Cup and reached the semi-finals, only to be knocked out by eventual winners Real Madrid; they were thus one of the favourites for the 1957-58 tournament.
That first week of February 1958 saw United play a European Cup match against the Yugoslavian team Crvena Zvezda (Red Star Belgrade), which ended in a 3-3 draw. An exhausted but proud Manchester United had got through to the Semi Finals of the European Cup for the second year running.
All domestic league matches were played on Saturdays while European matches were played midweek and in this instance United were scheduled to meet current League leaders Wolverhampton Wanderers in match on the Saturday following the Belgrade game.
As this important match could ultimately decide the destination of the Championship, it was vital that United didn’t miss the game, even if it meant flying home under risky weather conditions. Which they did.
To ensure things went as smoothly as possible, it was decided therefore that to charter a plane for the sole use of flying the Manchester party home, including team, officials and press. British European Airways was approached and a 47 seater Air Ambassador ‘Elizabethan class’ was given to the party.
At the time the team were known as the Busby Babes, referring to not only their manager Matt Busby but also to the unusually young average age of the players. The passenger list for that fateful flight read like a “Who’s Who” of British Football greats.
Players included Manchester-born Roger Byrne, the club’s team captain; Geoff Bent; Jackie Blanchflower, brother of Irish International Danny; Bobby Charlton, brother of the equally famous Jackie; schoolboy prodigy Eddie Colman; Duncan Edwards, who was once the youngest ever player to play for England; and goalkeeper Harry Gregg, who had been bought recently for £23000;
Also on board was the youngest of the “Babes” 18 year old Ken Morgans, and their most expensive player Tommy Taylor, who four years previous had transferred from Barnsley for £29,999. In all there was an unprecedented list of British football talent of which the total team was valued at the then-astounding sum of £350,000.
Aside from the team itself, manager Matt Busby was joined by were a dedicated threesome. Club secretary Walter Crickmer; coach Bert Whalley and Tom Curry, trainer; each of whom had been with the club since the 30s. Press on board included many reporters from local and national papers.
As already mentioned, weather conditions on that day were awful, but the plane had to reach its destination. Things got off to a bad start as the takeoff from Belgrade was delayed for an hour due to player Johnny Berry losing his passport. Once this mini crisis had been resolved, the plane made a scheduled stop in Munich for refuelling.
The warning signs were there from the start; the pilot, captain James Thain, tried to take off twice, but both attempts were aborted due to engine surging. A third take off was attempted at 3:04 pm, and the plane left the ground. However, it failed to gain enough height and crashed into the airport’s perimeter fence, before hitting a nearby, unoccupied house.
Seven of Busby’s Babes died immediately and Duncan Edwards died from his injuries on 21 February. Johnny Berry and Jackie Blanchflower were both injured so badly that they never played again. Matt Busby himself was seriously injured and had to stay in hospital for two months after the crash – during which time he was read his last rites. Twice.
There was immediate speculation in the Press that the club would fold, but a ravaged United team soldiered on to complete the 1957-1958 season, with United's other coach Jimmy Murphy standing in as manager.
In the first match after the crash a team largely made up of reserve and youth team players beat Sheffield Wednesday 3–0. The programme printed for that match simply showed a blank space where each United player's name should have been.
This was the only league victory of that season and the disaster naturally caused their title challenge to collapse, sending them down to ninth place in the league. They did however manage to reach the final of the FA Cup, losing 2–0 to Bolton Wanderers.
The following season Busby returned to the role of manager eventually built a second generation of Busby Babes, including George Best and Denis Law. Ten years later, United went on to win the European Cup in 1968, beating Benfica. Two of the players that day included crash survivors Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes.
Initially the crash was originally blamed on pilot error, but it was subsequently blamed on a build-up of slush at the ends of the runway, which had slowed down the plane during take off, therefore preventing it to reach safe take-off speed.
In the inquiry into the accident it was noted that during the take off, the aircraft had attained a speed of 117 knots, but the slush caused speed to drop to 105 knots. With not enough runway left to abort the take off, the pilot was committed to salvage the situation, even though it was a physical impossibility.
Despite these findings the German airport authorities took legal action against Captain Thain, who had survived the crash, claiming evidence from a photo taken of the plane shortly before take off revealed that the wings needed de-icing and that Thain had decided to take off without doing so; in their eyes the fault was Thain’s and Thain’s alone.
When the original negative was examined, however, no snow or ice could be seen. However, proceedings against Thain dragged on until 1968, when he was finally cleared of any responsibility for the crash. Thain was dismissed by BEA shortly after the accident and retired to run a poultry farm in Berkshire. He died of a heart attack in 1975, aged 53.
In Memoriam To commemorate this tragic accident, the first three memorials at Old Trafford were unveiled on 25th February 1960. It was a plaque placed above the entrance to the Director's Box, depicting a supporter and a player with their heads bowed in mourning, looking down onto a wreath. Below that was a football with the date 1958 inscribed, along with the names of the dead.
Similarly a bronze plaque in memory of the eight journalists who perished was placed into the Press Box, while the last memorial was a simple clock erected at the front of the stadium.
Sadly when the ground underwent reconstruction the first plaque could not be removed without damage and it was walled up inside the building work. In 1976 a second, smaller plaque was installed, while a third plaque was installed in 1996 and is currently on the front facade of the ground.
As for the clock, well it’s still there, but it has since moved. Sadly the Press Box plaque was stolen – it was replaced with a replica shortly afterwards.
Across the Channel there are also two memorials in Germany. The first is a small wooden trough memorial in the village of Kirchtrudering, marked with the inscription: "In the memory of the victims of the air disaster of 6.2.1958 including members of the football team of Manchester United as well as all the victims from the municipality of Trudering".
The second is a granite memorial, unveiled in September 2004 near to Munich Airport, which reads in both English and German: "In memory of those who lost their lives here in the Munich air disaster on the 6th February 1958".
Plans are currently afoot to make sure this tragic accident are not forgotten. In December 2007, it was announced that for the Manchester Derby in February 2008 Manchester United would wear a replica of their 1958 kit in commemoration.
The kit will feature no sponsors or squad numbers and will not be available to buy before or after the match. It has also been announced that Manchester City will also wear a special kit for the game, with black armbands and no sponsor's branding.
As for the actual date itself, the England national football team takes on Switzerland at Wembley Stadium. Before the game, images of the players who lost their lives at Munich will be displayed on big screens, and England players will wear black armbands.
The story of the Munich Air Disaster is a tragic tale of burning desire to succeed flying in the face of common sense: surely the lives and safety of many people are more important than making sure you don’t miss a fixture? But it is also a tale of plucky determination against adversity, shown in a team’s decision to carry on so soon after losing a great many of its players.