Wednesday 5 February 1958. Manchester United played Red Star in the European Cup quarter-final, drawing 3-3 in Belgrade. Bobby Charlton scored twice and Dennis Violett another as Matt Busby’s “Babes” secured passaged through to the semi-finals on a 5-4 aggregate score. They were to play AC Milan next.
In the league, the team was in the running for an unprecedented third consecutive title win, placed third, six points behind leaders Wolverhampton Wanderers and a point adrift of Preston North End. Busby’s side was on an 11-game unbeaten run prior to Munich, and still had the chance of securing the club’s first treble. The manager later said of his team that he “could sit back and let them play for 10 years, they were that good.”
Charlton thought the team was mature enough to win the European Cup, having lost 3-5 on aggregate to the great Real Madrid in the semi-finals the previous season, the club’s first campaign in Europe. Real, including stars such as Alfredo Di Stefano, Paco Gento and Raymond Kopa, won the European Cup in its first five seasons from 1955 to 1960.
The day after United’s draw with Red Star, the Airspeed Ambassador G-ALZU containing the precious Babes had a refueling stop at Munich-Riem airport on the return from Belgrade. Slushy snow was on the runway; perhaps the aerofoils were frozen when the plane attempted a take-off at 2.30 pm. The pilots heard an unusual sound coming from the plane’s motor.
This was the first time United had chartered a plane to an away fixture. It was done partially to get back to Manchester in time for the crucial game against league leaders Wolves the coming Saturday, but also because the plane – an Elizabethan with a twin engine – was supposed to be a safe, one that never before been involved in a crash. Queen Elizabeth II had been a passenger, so there could be no doubt.
The crew abandoned the first attempt without leaving the ground. The second was also halted, this time when a pressure gauge was deemed faulty. The plane rolled back to the hangar and 43 passengers, primarily players, functionaries and journalists, waited in the concourse. Shortly before 3 p.m. they were asked to come outside again and at 3:03 p.m. the pilots attempted their third take-off. The final fatal attempt.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]Charlton thought the team was mature enough to win the European Cup, having lost to the great Real Madrid in the semi-finals the previous season.[/blockquote]
Shortly before the crash, 22-year old catholic Liam “Billy” Whelan calmly said that “if this is death I am ready for it. I hope you are too.” Someone giggled. Johnny “Digger” Berry shouted “this is no laugh, we are all gonna fucking die!” At 3.04 pm the plane crashed and changed sporting history forever.
Club secretary Walter Crickmer died in the crash and so did coaches Tom Curry and Bert Whalley. Eight journalists died, including Tom Jackson of the Manchester Evening News, inventor of the “The Busby Babes” moniker, and Frank Swift, Manchester City’s finest goalkeeper, one of very few to have a winning medal after playing for the Blues. The other journalists were Alf Clarke of the Manchester Evening Chronicle, Don Davies of The Guardian, George Follows of the Daily Herald, Archie Ledbrooke of the Daily Mirror, Henry Rose of the Daily Express, and Eric Thompson, of the Daily Mail.
Captain Kenneth Rayment, the co-pilot, steward Tom Cable, and passengers Bela Miklos, wife of the travel agent, and Willie Satinoff, a travelling supporter, also perished in the crash.
While today’s Champions League is revered as probably the highest standard football available, better than the European Championship and the World Cup, it is worth a moment to remember Sir Matt’s pioneering ambition.
Against the governing body’s wishes, the Scott took United into uncharted waters. League Chairman Alan Hardaker was strongly against English teams featuring in Europe, he had called the European Cup “a waste of time” and instead launched the League Cup. Hardaker had successfully pressured Chelsea to not take part after the Londoners won the league in 1955.
But there could be no denying Busby the chance to play against the continent’s finest. Yet, while the League had to accept United’s wish, it insisted that the club must be back on English soil at least 24 hours before facing Wolves the coming Saturday. It is fundamental to the story, and why for fear of forfeit they tried to take off three times.
Duncan Edwards died in a Munich hospital 15 days after the crash, early in the morning of 21 February. Not even his immense strength could survive the damage inflicted, yet German doctors still marvelled at the fight he made for his life. When assistant manager Jimmy Murphy came to see Edwards, severely injured not long after the disaster, the player asked about kick-off for Saturday’s game. Was it “still three o’clock?”
There were survivors too, who would live with the disaster for the rest of their lives.
Johnny Berry, born 1 June 1926, Aldershot, kept showing up for training after he was realeased from the hospital in Munich, but he was severly brain damaged after the crash and couldn’t fathom the seriousness of his injuries. Club staff had no choice but to deny him entry. Berry complained that his best friend Tommy Taylor never came to see him after the crash, and he died bitter and an alcoholic aged 68, 3 September 1994 in Farnham, Surrey. 276 games for United, 45 goals.
Kenny Morgans, the youngest player involved in the crash, and the last survivor to be rescued from the burnt-out Elizabethan after being found under the wheels five hours after the official search was called off. Morgans never regained his form after the crash and was transfered back to Swansea 1961. Born 16 March 1939, Swansea. Died 18 November 2012. 23 games for United.
Harry Gregg, MBE. Gregg was 25-years-old at the time of the disaster. He kept calm after the crash and went inside the burning wreckage twice to carry survivors to safety, including infant Venoma Lukic, 22 months old, and her mother Verena Lukic. He dragged Busby, Violett and Charlton clear of the wreckage too. Later, Gregg claimed that he would have gone mad after the crash had it not been for football. He joined United from Doncaster Rovers only a few weeks before the crash. Now a Stretford End regular, he says that before his transfer to the club he looked upon the United players as if they were movie stars. He was voted world’s best goalkeeper after the World Cup 1958 in Sweden. Born 27 October, 1932, Tobermore Northern-Ireland. 247 games for United.
Jackie Blanchflower, hadn’t played a game for United for two months prior to Munich and was only part of the travelling squad as “luggage,” as he called it. Blanchflower had to retire from football after the crash. Born 7 March, 1933 Belfast. Died 2 September 1998. 117 games, 27 goals.
Sir Bobby Charlton, played like a man posessed after the crash and went on to be one of the game’s most respected figures. He stopped smiling after Munich, according to his brother Jack. 758 games, 249 goals. Born 11 October 1937, Ashington, Northumberland.
Ray Wood, had recently lost his place to Gregg, and only played one more game for the club after the crash. He went on to have a fine career with Huddersfield Town. Born 1 June 1931, Hebburn-on-Tyne, Co. Durham. Died 9 July 2002. 208 games for United.
Dennis Violett, his personality changed after the crash and struggled to find motivation for football. He still delivered on the pitch though and his 32 league goals in the 1959/60 season is still a club record. Born 20 September 1933, Manchester. Died 6 March 1999, Florida USA. 293 games, 179 goals.
Albert Scanlon, never fulfilled his potential after Munich. He was lightning quick and a local lad, everything the Busby Babes stood for. He had to travel alone on crutches from Munich, back to Manchester, and refused to ever set foot on a plane again. Born 10 October 1935, Hulme, Manchester. Died 22 December 2009. 127 games for United, 35 goals.
Busby was given his last rites twice in hospital after the crash, but miraculously survived to rebuild – not only his team – but the club itself. When asked by journalists how long he thought he would need to rebuild the team, Sir Matt replyed “about five years.” It took United exactly that to win another trophy, the 1963 FA Cup. The genius of Busby.
United finished eighth in the 1958 season and the team was also runners-up in the FA Cup, suffering a 0-2 loss to Bolton Wanderers. It was an incredible achievement after losing so many. Many obituaries were written, but the club never died.
The following season, the club was denied participation in the European Cup after UEFA twice offered United a wildcard into the tournament. Not for the last time, it was a cruel decision by the Football Association that denied United.
The Babes’ last opponent, Red Star Belgrade, once suggested that the cup should be renamed after the club, a fitting tribute to Sir Matt. And destiny had it that United’s under-19s were in Belgrade to play in a Uefa Youth League tie. The reception was held at the Majestic hotel, where Busby’s travelling party had stayed before that fateful game in 1958.