5th of February 1958, Manchester United played Red Star Belgrade in the European Cup quarter-finals, drawing 3-3, with Charlton (twice) and Violett scoring for United. It was enough to carry Matt Busby’s “Babes” through to the semi-finals with a 5-4 aggregate score. They were to play AC Milan in the semi-final.
In the league, United was cruising to a third consecutive title win, sitting proudly on top eight points ahead of second place. Sir Matt later said of his team that: “I felt I could sit back and let them play for ten years, they were that good”.
The team that won the league in 1955/56 season had an average age of just 22, an astonishing feat. A championship winning side at such an age is still totally unheard of. The Munich air disaster robbed the world of massive football talent, the club of God knows how many titles and quite possibly Ingerlund of a World Cup victory or two.
Sir Bobby Charlton later said he was positive United was mature enough to win the European Cup after losing out 3-5 on aggregate to the great Real Madrid side in the Champions League semi-finals the previous season. Madrid, including stars such as Di Stefano, Gento and Kopa, won the European Cup in its first five seasons from 1955 to 1960.
The day after the Red Star game, the Airspeed Ambassador G-ALZU containing the precious cargo of The Busby Babes had a refueling stopover in Munich-Riem on the return flight from Belgrade. Slushy snow was laying on the runway and maybe the aerofoils were frozen when the plane tried to start at 2:30 p.m. The pilots heard an unusual sound coming from the plane’s motor.
They abandoned the start but tried it again immediately. This time they didn’t like the pressure gauge. Again they stopped the plane half way. Slowly the plane rolled back to the hangar. The 43 passengers, primarily players, functionaries and journalists strolled through the concourse.
Shortly before 3 p.m. they were asked to come outside again. At 3:03 p.m. the pilots attempted their third start. The last one. Seconds before the crash, 22-year old strict catholic Liam “Billy” Whelan calmly said: “If this is death I am ready for it. I hope you are too.” At 3.04 pm the plane crashed and changed world 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 nickname “The Busby Babes” and Frank Swift, Manchester City’s finest goalkeeper and one of very few to actually have a winning medal after playing for that club. 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 supporter, also perished in the crash.
Sports fans and pundits alike rave about the Champions League of today, saying it is the best football available. Perhaps better than the European Championship and the World Cup. Today, take a moment to remember the pioneer Sir Matt Busby who took English club football into European competition.
And it was all against the FA’s wishes. League Chairman Alan Hardaker was strongly against English teams playing in what we now call the Champions League. He insisted United were back in time to face Wolverhampton the coming Saturday. That’s why they tried to take off three times – or the team would have to forfeit the Wolves game. Hardaker called the European Cup “a waste of time” and instead installed the League Cup two seasons later.
The following players died in the crash: Roger Byrne, left-back, the captain of Manchester United and England. Geoff Bent, understudy to the great Byrne, who was only on the journey due to Byren’s minor knock. Eddie Colman, nicknamed “Snakehips” for his dribbling skills. Mark Jones, the big no-nonsense stopper. David Pegg, a flashy wing-half. Tommy Taylor, the first £29,999 player, who score 112 goals in 166 league games for United and 16 in 19 for England. Finally, Liam “Billy” Whelan, who in 96 matches scored 52 goals for United. He was a midfielder!
Duncan Edwards died fifteen days after the crash in a Munich hospital at nineteen minutes past one, early in the morning of February 21st. Not even that big, strong man could survive the damage the crash inflicted on his body. Still, German doctors couldn’t believe the fight he made for life. When Jimmy Murphy came to see him, severely injured in the hospital not long after the disaster, Edwards mumbled “oh is it you, Jimmy, when’s the kick-off Saturday? Still three o’clock?”
Johnny Berry and Jackie Blanchflower survived, but suffered such severe injuries they never played football again. Players Ray Wood, Harry Gregg, Dennis Violett, Kenny Morgans and Albert Scanlon suffered the mental scars that shortened their previous glorious careers.
Catholic Busby was given his last rites twice in hospital after the crash but miraculously survived to rebuild – not only his team – but the entire club. When asked by journalists how long time he thought he needed to rebuild his team, Sir Matt replyed “about five years”. It took United exactly five years to another trophy after the Munich disaster. The 1963 FA Cup. Just five years! The genius of Busby.
United finished eighth that season and were runners-up in the FA Cup, losing 0-2 loss to Bolton Wanderers. It was an incredible achievement after suffering so much. Many obituaries were written but Manchester United will never die!
The following season, the United was denied participation in the European Cup after the club was twice offered a wildcard into the tournament by the UEFA. Not the first and most certainly not the last cruel decision the Football Association has dished out to United.