Football: Munich remembered: Tragedy that could not snuff out the spirit of United

Next Friday marks the 40th anniversary of the Munich air disaster. Twenty-three people died as the plane carrying Manchester United home from a European Cup quarter-final in Belgrade crashed on take-off after refuelling in Germany. Eight of those were United players. Matt Busby's "Babes" were all but wiped out.

John Roberts reflects on English football's greatest loss.

Two Manchester Uniteds are thriving in 1998. One is a splendid team, the other a prosperous business corporation whose growth does not necessarily sit comfortably with all the club's supporters. Some are old enough to have passed through the turnstiles during distant eras of profit, and loss.

Alex Ferguson, the team's Glaswegian manager, is an individual of exceptional ability. His public persona suggests a fusion of Sir Matt Busby and Jimmy Murphy, the Scottish diplomat and the Welsh drill sergeant, who together produced three magnificent United sides, the second of which met with disaster at Munich airport on 6 February 1958.

One does not need to camp at Old Trafford to be aware that Ferguson has engineered a football renaissance after Busby's style, succeeding in blending a school of home-grown youngsters with players purchased in the transfer market.

United are in a position to win the championship for a third consecutive season, a fifth time in six years. Ferguson, appointed in 1986, ended the club's 26-year famine in 1993 with the first championship triumph since the Busby era. His success coincided with the inauguration of the lucrative FA Premier League, which brought unprecedented commercial opportunities for the game's market leaders to capitalise on, none more enthusiastically than Manchester United plc.

During the 1990s, which United opened with an FA Cup victory, Ferguson's team has won the League and FA Cup double twice, the European Cup-Winners' Cup and the League Cup. In the months to come, another League and FA Cup double is within United's scope. So, too, is the greatest prize, the European Champions Cup, a symbol of glory in 1968 and of grief in 1958.

Last September, when news broke of the car crash which killed the Princess of Wales, this reporter was watching television in a hotel room in New York after covering the day's tennis at the United States Open. The impact of the tragedy reminded American acquaintances of the assassination of President Kennedy. For some of us, the effect was numbingly reminiscent of the Munich air disaster.

Manchester United were not the first football club to lose players in an air crash, nor were they the last. Torino, of Italy, flew into the Superga Basilica, near Turin, while returning from a match in Lisbon in 1949. Green Cross, of Chile, perished in 1961 when their aircraft hit a mountain. The Andes claimed Bolivia's most popular team, The Strongest, in 1969. Alianza Lima, of Peru, were lost in the Pacific Ocean in 1987. Fourteen Surinamese members of Dutch clubs were killed when their aircraft attempted to land in fog at Paramaribo in 1989. Eighteen Zambia national team players died when their military aircraft plunged into the Atlantic off Gabon in 1993.

The scale of mourning in those countries can be imagined by anyone who remembers the sense of desolation experienced in and around Manchester 40 years ago. The intention here is not to measure one tragedy against another but to recall a group of young men whose skills made a profound impression on the nation, Manchester United devotees or otherwise.

International club competition involving British teams was not commonplace in 1956. Indeed, Busby acted against the Football League's policy by accepting an invitation for United to participate in the European Champions Cup, originated by the French sports newspaper, L'Equipe.

Whereas Chelsea, England's champions the previous year, had followed the League's directive that the domestic programme was self-sufficient, Busby reasoned that European competition was a logical step in the evolution of the game. In this case, as in most others, a moderate tone disguised Busby's strength of will.

Having inherited a war-damaged stadium, courtesy of German bombers, when appointed manager in 1945, Busby coaxed the best out of a brilliant collection of players, captained by Johnny Carey. The FA Cup was won in 1948 and the League title in 1952, by which time Busby had turned Old Trafford into a veritable football creche.

Vying principally with Stan Cullis, the Wolves manager, in scouting and signing the most impressive schoolboy players in these islands, Busby developed a system of grooming talent from youth level upwards, boldly promoting youngsters to the first team, singly or in clusters.

A maximum wage was in force at the time (this was abolished in 1961), and leading clubs could afford to have 40 or more professional players on their books. The weekly wages of a number of today's players amount to more than some of the highest transfer fees paid during the 1950s.

Tommy Taylor, Busby's most expensive signing pre-Munich, cost pounds 29,999 from Barnsley in 1953 (pounds 1 was deducted so that the centre-forward would not be labelled a pounds 30,000 player). The maximum wage in 1953-54 was pounds 14 during the playing season and pounds 10 during the close season.

Football has changed, along with most other things. Raymond Glendenning's excited radio commentaries could induce convulsions faster than a Sky Sports promo (one can only wonder how the old fellow would keep pace with the modern game).

The sport hardly lacked celebrities (Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney leap to mind), if largely confined to their own sphere, although Billy Wright, the former Wolves and England captain, did marry Joy, one of the singing Beverley Sisters, the Spice Girls of their day.

Swiftly gaining a reputation for expressive, attacking play, the "Busby Babes" (the manager preferred the nickname "Red Devils") had the potential to dominate the English game and also to help restore confidence severely dented by Hungary's emphatic victories against the national team at Wembley and in Budapest.

Busby was particularly keen to test his players against Real Madrid, the finest club side in Europe. During the course of the season after winning the League title in 1955-56, Busby thought he knew the extent of the challenge. United lost to the Spanish monarchs in the European Cup semi-finals, 5-3 on aggregate. United retained the League championship and reached the FA Cup final, losing to Aston Villa.

Midway through the 1957-58 season, Busby's faith in his players was absolute. He recalled many years later, "I felt I was in a position where I could have sat back for 10 years while the team played. It was that good. I used to go to grounds hoping the other team would score an early goal to start us off and get us playing at our best."

That changed the day after United eliminated Red Star in Belgrade in the European Cup quarter-finals. The club's chartered British European Airways twin-engined Elizabethan, which had stopped to refuel at Munich airport, crashed during a third attempt at a takeoff in snow, ice and slush shortly after 3pm.

Captain James Thain, who was in charge of the aircraft, survived the crash. I interviewed him at his home in Berkshire a year before his death in 1975. Thain metaphorically placed me in his seat in the Elizabethan and took me down the runway three times, explaining how the sound of "boost- surging" in the engines had twice caused take-off to be abandoned.

On the third run, after the engines had been checked, the noise started again, Thain said, but this time it was controlled by a movement of the throttle lever. Velocity 1, the point after which it is unsafe to abandon take-off, was reached, and Thain anticipated V2, the speed required for take-off. Instead, the needle on the instrument panel showed a dramatic loss of speed.

The undercarriage was lifted, but the Elizabethan went through a fence and crossed a road. The port wing hit a house. The wing and part of the tail were torn off and the house caught fire. A tree came through the port side of the flight deck. The starboard side of the fuselage hit a wooden hut, and a parked truck filled with tyres and fuel exploded. "We were spinning and then the aircraft stopped," Thain said. "There was a hellish noise. And then complete silence."

Thain, who never flew another aircraft, said he did not feel responsible in any way for the crash. It had taken four inquiries over 11 years to persuade the aviation authorities that the disaster was caused by slush dragging on the wheels, not ice on the wings. By then, June 1969, Thain was a 47-year-old ex-pilot and was not reinstated.

He received his dismissal notice from BEA on Christmas Day 1960, for a breach of regulations, his failure to check the aircraft's wings physically for ice traces coupled with his decision to sit in the right-hand seat instead of the left.

As the captain in charge, Thain arranged that he would fly the Elizabethan to Belgrade and that his first officer, Captain Kenneth Rayment, a friend, would take the controls for the return journey. Captain Rayment died from injuries caused when the tree came through the flight deck.

Both men were fully qualified pilots and it was in order for them to share the flying of the aircraft. Thain said he found it easier to monitor the instruments from the right-hand, first officer's seat. Regulations stipulated that the captain must remain in the left-hand seat.

Some of the players who survived, such as the right winger Johnny Berry, the old man of the team at 31, and the versatile Jackie Blanchflower, 25, never played again. Berry died in 1994, aged 68.

Jimmy Murphy, Busby's assistant, had foregone the trip to Belgrade to fulfil his other role as the Wales national team manager (Wales were playing Israel in a World Cup match in Cardiff). After the crash Murphy held the club together, fashioning a patchwork team of Munich survivors, novices and emergency signings.

Busby almost lost his life in Munich. Three months after the crash he was a spectator on crutches at Wembley when Murphy's makeshift marvels lost to Bolton in the FA Cup final, 2-0. United's jerseys that afternoon were adorned with the emblem of a phoenix rising from the flames.

John Roberts is the author of The Team That Wouldn't Die, the Story of the Busby Babes (Vista, pounds 6.99).

THE PLAYERS WHO DiED

Roger Byrne, 28.

Studious, speedy England international left-back from Manchester who made his debut in 1951 and was the captain of the remarkable team.

Eddie Colman, 21.

Short, compact, right-sided midfielder from Salford who could, it was said, dummy the grandstand with a swivel of his hips.

Duncan Edwards, 21.

Incomparable, the biggest loss to the English game. The prodigy from Dudley dominated the left side of midfield and could single-handedly turn a match.

Mark Jones, 24.

Strong, commanding central defender, born in Barnsley.

David Pegg, 22.

The archetypal left-winger, pacy and tricky, signed from school in Doncaster.

Tommy Taylor, 26.

Signed from Barnsley for pounds 29,999, led the attack with bravery and gusto, a "target man" ahead of his time.

Liam Whelan, 22.

Tall, sinuous inside-forward from Dublin, picked his way through defences with an unhurried gait.

Geoffrey Bent, 25.

Byrne's understudy, the left-back from Salford would have enjoyed first- team status elsewhere.

l Among the others who died were Bert Whalley, the coach, Tom Curry, the trainer, and Walter Crickmer, the club's secretary. The crash also claimed the lives of eight sports journalists, among them Frank Swift, the former England goalkeeper.

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