Sport on TV: Munich remembered with delicacy as fans and survivors unite in love and grief
Although 40 seems a particularly arbitrary period, it would be churlish to complain in the week of the anniversary of the Munich disaster, and ITV came up with a fine film. I'm a bit of a BBC2 snob when it comes to documentaries, but apart from some gratuitous colourising in the footage of the Babes' last game, in Belgrade, The Busby Babes: End of a Dream served as a fine reminder of what the fuss was, and is, about.
Interviews with Harry Gregg, Bill Foulkes, Bobby Charlton and Wilf McGuinness meant that all the usual bases were covered, but the makers used their imagination in getting hold of peripheral figures such as Karl-Heinz Seffer, the rescuer who could confirm that there was no ice on the wings, and even Verna Lukic, who owes her life to Gregg. "Underneath a lot of rubbish I found a baby," he said, while for her part she said: "In our family he has always been treated as a hero. If it hadn't been for Harry Gregg, there wouldn't have been a family at all."
There was also an interview with Tom Polter, the policeman who guarded the bodies when they were brought back to Manchester: "I could smell the varnish on the coffins. Whenever I smell new varnish today, I always think of those coffins."
A nurse at the Munich hospital, Gerda Thiel, was also featured - "their spirit of community was amazing" - and the referee in Belgrade, plus several United fans, who did their best to put into words what it was like to follow the Busby Babes and then lose them: "It was something similar to when Princess Diana died," according to Brian Hughes, who can only have been a lad at the time. "People said it was religious," he said. "It wasn't religious. Well, it was a religion, but it was a Man Utd religion."
Perhaps best of all, Ruby Thain got the chance to speak up for husband, Captain James Thain, who was unfairly blamed. "He was the scapegoat," she said. "He made the mistake of being alive."
The events of the day are told well, in crisp soundbites. Twice Captain Thain tried to take off, before the party was sent back to the airport building for coffee. Then they were called back. "I had a cold feeling, I really did," Bill Foulkes said.
"There were frightened people in that plane," said Gregg, while Albert Scanlon described everyone changing seats. Back to Harry Gregg as they waited: "Johnny Berry said: `We're all going to get fucking killed here'."
"Billy [Whelan] leaned across and said: `If this is the end, I'm ready for it'," Scanlon recounted. In the film, the tension built up with the short intercutting. There might be a case for saying that the story hardly needs any narrative manipulation, but it was well done. Journalist Frank Taylor described the take-off: "I saw the end of the runway and said: `Christ, we're not going to make it'. I thought: `What a silly bloody way to die'."
The likes of Foulkes and Gregg have told the story many times, and you sensed them reciting familiar lines, but with feeling. "I asked the doctor: `Where are the others'?" Foulkes said. "And he said: `This is it'. `Aren't they in the other hospital'? I asked him, and he said: `There is no other hospital'."
After, came the recriminations. "I was very, very angry," said Marion Bent, Geoff's widow. Gregg believes it might all have been avoided in the terminal following the second take-off attempt: "If anyone had had the courage to stand up and say: `This is crazy', it wouldn't have happened. But, like all people, we're afraid to lose face in front of our friends. It takes a very brave man to be a coward."
And as Busby told Marjorie English, Eddie Colman's girlfriend - when he rang her, saying: "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry" - he was only a football manager: he wouldn't have presumed to tell the pilot how to fly his plane any more than Captain Thain would have told him how to run his team.
Some fans of other teams resent Munich, believing that the club and its followers imagine themselves as having some sort of spurious moral ascendancy. Maybe we do, but even for someone like me - not born at the time (I was in the womb, as it happens) - it lives down the years. As Brian Hughes put it in the programme: "People say you should forget about 40 years ago. But I can remember it like it was 40 minutes ago."
The last word is left to Gregg: "They say they would have been the best team in the world. Maybe. One thing's for sure. They were the most loved team." And although it's exactly that kind of thing that irritates other fans, it's not far from the truth.
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