Munich Air Disaster: The day sports reporting lost its old guard

The crash that killed Busby's Babes also claimed the lives of eight of the country's leading sportswriters – and left a group of rookies to pick up their pens. Ian Herbert looks back to 1958

This is the week when Munich is remembered through monochrome images of wreckage on the snow-bound runway where eight members of one of the most exhilarating teams football has known perished 50 years ago. But for a lesser-known, though no less poignant, sense of what was lost when British European Airways flight 609 came down on 6 February 1958, costing 23 lives, consider the scene in the Old Trafford press box when, just 13 days on, Manchester United returned to competitive action in the FA Cup fifth round against Sheffield Wednesday.

The box should have been full of life that night, much of it radiated by the irrepressible Henry Rose of the Daily Express, whose prose was almost as revered as the players. But the crash had claimed Rose, along with The Guardian's Donny Davies, the Daily Mirror's Archie Ledbrooke, Tom Jackson and Alf Clarke from Manchester's evening papers, the Daily Mail's Eric Thompson, the Daily Herald's George Follows, and Frank Swift, the former Manchester City and England goalkeeper, of the News of the World – the cream of British sportswriting who then, as today, sat at the back of the plane carrying United into European competition.

And so it was that when United hastily assembled what talent they had left for the cup tie – so unsure of who would be fielded that the 11 places on their team sheet in the match programme were left blank – the newspapers did something similar. None of those journalists who gathered to chronicle a night of high emotion knew much of Old Trafford, and the atmosphere in the lounge where they assembled bore no comparison to the stands outside, where 60,000 fans massed.

"There was a slight note of hysteria outside because the supporters suddenly found they could give their emotions full reign," recalls David Meek, one of the fledgling journalists who found himself cast into the fray that night covering United for the Manchester Evening News. "But the atmosphere in the press box was totally different. So many of us were new. Some had covered the occasional game, but we knew we were literally stepping up into dead men's shoes."

It was a sign of those times that a night heavy on symbolism did not elicit the rich array of colour writing it would have done today. The press box alone would probably have warranted some reportage, but Meek's orders were much like anyone else's in the box. "It was 500 words plus team lists," he recalls.

Most of those missing were legends, and none less so than Rose. The funeral procession for him began at the famous Express building in central Manchester and stretched six miles to the Southern Cemetery. Around 1,000 taxi drivers ferried mourners along the route, all without charge, such was the affection for the giant. The Guardian's Davies – who wrote as "Old International" – was also deeply revered, as was Alf Clarke of the Manchester Evening Chronicle, the last man on the plane at Munich owing to a few late phone calls he had to make. (The Press Ball was taking place in Manchester on the fateful night and Clarke, who had bought tickets, wanted to tell his wife he would be late.)

Archie Ledbrooke, the Mirror's man, had only just made the Munich trip. He was working on another feature at the time and the Mirror sports desk contemplated reducing his workload by sending another of their writers, Frank McGhee, instead. But Ledbrooke filed the feature and made the flight to Belgrade. McGhee, who stayed home, would become the Voice of Sport on the Mirror for 30 years.

David Meek had some mighty shoes to fill, too. The MEN's Tom Jackson, who was 46, had been reporting on United since 1934, breaking off for intelligence work tracking Nazi war criminals during the war. When he started back at the paper, covering United had become something of a part-time job, combined with general reporting, but that changed when Sir Matt Busby's Babes gathered momentum.

Meek was in the MEN office as news filtered through about the crash. There was a small hatch through which the wire room operators dropped the Reuters and Press Association dispatches for the messengers. "On that particular day I remember them banging the hatch as loudly as they could to alert people that something out of the ordinary was coming through," Meek recalls.

United's extraordinary recovery began on Meek's first night, with a 3-0 win over Wednesday. The team went on to win the European Cup within 10 years of the disaster, to the general astonishment of the football world. But for the reporters pitched together on that occasion, there were some forbidding times ahead, not least their eventual first meeting with Busby when he came back from near death and saw the crowd of new, young writers before him as another reminder of those whose lives had been lost.

"I was introduced to Matt at a hotel where United were preparing for match," Meek recalls. "He simply looked sad and I thought I reminded him that there would be no more Tom Jackson. It pushed home that the face of the Manchester press had changed, and that contributed to the nervousness that a lot of us felt. Was I going to be able to live up to those guys with such great reputations?"

The bond would be renewed between Busby and the journalists who followed his team. A cherished breakthrough for Meek came on a trip to Milan with the team when Busby took aside both him and Peter Slingsby (who replaced the Chronicle's Clarke) and said: "I don't know how much travelling abroad you've done, but just in case you haven't had a chance, here's some local currency for you." Time, it seemed, had finally moved on.

Meek, as legendary a figure among United fans today as Jackson was then, still ghost-writes Sir Alex Ferguson's programme notes. A brass plaque commemorating his predecessor still hangs near the Manchester Evening News sports desk.