JOHNNY BERRY survived the 1958 Munich air disaster, but his career as a footballer did not. The injuries he received in the crash, four months before his 32nd birthday, consigned to memory his nimble play on Manchester United's right flank as a seasoned professional in a team of prodigious fledglings.
Matt Busby paid Birmingham City pounds 25,000 for Berry in 1951, when the 'Busby Babes' were but a twinkle in the great manager's eye. The transfer began to take shape in Busby's mind two years earlier, when two goals by Berry helped sabotage United's championship prospects after they had led the First Division by four points going into Easter.
Busby's initial signing, Jimmy Delaney, a 32-year-old Celtic winger, had proved an inspired choice in galvanising the splendid United team of the late 1940s, and the fearless Berry's experience contributed immensely to the club's youth-based success in the 1950s. He won three championship medals and was selected for England on four occasions.
While distinctive in his own merit, Berry typified the diminutive winger: a fast raider with skilful ball control whose low centre of gravity appeared to enable him to bounce up when knocked down. He played during an era prolific in maestros of the wing, and while Stanley Matthews, of Blackpool, and Tom Finney, of Preston, were undoubtedly the most celebrated of the species one has particularly vivid memories of matches between United and Wolverhampton Wanderers featuring Berry in the red jersey and the equally light and lively Johnny Hancocks among the old gold.
Though Berry and David Pegg are remembered as the established wingers in the Busby Babes' team, neither played in the European Cup quarter-final away to Red Star Belgrade, after which the club's chartered Elizabethan crashed on take-off in snow and ice after stopping to refuel at Munich on 6 February 1958. Ken Morgans took Berry's place, and Pegg's left-wing position was occupied by Albert Scanlon. Pegg was among the eight players who died.
After being discharged from hospital in Munich, Berry spent a year in Manchester before returning to Aldershot, his birthplace. He opened a sports outfitting business in partnership with his brother Peter, a former player with Crystal Palace and Ipswich.
Johnny Berry showed early promise playing for St Joseph's School, Aldershot Boys and the YMCA, but on leaving school he worked as a projectionist at a local cinema. It was during service with the Royal Artillery that he was brought to Birmingham City's attention, and he signed as a professional at St Andrews in 1944.
After leaving Manchester, his visits to Old Trafford were rare. He once declared himself to be old-fashioned in thinking football was no longer what it used to be, though he admitted he would be happy to be paid the wages of the modern player. He consoled himself with memories of being one of a vibrant team which thrilled huge crowds. 'I enjoyed my football. Of course I did. I think it's the same in any job - if you have success at it, you enjoy it.'