Book Of The Week: Munich tribute to the living and the dead

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The Independent Online
The Day A Team Died

Frank Taylor (Souvenir Press, paperback, pounds 8.99)

This book arrived with the morning post. I glanced idly at it. An hour later, with tissues scattered across the kitchen table, the telephone rang breaking the spell and I realised I was about to be late for an appointment. Even then it was hard to put down.

We all know the story, or think we do, but the details have been clouded by time leaving a hazy legend. Manchester United are again the best and biggest team in the land, but visiting (home) fans have been known to ask "Who's that" at the Old Trafford statue of Sir Matt Busby. Many who worship David Beckham have no real idea of Duncan Edwards' majesty, while opposition fans, although less often these days, have sung mockingly of the Munich disaster.

It is difficult for anyone under 45 to imagine the impact of the tragedy. I personally cannot, but my grandmother, who has little interest in football, still remembers the stunned reaction of everyone in the bookmakers where she then worked when news of the crash first broke on the telegraph wire.

Like the death of Princess Diana or President Kennedy, everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news.

This book brings back the human and footballing tragedy of that wintry afternoon in a German city 40 years ago on Friday week. Originally published in 1983, on the 25th anniversary, it is written by the only surviving journalist, a man who was reported dead, then spent 21 weeks in hospital and was unable to walk unaided for 18 months. Even then he feels guilty at surviving, the only man to do so among nine journalists.

Twenty three people were killed as a result of the crash, including eight players. Two more players had their careers ended, and others blighted, by their injuries. The quality of those who survived to prosper, Bobby Charlton, Bill Foulkes and Harry Gregg, who between them played 1,678 matches for United, is indicative of the team's potential had it survived.

That team and its players are recalled with the clarity of celluloid. So too is the crash and its aftermath, those long days and longer nights in hospital, while Taylor, Busby, Edwards and others fought for life and health. The sense of loss, of both a great team and of personal friends, and the strain placed upon relatives is vividly described.

It is not all sombre. The camaraderie of players and press during happier European adventures is fondly recollected.

An unkind critic might say Taylor is profiting from being an eye- witness to British sport's biggest-ever story, but one senses this is a book he had to write, both as a tribute to the dead and to the medical staff who saved him, and as a cathartic exercise. It is also a book that deserves to be read.