It struck me at the time, within the robust walls of Manchester Cathedral, that few of the innocent faces across the aisle would have had a real inkling of the tradition they carried until that hour-long memorial service. The following afternoon, they forced a scrappy draw with Bolton Wanderers. Soon after, the title slipped away. Now, the ghosts will dance again. For though United were only passing through Munich on their way back from a European Cup tie in Belgrade, the events of 6 February 1958 will forever link the two cities in a tragic embrace. Though Matt Busby made a point of taking his sides back to the city for pre-season friendlies, this is the first time United have played a competitive match in Munich.
Few traces of the past remain. Riem airport itself has long since been replaced. The site of the crash is now an exhibition centre; for a long time, it was a fairground. In the minds of those old enough to remember, the Munich air crash is confused with another disaster. Two years later, an American plane hit the church of St Paul's in the city, killing 52 people, passengers, crew and pedestrians. Somehow the two events have merged into a single nightmare and though there is no monument at Riem, the opening of the new airport earlier this decade, well away from the most populated areas of the city, proved the most appropriate tribute to the dead.
In Eamon Dunphy's A Strange Kind of Glory, Sandy Busby recalls his first visit to the Rechts des Isar hospital in Munich where his father, according to the chief surgeon, Dr Georg Maurer, had a 50-50 chance of survival. "I was walking along looking in each room to see if I could recognise anybody. I walked past one room and this poor old man was in a plastic oxygen tent. I was three yards past and then I realised it was my dad."
Along the corridor from Matt Busby lay Duncan Edwards, who fought for his life until the early hours of 21 February. "I do not think anyone other than this young man could have survived so long," Maurer said at the time. For the survivors, the city barely glimpsed, scarcely known, became the lifelong trigger for bitter memories; for the club, Munich has become a symbol of loss and regeneration, an integral part of the history of the most famous club in the world. "The Busby Babes, Munich, that era was a platform for everything that the club now is," Harry Gregg, one of the survivors of crash, said.
The old United goalkeeper returned with the survivors to Munich for the European Cup final in 1997 as a guest of Uefa. "Going back to the airport, little parts of it were hard," he recalled. Albert Scanlon, another member of the party, was so traumatised he could not face flying back out of Munich and travelled home by rail and sea. It is into this emotional vortex that Alex Ferguson will lead his bright young side on Wednesday night. "They should be lifted by the tradition not burdened by it," Gregg said. "Go out and enjoy yourselves, like we did."
What links Bayern and United, the clubs not the cities, these days is more commercial than spiritual. Both clubs would be at the heart of any proposed new super league, both clubs find themselves in danger of outgrowing their own roots, both clubs incite emotional extremes in their own countries.
The Germans have even coined a word for it. Haffliebe. Hate love. In the image of the Busby Babes, the glamour of Bayern stems from the handsome young side constructed in the Sixties and Seventies round the elegant figure of Franz Beckenbauer, now the club president. At the time, Munich's sporting prowess was unquestioned; the city hosted a World Cup final and an Olympics within two years. But much of the club's recent history has been spent trying to live up to extravagant reputations.
Under Uli Hoeness, the general manager who first introduced the word "merchandising" into German football after a visit to the San Francisco 49ers, Bayern have sought to turn their popularity, their position as the German club, into Deutschmarks. Hoeness's unashamed role model is Manchester United. It can be safely assumed that much of the talk behind the curtains at the old Olympic stadium will not just be a comparison of notes on the European super league, but a wholesale exchange of ideas on marketing and imagery, about which Beckenbauer has always been so passionate.
German clubs are forbidden by the laws of the German Football Federation to be floated on the Stock Exchange, an inhibition which would bring immediate appeal to the European courts in England. "Bayern is the most modern club in the league," as one German journalist put it, "but we are still about 10 years behind in terms of administration."
A recent press conference by the president of the federation, at which he outlined his 10 possible candidates for the job of national coach recently vacated by Berti Vogts, and the reasons why nine of them were rejected (including Roy Hodgson), was the stuff of farce, according to most sections of the German press, an outstanding example of an autocratic, outdated, system creaking into action. Not surprisingly, Bayern's relationship with their own federation has been as strained as United's with the Premier League. The recent election of Beckenbauer to the role of vice- president of the federation, making him in effect No 3 in the national game, has widely been perceived as Bayern's way of increasing pressure for the reform of the German football hierarchy. The fear in the rest of the Bundesliga is that Bayern's influence is becoming too strong, a paranoia which would be well understood at Old Trafford.
No less than United, in the past at least, these pretensions have laid Bayern open to ridicule as well as envy. During the height of the personality clashes between Klinsmann and Matthaus, while Bayern's galaxy of prima donnas could barely win a game, the club was nicknamed Hollywood FC. Coaches came and coaches went as the quest for a blend of style and substance - like United, Bayern's history demands panache as well as victory - took some crazy turns. The latest to be sacrificed was the much respected Italian Giovanni Trapattoni, who described his team once as playing like "empty bottles" and quickly decided Hollywood was "not his world". One of his most spectacular outbursts was made into a rap song; Bayern turned instead to Ottmar Hitzfeld, a former mathematics and sports teacher who coached Borussia Dortmund to two Bundesliga titles in 1995 and 1996.
Under Hitzfeld, Bayern have begun the season in rampant style, beating Hansa Rostock 6-1 and Hamburg 5-3. But a 4-3 victory on penalties over a third division side in the cup in midweek was a reminder of more erratic days. "We were thinking too much of United," Hoeness explained. Munich has occupied the thoughts of many at United for more years than they care to remember.Reuse content