Football: United revive the old feelings

Shared memory of a disaster resurfaces with the Red Devils in Munich.
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FOR NESHA and me it was a night of sentimentality, made all the more poignant when the crowd in the Olympic Stadium stood in silence in memory of the Busby Babes. According to the scoreboard, the date was 30 September 1998, but in our hearts it was 6 February 1958. Nesha Star-cevic was then a seven-year-old growing up in Belgrade. I was a teenager in Stockport, next door to Manchester. Today we are colleagues in sports journalism.

"I was listening to the match on the radio with my grandfather, Dusan, a Red Star fan," Nesha recalled as we waited for the kick-off. "It was an exciting match, 3-3. The commentator (Radivoje Markovic) was the man who inspired me to go into sports reporting."

Next day the radio brought news that Manchester United's plane had crashed on take-off after re-fuelling at Munich airport. Twenty three people died, including eight Manchester United players.

Nesha telephoned his mother Nada yesterday seeking news of the earth tremor in Belgrade. He told her he was going to see Bayern Mu-nich play Manchester United. "Oh, you remember the date of the crash?" she said. He did. It was her birthday.

The abiding image of the Busby Babes is the photograph of their last line-up in Belgrade. Roger Byrne, the captain glances along at his team-mates, Albert Scanlon, Harry Gregg, Bill Foulkes, Tommy Taylor, Dennis Viollet, Bobby Charlton, Ken Morgans, Mark Jones, Eddie Colman, and Duncan Edwards.

As he lay semi-conscious in the Rechts der Isar, suffering from appalling injuries, Matt Busby heard a doctor say that Duncan Edwards had died. It was his first knowledge of the tragedy. Later, when his wife Jean arrived in Munich, he persuaded her to tell him which players had died. She did so by shaking her head to indicate they had died when he mentioned the names.

Jean Busby shook her head when Matt mentioned Byrne, Colman, Jones, David Pegg, Taylor, Liam Whelan and Geoffrey Bent.

For a long time Busby blamed himself irrationally for the disaster because he had taken the team into European competition against the Football League's policy and had not asked the pilot to stay overnight rather than attempt a third take-off in snow, ice and slush. He wanted to quit football. Jean helped persuade him otherwise, emphasising that he owed it to those who remained.

Touching only briefly on such thoughts last night, Nesha and me were inclined to remember the spirit of the football of that bygone era. "We knew about the Busby Babes before they came to Belgrade," Nesha said. "We knew about the great tradition of English soccer, that it was hard but fair. And to us Wembley was always the place for the big game."

We remarked that some people probably imagined that Manchester United had played in Munich before that fateful day. In fact last night's match was their first competitive contest in the Bavarian capital. It was a lively affair, too, United's followers in the vast arena able to chant familiar anthems about Busby and his Babes - even after the early setback of the ball in Peter Schmeichel's net.

We agreed that the old commentator Markovic would have made it sing, but then he was a star in the days before television turned football into a multi-million pound business.

Honours were even last night, which was better news for United than Bayern. And there was just time for a few more reminiscences down the road at the Oktoberfest.