Even half a century ago, newspaper placards trumpeting supposedly dramatic events tended to be treated with a certain cynicism. Driving home to Kent on 6 February 1958, the author and football fan H E Bates, a former reporter, caught sight of one reading "Manchester United In Air Crash" and did not bother stopping the car. His reaction, he later wrote, was: "I am getting too old to be caught by newspaper screamers."
Arriving home, he switched on the six o'clock television news, whereupon: "I sat listening with a frozen brain to that cruel and shocking list of casualties."
Some 200 miles north, Matt Busby's son Sandy, a reserve- team player with Blackburn Rovers, was hurrying home to celebrate his 22nd birthday when a friend drew his attention to Manchester's version of the placards: "United In Plane Crash." "I just walked on," he recalled last week. "I was thinking, 'Are the headlines just built up?' And then I thought I'd better phone home. An aunt of mine was down from Scotland, she answered and she was frantic. She said, 'Sandy, get home'."
With hard news coming out of Munich only in dribs and drabs, the Busby household was a natural gathering point for friends and relatives. "The girlfriend of [Daily Express journalist] Henry Rose was round and when the news came through about Henry, someone had to take her home because she was in a right state," Busby Jnr said. "Then Frank Swift's wife came in with her daughter. They lived just round the corner and they weren't getting any information either. Then it did come through, that the great Frank had died."
The birthday party was becoming a wake. Worst of all for the Busbys, there was no news of United's manager. "It started coming through that this player had died, that player had died. My mother was just sitting there looking into the fireplace, she went into a sort of coma.
"I went upstairs and was sat on the bed saying a prayer when all of a sudden my uncle rushed in saying, 'Sandy, he's alive, he's alive!', and my mum came out of her coma just like that. She got my sister and I to go out and start visiting other houses, some of the players, to see their families were OK." Some were, some were not.
The following day, Sandy Busby and his mother flew to Munich with relatives of a number of the survivors as well as Jimmy Murphy, the assistant manager who should have been on the plane but went instead to Cardiff in his role as part-time manager of Wales for a decisive World Cup tie against Israel.
Kenny Morgans, an exciting winger born in Swansea, might have been involved in that game too had he been older than 18. Or, had he been a little less talented, he would never have displaced Johnny Berry, an England international, at outside-right for United. Morgans did so earlier in the season and was therefore in the side that thrillingly beat Arsenal 5-4 at Highbury on the Saturday and was then unchanged for the away trip to Red Star Belgrade four days later (no rotation and no substitutes in 1958).
The team were in good humour after a 3-3 draw in Yugoslavia which put them in a European Cup semi-final for the second successive year. Only after the stopover to refuel in Munich and two aborted take-offs did the mood darken. Morgans, now 68, speaks about that day in a matter-of-fact tone that on reflection is perhaps the only way the survivors can bear to do so: "Do you want me to talk about the crash? The weather was terrible. It was snowing, windy, icy on the floor. Looking through the window of the cafe, we saw them clear the ice off the wings three times. [Before] the third take-off attempt, a lot of players swapped seats and went to the back. What we were told after was you had the toilets at the back so it was stronger at the back of the plane than in the middle.
"The third time we tried to take off, I was sat by the window, we were really going fast. I remember hitting a fence at the end of the runway and that was the end of it, I couldn't remember any more. I lost consciousness. What must have happened I was told later is that I was pushed underneath to the back of the plane. I was caught underneath the wheel."
Although Harry Gregg, the United goalkeeper, heroically ignored an instruction from the aeroplane's captain – "Run, you silly bugger, she's going to blow" – and dragged at least three people from the wreckage, Morgans was not found for almost five hours: "At about half-past eight, two German reporters went back to the burning plane. They found me, I was last to come out. They got me back to the hospital and I didn't wake up till the Sunday morning, three days later."
After the physical pain came the emotional blows, one after another. "I can remember waking up and there was Bobby Charlton, Albert Scanlon, Ray Wood and myself. I thought the other boys must be in another room. The professor of the hospital came and sat by me, and everybody was quiet. And he told me the players that had died, and the players who were very sick upstairs. There was the boss, and there was Duncan Edwards and Johnny Berry. They weren't very good."
That is one of many understatements: Busby, who was in an oxygen tent, had the last rites administered twice but eventually pulled through. Berry suffered dreadful injuries and was in a coma for two months, unableto return to Manchester until May. Edwards fought on for 15 days but died on 21 February. "I couldn't believe it," Morgans says. "When the professor told you that you were alive and the players that died, you did think, 'Why should I still be here?'. You just thought you were awful lucky to be alive."
The Busby family felt the same about Matt, though they were shocked by his immediate reaction in hospital. Sandy Busby revealed: "When he did become conscious, my dad said to my mother, 'I'm finished with football' because of all these young boys [who died]. My mother said, 'These lads would want you to go on and achieve something and their name will be there alongside the team which does.' My mother had a great influence on my dad."
It was still the following season before Busby had any significant contact with the largely new team. On his own admission, frail and on crutches, he should not have attended the FA Cup final in May, which United lost to a physically formidable Bolton Wanderers after being propelled to Wembley on a tide of national goodwill. For all the efforts of Jimmy Murphy – whose son feels he was never given sufficient credit – it would be five years before the club won another trophy, the 1963 FA Cup, and five more until some sort of closure for Busby, Charlton and another survivor, Bill Foulkes, when the European Cup was finally won, fittingly at Wembley.
How much more might the Babes have won? As Busby Jnr points out: "When you think about it, it was a full team [lost]. Jackie Blanchflower and JohnnyBerry never played again. Kenny Morgans will tell you himself, he wasn't the same player. And then the eight who died, it was a full team."
Morgans adds: "I'm not being funny but it must have been the best team in the world. Duncan was 20 but he had already played five years for United and four for England. He had another 10 years to go, what a player he would have been. Eddie Colman and Mark Jones, only 23, they had another 10 years of football, and Tommy Taylor..."
Charlton is convinced Unitedwould have gone on to win the European Cup in 1958 (a patchwork team lost to Milan in the semi-final) and that England, with Edwards, Roger Byrne, Taylor and perhaps Colman, could have won the World Cup that year in Sweden. Instead, English football had to wait another decade for those triumphs. It was hardly surprising that Charlton should have shed tears on both occasions when they did.
"I remember Bobby after the [European Cup] final, he was absolutely drained," Sandy Busby says, "and I'm sure Munich was the reason he felt so much emotion. There's a picture of dad and Bobby in which Bobby's in tears and the both of them are together looking as if to say, 'That was for those lads'."
Fight for survival: Families insist more should have been done to help financially
The feeling remains among some Munich survivors and their families that more should have been done much sooner to provide financial assistance. No testimonial match was agreed until 1997, and then it was at the instigation of half-a-dozen surviving players, who had been invited to the European Cup final in Munich by Uefa.
One of them, Albert Scanlon, who played outside-left in the Busby Babes' last game in Belgrade, says: "We did it one night, sat in our hotel. It didn't come from the club, it came from the ex-players. Ray Wood rang round all over the place."
United controversially decided to combine the occasion with a farewell to Eric Cantona, which Harry Gregg called "a disgrace", but which others felt maximised the attendance when the game was played in August 1998, six months after the 40th anniversary. "Would they have rather Cantona hadn't played and we had [only] 30,000 people there?" asked one organiser.
Gordon Taylor, of the Professional Footballers' Association, was given the task of dividing the £1 million receipts, which amounted after expenses to about £47,000 for each dependent. Scanlon said: "It paid some of my bills, we went on holiday with the kids and [did] some alterations to the house. I still went to work as a security guard in Salford Docks."
Like fellow survivors Kenny Morgans and Dennis Viollet, Scanlon never rediscovered his real form after the crash. Ray Wood died in 2002, Jackie Blanchflower a month after the testimonial. As Blanchflower's son Andrew said: "The legacy of Munich got them all in the end."
Source: 'The Lost Babes', by Jeff Connor (HarperSport)