Like a punctuation mark that can never be erased, so many times the invitation has come to Sir Bobby Charlton. But then who would be more likely to receive it than the ultimate survivor and symbol of Manchester United's resurrection?
And who more appropriate to send it out, maybe for just one last time, than Sir Alex Ferguson at this point in the history of the club whose legend he has marshalled as a living force so powerfully and for so long?
The request is always the same and it has been repeating itself for what is now just a few days short of 50 years; take us back to the snowy airfield in Munich on 6 February 1958, and tell us how it was and how it felt, Charlton is asked once more.
Take us back to where you lost all those team-mates, saw them all laid out in the snow, and Sir Matt Busby was no longer pointing you to the stars but groaning when you placed your coat over him and you felt, overwhelmingly, that you would never get back the life and the colour and the unblinking optimism which at 20 you had imagined might just last for ever.
Sometimes the invitation is turned down because you know it is too hard, too invasive and there are too many feelings to protect and, despite all the practice, often still a certain difficulty in keeping back the tears.
But this was not so a few days ago when Ferguson joined the list of those who wanted you to do it.
Not by way of some sentimental back-tracking, of frayed emotion and time-expired regret. No, not any of that, but to explain the meaning of Manchester United before a great football dream appeared to have perished.
He asked you to ride the time machine again but this time in the company of the young millionaires of coruscating talent who – Ferguson wanted them to know – were perhaps in danger of being the unknowing heirs to the most amazing redemption of a most tragic day.
Ferguson wanted Charlton to tell Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney and their team-mates the depth and the extent of their inheritance.
The compelling need for this to happen came to Ferguson one morning recently as he drove to the club's 70-acre custom-built training centre on the outskirts of the city, a place of such luxury and technical refinement and beautifully manicured training fields (18 of them) it would have been beyond the imagination of the legendary boys who travelled by bus to train at the rudimentary Cliff practice ground in Salford – and on shale and mud and the concrete girding the old, ramshackled Old Trafford.
It came to Ferguson with the force of a rough slap across the face.
Someone might ask Rooney or Ronaldo for a reaction to the 50th anniversary of the day when United, arguably the greatest, most mystical franchise in all of professional sport, lived precariously only in millions of anguished heartbeats. What if they didn't truly have one? What if they could convey only the vaguest sense of someone else's disaster? If this happened, would it be merely a lapse of education – or maybe a betrayal, evidence of a profound neglect of a most vital component of United's history? Ferguson said to Charlton: "Tell them about Munich, Bobby, tell them about the makings of this place – tell them what was passed to them so many years ago, before they were born, and what they should represent every time they go out on to the field. Tell them what it really means to play for this club."
The manager also recruited Nobby Stiles, who was a boot-cleaning apprentice at Old Trafford when the first news came in from Munich about "a problem" for the team in whose aura he had basked, and around whom he had each day lurked, almost deliriously, to see if he could perform some small service, like running for bacon sandwiches or handing out snooker cues in the poky little recreation room.
Ferguson asked Stiles to talk to another generation of youth players, about those old and, in the course of time, perfectly fulfiled ambitions to walk and run and battle in the footsteps of the young men he so adored.
On the run-in to next week's poignant milestone, the result has been a blending of perspectives that were united so gloriously 10 years and a few months after the tragedy when Charlton and Stiles played together victoriously in the European Cup final victory over Benfica at Wembley, embraced each other at the end and agreed, "Finally, we did it for the lads."
For reasons which still run so deeply, and all-pervadingly, they also did it for a football club which can claim so many reasons for a pre-eminence in the attention of the football nation – and a wider world.
United can boast of the genius of the founder of its tradition, the pipe-smoking Busby, who was bred in the Lanarkshire coalfield and was made fatherless in the trenches of the First World War, and the ferocious, record-breaking passion of Ferguson. They can talk of the supreme quality of players stretching back to the sepia days of the immediate post-war years, when huge crowds, so many of them wearing long, grey demob overcoats and always peering through thick banks of cigarette smoke, followed every move of the maestros in the red shirts and billowing shorts, men like Johnny Carey and Stan Pearson, Jimmy Delaney and Charlie Mitten.
The club can recall waves of excellence and the thrill of the highest skill produced by the teams of Duncan Edwards and Tommy Taylor and Roger Byrne and the young Charlton, who moved so imperiously into the company of George Best and Denis Law, and now there are the new heroes as Rooney and Ronaldo push forward so spectacularly on the path opened up by the exotic folk hero Eric Cantona and the Ferguson prodigies Ryan Giggs and David Beckham and Paul Scholes.
But always you have to go back to Munich for the day when a football club became so much more than a random victim of an air crash, when it became a story that would always be invigorated by a spirit that refused to die, however it was bombarded by fate and the pressures of a commercial age which might, on that grey afternoon when the news from Munich seemed to seep into the grimy brickwork of Manchester, had been a thousand years away.
Cantona, in one of his more mystical moods, said that every day he was aware of the ghosts of Old Trafford. He felt them in every corner of the football ground that now stands as a supreme example of modern football wealth.
This week Bobby Charlton said: "I hope that when the day of the anniversary arrives everyone will realise the enormity of what happened, and how it was that those brilliant young players who died were leading everyone who loved football in this country into a new age that was so exciting and was suddenly filled with so much colour. The last game before Munich was a 5-4 win at Arsenal and the fans of both clubs stood and cheered in the air. The feeling was that the Busby Babes had come to represent all that was best in football.
"When I see their faces again in my mind's eye I'm reminded again of the importance of those young players. They were on such an adventure. Everything was new; every journey was into the unknown.
"They didn't know the players they would be facing in Europe, had no idea of the systems they would be playing against. They hadn't been to Europe – no English players had – and the Football League had tried to stop them, but you couldn't stop the demand for a new world of football. The Old Man [Busby] insisted on it. I remember going to a game in Poland and one of the lads took a little stove to heat some soup because he said he had been told the food was terrible where we were going. The food was fine, everything was fine right up to the moment of the crash. Playing against Real Madrid was unbelievable. I was a travelling reserve and sat enraptured in the Bernabeu stadium. I saw for the first time Alfredo di Stefano and even now his performance lives in my memory in almost every detail."
Ferguson told Charlton, who has been a United director since 1984, that he had to pass some of this on, it was as though the old player was suddenly freed from a great weight of inhibition. When the moment came, Ferguson said, "You could hear a pin drop."
"When Alex made his request, I thought to myself, 'Well, it would be a bit embarrassing for them if they didn't know the story of what happened and suddenly they were asked'. So I went to the first-team players who had been gathered together at the training ground.
"I told them of my fears when the crash happened, how I worried for so long that the club they now play for might just disappear. With the Old Man so terribly injured, I lay in a hospital bed with just a bruise on my head and I asked myself, 'how is the club going to be run – can we survive?' Matt Busby was upstairs under an oxygen tent fighting for his life and the man who had to take charge, Jimmy Murphy, had never wanted to be the boss of the club. He was a brilliant teacher of players, but he didn't want command. But he had to lead, and he did."
There are some things a man can't tell because he has them buried too deep, but what Bobby Charlton did try to convey to the likes of Ronaldo and Rooney was the degree of his loss and all the fight and the quality of the team which died in Munich, which had won two straight league titles and were being spoken of across Europe as a new and brilliant force. He couldn't tell of the desolation of his spirit when the fears and the uncertainties that grew so quickly in the cabin of that airliner when, after two aborted take-offs, there was the sudden, dry-mouthed sense of certain disaster.
There were so many details that had been necessarily edited by the years, and not least the pain and disbelief he felt when he bent over the hospital bed of his friend and still to this day, his great hero, Duncan Edwards, and prayed that he would win a battle that the German doctors said had already become a miraculous statement of will and courage.
"Manchester United were told they couldn't play in Europe and try to imagine that today," said Charlton. "The club defied the authorities and for those of us who were sent on the adventure it was a kind of paradise, which made what happened in Munich so much more drastic. I tried to tell today's players that a lot of pioneering had gone on in this place – and it was done at such a price."
He also spoke of the thrill he had when playing with George Best and Denis and Stiles, knowing that the tradition of the great Busby Babes was sparking again into brilliant life – and he recalled how when Busby came from Munich, frail and with a need for a walking stick, he said it would be five years at least before the team could hope to breathe again the potential of great achievement. Uncannily, United played brilliantly to win the FA Cup final five years later and then, in another five, they were masters of Europe.
There is a picture taken on that night at Wembley in 1968 which shows Stiles peering up at Charlton with part adulation, part, well, love, and when you look at it you remember how the tough little Mancunian once explained how it was the day a trainer came into the dressing-room and told the groundstaff boys there had been a problem with the aircraft in Munich. Stiles recalled that he was in denial for much of the day, even when, as he changed buses in a funereal city centre, he saw so many of the faces of the great team lined up on the front page of the evening newspaper under the bleakest of all headlines, "DEAD". He had never seen the sky so grey as he travelled back to the little terraced house in Collyhurst he shared with his parents and his brother, Charlie.
Stiles didn't go home. His parents were at work. He went to the local Catholic church – "back then they weren't padlocked in the day" – and for hours he sat in a pew and rocked in his grief. His father was an undertaker who volunteered to drive Murphy to all the funerals. Stiles, an altar boy, attended 10 funerals in a few days. Charlton says he couldn't have faced that.
Instead, he gathered up his nerve and his will to play again while surrounded by family and friends in the North-east. "When I came back after a few weeks, I knew that whatever I did in football would always be about more than my own ambition. I couldn't bring back Duncan or Eddie [Colman] or David [Pegg] or any of them, but I could do everything in my power to make sure they were not forgotten."
Fifty years on, that had rarely seemed less likely than when he stood before Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney and identified, with both sadness and pride, an undying source of Manchester United's glory.
James Lawton worked with Sir Bobby Charlton on his best-selling autobiograpy, My Manchester Years, published by Headline.
'They would have won the European Cup – I'm sure of it'
Sir Alex Ferguson recalls precisely where he was on the day of the Munich crash. He was in a library studying for an examination, and from there he went to the local junior club, where he trained two nights a week.
"Everybody was just sitting head bowed and the training was cancelled which I think happened all over the place," he said. "It was about 6.30 at night when I heard about it and you could see the impact it had."
Ferguson is like many of his generation around Old Trafford, who say that the emotion was not as intense for them then as it is now. "Young people don't maybe grasp death in the way that older people do and there were a lot of older players who were crying," he said. "I was making my way home that night on my own and saying to myself, 'what happened?' because you know it's an air crash but you don't know any more than that."
His father, Alex, filled him in on the details and for both father and son it was the prospect that Sir Matt Busby might not pull through which caused most concern. "We had a great affection for the way he was doing things at Manchester United at the time and one of the reasons I went to watch United in the Coronation Cup in 1953 was Sir Matt," Ferguson recalled (United played Rangers in the first round and beat them 2-1 then lost to Celtic, the eventual winners, 2-1).
With his acute understanding of his club's history, Ferguson knows the depth of United's loss. "To lose the team, but particularly to lose Duncan Edwards at 21, David Pegg – 21, Eddie Colman was only a young lad..." he said, struggling for a word to define the loss. "These are young men – really young men – I think they would have won the European Cup. I'm sure of it."
Ian HerbertReuse content