FOR A few moments early yesterday the echo of one of British football's biggest disasters was heard. As the plane carrying Leeds United ploughed through rough grassland at the end of the runway at Stansted Airport in Essex it passed through the shadow of the Munich Air Crash.
On February 6, 1958, eight Manchester United players were among 23 people killed when their plane crashed on take-off as United returned from a European Cup match against Red Star Belgrade; yesterday the Leeds squad escaped virtually unscathed. Just two passengers received minor injuries, including the team's assistant manager, David O'Leary, while four members of the crew needed treatment. For the rest there was an almighty scare.
"It's hard to say what's going through your mind when you hit the ground and you're sliding on the runway," O'Leary, who injured his shoulder forcing open a door, said. "You're hoping you won't hit anything, that it won't explode. The plane was like a roller-coaster. There was a lot of fire and everyone just got off as fast as possible. We are all pretty shaken up but the overwhelming feeling is that we're glad to get out in one piece."
The chartered Hawker Siddeley HS-748 turbo prop was taking the multi- million pound Leeds squad, which excluded manager George Graham who stayed in London, back to Leeds-Bradford Airport after Monday's night 3-0 Premiership defeat at West Ham. As it reached a height of 150 feet the starboard engine exploded into flames and the pilot - 61-year-old Captain John Hackett - aborted the flight.
The 15-year-old plane, owned by Belfast-based Emerald Airways, overshot the runway as it crash-landed, the nose wheel collapsing as the craft came to a stop about 300 feet from the perimeter fence. The first call to the emergency services was timed at 12.43am, as crew and passengers performed what was described as a copybook evacuation.
"Everyone on board could see the flames and everyone seemed to be shouting: 'Fire! There's a fire'," the Leeds chairman, Peter Ridsdale, whose 13- year-old son, Matthew, was also on board, said. "We had just taken off. You know the plane is full of fuel and you just hope you land before it explodes.
"The pilot later told me he wouldn't have had time to go round again. He said 30 seconds longer and the plane would have been in flames."
Leeds are one of of only two Premiership clubs who regularly use aircraft for domestic away fixtures, the other being Everton. Normally the HS-748 seats 48 but yesterday it carried a crew of four and 40 passengers, including 18 players and former stars Norman Hunter and Eddie Gray.
"Just after we took off we heard a big bang and saw the flames from the engine on the right-hand side. We were just off the ground," Gunner Halle, Leeds' Norwegian defender, said. "There was a little bit of shouting. I couldn't believe what was happening."
The Civil Aviation Authority has launched an inquiry into the crash which John Stent, chief executive at Stansted, said was the first serious accident there since the airport opened as a major terminal seven years ago.
The Leeds squad were taken to an emergency centre before being allowed to leave in the early hours of the morning, completing their journey to Elland Road by coach at 7.30am, more than nine hours after finishing the match at Upton Park.
Leeds will review their travel plans for away matches after assessing the mood of those involved. "It will obviously depend on on how everybody feels," a spokesman said. "It is probably too early to make a decision." Their next match, Saturday's home game against Barnsley, will go ahead.
The incident came seven weeks after Manchester United commemorated the 40th anniversary of Munich, which destroyed the Busby Babes, of whom Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Duncan Edwards, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Liam Whelan died, while two others never played again.
Bobby Charlton, who survived the crash, admits to fears every time he boards a plane, but he still travels with United to most of their away European ties. In the Premiership the only player who famously refuses to fly is Arsenal's Dennis Bergkamp.
There have been at least six major air disasters other than Munich involving football teams. In 1949 Italy's Torino lost 17 players including eight internationals; in 1961 eight players from Green Cross (Chile); in 1969 19 players and officials of The Strongest (Bolivia); in 1979 the Soviet Union's Pakhator Tashkent lost 17; in 1987, 34 players wives and officials of Alianza Lima (Peru) died; and in 1993, 30 people perished, including all but four of the Zambian national squad, when their plane crashed into the sea on the way to play a World Cup match.
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