Still the snow fell. The date was 6th February 1958 and British European Airways Flight 609 taxied on the icy tarmac of Munich airport as it prepared for its third attempt at take-off. On board were 44 passengers, many of whom were members of the Manchester United squad returning home after facing Red Star Belgrade in the European Cup the previous evening.
Just minutes later 20 passengers were dead, seven players among them (Duncan Edwards died in hospital two weeks later), the aircraft having failed to reach the velocity required for a safe ascent. The burning, twisted wreckage lit up the Bavarian sky with its incandescent horror; and still the snow fell. The football world mourned the loss of a team at the peak of its powers, a group of players that had been cruelly taken from us during the high summer of their success.
Emotional tributes flooded in as the news of the tragedy filtered back to Britain. The Queen sent a message of condolence to the Lord Mayor of Manchester and fans gathered together to shed tears in remembrance of their heroes. Days later the coffins of the crash victims arrived back in Manchester, thousands lining the routes of the hearses as they wound their solemn way to Old Trafford. A tragedy which brought a city together in its grief, the Munich disaster has become the defining moment in the history of Manchester United.
There is an argument to be made that the team that was so brutally disbanded at Munich was the finest the British game has ever seen. Dubbed ‘The Busby Babes’, the Manchester United side that the great Scottish manager had assembled during the late 1940s and early 50s had come to dominate English football with its attractive football and flexible interpretation of 4-4-2. Indeed, at the time of the crash the team were on course to secure their third consecutive league title and through to the last four of the European Cup. This was a team at its zenith.
Busby had been devastated by the tragedy, the Scot having survived the horror but seen his ambitions of European glory vanish before his very eyes. However, perhaps spurred on by the memories of those that had been lost, Busby belligerently refused to let the club enter a decline, his determination to succeed being redoubled in the aftermath of Munich. It could be said that it was this determination to succeed in adversity that kept the club at the top of English football and shaped Manchester United’s identity for the decades to come.
The heart ripped out of his squad, the Munich disaster forced Busby to use the club’s youth system and rebuild from the ground up. Into the side came the likes of Dennis Law and George Best, talented young players who had been schooled in the ways of the Busby Babes and would become the crux of the generation to come. Many of the original side may have perished, but their spirit lived on in the players who stepped in to replace them, their intelligent and free style of play coming to be reflected in the football of their successors.
Ten years later, with a poignant and poetic symmetry, Busby led Manchester United to its first European Cup title, Benfica being beaten 4-1 at Wembley Stadium. Playing that day were Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes, two survivors of Munich and integral components of the side that made history that balmy May afternoon. The dreams of Sir Matthew Busby had been achieved, the memory of those who perished in Munich honoured with the club’s ultimate glory.
The eight Manchester United players who died in Munich: Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Duncan Edwards, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor, Liam Whelan.