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1958 Munich Air Disaster: How It Cemented a Manchester United Fan's Lifelong Commitment

Posted: 05/02/2013 23:00

As a nine-year-old in 1998, Catholicism was an unwanted but integral part of growing up. My family weren't (and aren't) strict Catholics but thought it traditional and prudent to set me in good stead prior to my teenage years. Sunday mass, altar boy duties and attending a Roman Catholic primary school made the commitment an unavoidable chore and unlike Homer, I was dismissed when making a stand.

It was at that age I discovered through the official Manchester United magazine the legacy of the 1958 Munich air disaster. I was vaguely aware of it - chiefly through the 93-94 United season review video which reflected on the passing of Sir Matt Busby - but despite being a walking United almanac I was not well versed in it. That swiftly changed and suddenly I was able to reel off the names Byrne, Whelan, Pegg, Colman, Bent, Jones, Taylor and Edwards.

A United nut since 1995, I had been to Old Trafford twice already but the awe of the ground did not fully register until 7 February 1998, the day after the 40th anniversary. United faced Bolton Wanderers, and as that week's Match magazine indicated, the game would kick-off at the unusual time of 3.15pm to allow the club the opportunity to pay its respects to the 23 who died.

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Curtains: a souvenir from the author's first trip to Old Trafford, February 1996


As the game loomed the magnitude of what happened four decades previously intensified. When Eric Cantona retired the previous summer it felt like a family member had died, but 39 years previously eight footballers of the back-to-back English champions and European Cup semi-finalists had perished in the snow. Eerily, later on in the 1997-98 season Leeds United's plane crash-landed at Stansted Airport as Captain John Hackett averted another tragedy. One of the great 'what ifs', mercifully English football was spared another disaster.

On the morning of the Bolton game the media was concerned about the possibility of the away supporters ruining the minute's silence. Despicably, Leeds fans disrupted a minute's silence for Busby during their televised match with Blackburn four years earlier while Bolton fans had a penchant for chanting Munich slurs. What happened on 6 February 1958, it transpired, could also be used as a stick to beat your club with.


My birthday was the day after the Bolton game and I won the coach's £20 lucky dip on the journey up but I was quietly melancholic. The level of excitement on my two previous trips to Old Trafford surpassed meeting Mickey Mouse in Florida aged six but understanding what happened in Munich and the indelible mark it left on the fabric of the club wore heavily.

The atmosphere at Old Trafford was also heavy. The usual pre-match rancour had been downgraded to quiet reflection and it wasn't because of Tony Cottee's recent winner for Leicester at the ground. My mum and dad had taken me on a tour of the stadium two years earlier - probably my first (vague) educational foray into what Munich represented - so we returned to the Munich clock, this time surrounded by emotional supporters.

Inside the ground it was as sombre as it was sobering. The previous day United's players had attended a memorial service at Manchester Cathedral and a 23-year-old Gary Neville would later remark how emotional it was watching Duncan Edwards' mother light a candle for her son. On a dispassionate and professional level, it was destined to count against the starting XI.

Come the tributes, Sir Bobby Charlton was flanked by Bolton's great striker Nat Lofthouse. Even at nine I had developed a puerile hatred for Lofthouse on the basis of his goal in the '58 Cup final when he poleaxed Harry Gregg. The 'hatred' had turned to 'respect'.

bobby charlton
Charlton and Lofthouse carry wreathes to the centre circle


And it was during the minute's silence that something seminal happened. Football as a religion can be a tiresome and hackneyed metaphor but I felt more of a belonging to my club in those 60 seconds than I had than to my 'belief' during dozens of mass services. It could have been so different had my mum, an Arsenal fan until my seven-year-old self became upset at her celebrating a Dennis Bergkamp winner against United (cruelty worthy of an NSPCC phone call), been more forceful. As great a club as Arsenal is, they do not stir you like United.

The result was inconsequential. United had lost two successive league games and were on the cusp of a third defeat before Andy Cole intervened with a late leveller, but the experience of 7 February 1998 was invaluable as a United supporter. It cemented a lifelong commitment.

Ten years on, my dad and I attended the commemorations for the 50th anniversary as United faced Manchester City. The club had since changed for the worse thanks to the Glazers' 2005 takeover and the rampant commercialism which has infested football, yet Munich reminded the loyalists that in spite of the jester hat-wearing, camera-phone-wielding half-and-half scarf clowns a proper football club lives on.

That afternoon there were echoes of the tribute to Busby in 1994 as a lone piper emerged playing 'We'll Never Die'. United's unique homage was wearing a replica of the Busby Babes' kit, which was an emotive sight for a 20-year-old let alone those who saw the Babes in person. Again there were fears the minute's silence would be disrupted by the visiting section but again it was well observed as a sea of scarves emerged to give Old Trafford's theatre a dream-like quality.

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United supporters display their commemorative scarves


United disastrously froze to deliver one of the most infuriating displays seen by any supporter of any age. Munich was supposed to inspire the players rather than deter them. Perhaps it is an unfair observation but after the ground grieved Busby in '94, Cantona showcased a magical eulogy.

Aptly though United would go on to win their third European Cup 50 years after Munich and 40 years after the Old Man's special night at Wembley. Long since a poor Catholic, in Moscow I was reduced to prayer as John Terry stepped up and God, disapproving of a serial sinner, played his part. It turned out the chore was worth it.

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  • Aviation Disasters. Sport. pic: 6th February 1958. Rescue workers pictured in a snowstorm at the wreckage of the B.E.A. Elizabethan airliner G-ALZU "Lord Burghley" after the crash at Munich in which 23 people died, 8 being Manchester United footballers.

    Aviation Disasters, Sport, pic: 6th February 1958, Rescue workers pictured in a snowstorm at the wreckage of the B,E,A, Elizabethan airliner G-ALZU 'Lord Burghley' after the crash at Munich in which 23 people died, 8 being Manchester United footballers (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

  • Aviation Disasters. Sport. pic: 6th February 1958. Rescue workers pictured in a snowstorm at the wreckage of the B.E.A. Elizabethan airliner G-ALZU "Lord Burghley" after the crash at Munich in which 23 people died, 8 being Manchester United footballers.

    Aviation Disasters, Sport, pic: 6th February 1958, Rescue workers pictured in a snowstorm at the wreckage of the B,E,A, Elizabethan airliner G-ALZU 'Lord Burghley' after the crash at Munich in which 23 people died, 8 being Manchester United footballers (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

  • Aviation Disasters. Sport. pic: 6th February 1958. Rescue workers pictured in a snowstorm at the wreckage of the B.E.A. Elizabethan airliner G-ALZU "Lord Burghley" after the crash at Munich in which 23 people died, 8 being Manchester United footballers.

    Aviation Disasters, Sport, pic: 6th February 1958, Rescue workers pictured in a snowstorm at the wreckage of the B,E,A, Elizabethan airliner G-ALZU 'Lord Burghley' after the crash at Munich in which 23 people died, 8 being Manchester United footballers (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

  • Aviation Disasters. Sport. pic: 6th February 1958. Rescue workers pictured in a snowstorm at the wreckage of the B.E.A. Elizabethan airliner G-ALZU "Lord Burghley" after the crash at Munich in which 23 people died, 8 being Manchester United footballers.

    Aviation Disasters, Sport, pic: 6th February 1958, Rescue workers pictured in a snowstorm at the wreckage of the B,E,A, Elizabethan airliner G-ALZU 'Lord Burghley' after the crash at Munich in which 23 people died, 8 being Manchester United footballers (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

  • Aviation Disasters. Sport. pic: 6th February 1958. The snow covered fuselage, part of the wreckage of the B.E.A. Elizabethan airliner G-ALZU "Lord Burghley" after the crash at Munich in which 23 people died, 8 being Manchester United footballers.

    Aviation Disasters, Sport, pic: 6th February 1958, The snow covered fuselage, part of the wreckage of the B,E,A, Elizabethan airliner G-ALZU 'Lord Burghley' after the crash at Munich in which 23 people died, 8 being Manchester United footballers (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

  • Aviation Disasters. Sport. pic: 6th February 1958. The wreckage of the B.E.A. Elizabethan airliner G-ALZU "Lord Burghley" after the crash at Munich in which 23 people died, 8 being Manchester United footballers.

    Aviation Disasters, Sport, pic: 6th February 1958, The wreckage of the B,E,A, Elizabethan airliner G-ALZU 'Lord Burghley' after the crash at Munich in which 23 people died, 8 being Manchester United footballers (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

  • Aviation Disasters. Sport. pic: 6th February 1958. The snow covered fuselage, part of the wreckage of the B.E.A. Elizabethan airliner G-ALZU "Lord Burghley" after the crash at Munich in which 23 people died, 8 being Manchester United footballers.

    Aviation Disasters, Sport, pic: 6th February 1958, The snow covered fuselage, part of the wreckage of the B,E,A, Elizabethan airliner G-ALZU 'Lord Burghley' after the crash at Munich in which 23 people died, 8 being Manchester United footballers (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

  • Aviation Disasters. Sport. pic: 6th February 1958. Part of the wreckage of the B.E.A. Elizabethan airliner G-ALZU "Lord Burghley" after the crash at Munich in which 23 people died, 8 being Manchester United footballers.

    Aviation Disasters, Sport, pic: 6th February 1958, Part of the wreckage of the B,E,A, Elizabethan airliner G-ALZU 'Lord Burghley' after the crash at Munich in which 23 people died, 8 being Manchester United footballers (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

  • Aviation Disasters. Sport. pic: February 1958. The interior of the B.E.A. Elizabethan airliner G-ALZU "Lord Burghley" after the crash at Munich in which 23 people died, 8 being Manchester United footballers.

    Aviation Disasters, Sport, pic: February 1958, The interior of the B,E,A, Elizabethan airliner G-ALZU 'Lord Burghley' after the crash at Munich in which 23 people died, 8 being Manchester United footballers (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

  • Soccer - 50th Anniversary Of The Munich Air Disaster

    File photo dated 06/02/1958 The wreckage of the British European Airways plane which crashed in Munich on February 6, 1958, while bringing home members of the Manchester United football team from a European Cup match.

  • Soccer - 50th Anniversary Of The Munich Air Disaster

    File photo dated 06/02/1958. The Munich aircrash where Manchester United team were on a European Cup visit to Belgrade.

  • Aviation Disasters. Sport. pic: circa 15th February 1958. The wreckage of the B.E.A. Elizabethan airliner G-ALZU "Lord Burghley" after the crash at Munich in which 23 people died, 8 being Manchester United footballers, about to be removed.

    Aviation Disasters, Sport, pic: circa 15th February 1958, The wreckage of the B,E,A, Elizabethan airliner G-ALZU 'Lord Burghley' after the crash at Munich in which 23 people died, 8 being Manchester United footballers, about to be removed (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

  • Aviation Disasters. Sport. pic: circa 15th February 1958. The wreckage of the B.E.A. Elizabethan airliner G-ALZU "Lord Burghley" after the crash at Munich in which 23 people died, 8 being Manchester United footballers, about to be removed with the help of

    Aviation Disasters, Sport, pic: circa 15th February 1958, The wreckage of the B,E,A, Elizabethan airliner G-ALZU 'Lord Burghley' after the crash at Munich in which 23 people died, 8 being Manchester United footballers, about to be removed with the help of a crane (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

  • Aviation Disasters. Sport. pic: circa 15th February 1958. The wreckage of the B.E.A. Elizabethan airliner G-ALZU "Lord Burghley" after the crash at Munich in which 23 people died, 8 being Manchester United footballers, about to be removed with the help of

    Aviation Disasters, Sport, pic: circa 15th February 1958, The wreckage of the B,E,A, Elizabethan airliner G-ALZU 'Lord Burghley' after the crash at Munich in which 23 people died, 8 being Manchester United footballers, about to be removed with the help of a crane (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

  • Aviation Disasters. Sport. pic: circa 15th February 1958. The wreckage of the B.E.A. Elizabethan airliner G-ALZU "Lord Burghley" after the crash at Munich in which 23 people died, 8 being Manchester United footballers, about to be removed with the help of

    Aviation Disasters, Sport, pic: circa 15th February 1958, The wreckage of the B,E,A, Elizabethan airliner G-ALZU 'Lord Burghley' after the crash at Munich in which 23 people died, 8 being Manchester United footballers, about to be removed with the help of a crane (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

  • Aviation Disasters. Sport. pic: circa 15th February 1958. The wreckage of the B.E.A. Elizabethan airliner G-ALZU "Lord Burghley" after the crash at Munich in which 23 people died, 8 being Manchester United footballers, about to be removed with the help of

    Aviation Disasters, Sport, pic: circa 15th February 1958, The wreckage of the B,E,A, Elizabethan airliner G-ALZU 'Lord Burghley' after the crash at Munich in which 23 people died, 8 being Manchester United footballers, about to be removed with the help of a crane (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

  • Soccer - European Cup - Quarter Final Second Leg- Red Star Belgrade v Manchester United

    The wreckage of the "Elizabethan" class Airspeed Ambassador (registration G-ALZU) charter flight which was carrying the Manchester United team back from Belgrade. After a refuelling stoppage at Munich, the plane crashed as it tried to take off on the snowy runway, killing 23 people, including eight players, one of whom was Duncan Edwards whom many believe was among the greatest football players of all time. He died of injuries 15 days after the crash.

  • Soccer - 50th Anniversary Of The Munich Air Disaster

    File photo dated 06/02/1958 of Members of the Manchester United football team board the BEA Elizabethan, before a European Cup match in Belgrade. Several team members died when the plane crashed on take-off from Munich airport, on the return journey.

  • Sport, Football, pic: February 1958, European Cup Quarter Final 2nd Leg, Red Star Belgrade 3 v Manchester United 3, Manchester United's Bobby Charlton scores their 3rd goal, On the return air flight home many of Manchester United's team and officials were

    Sport, Football, pic: February 1958, European Cup Quarter Final 2nd Leg, Red Star Belgrade 3 v Manchester United 3, Manchester United's Bobby Charlton scores their 3rd goal, On the return air flight home many of Manchester United's team and officials were tragically killed in the Munich air crash (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

  • Sport. Football. Belgrade, Yugoslavia. 5th February 1958. European Cup Quarter Final. Second Leg. Red Star Belgrade 3 v Manchester United 3 (Manchester United won the tie 5-4 on aggregate). Manchester United's Bill Foulkes (right) challenges a Red Star pl

    Sport, Football, Belgrade, Yugoslavia, 5th February 1958, European Cup Quarter Final, Second Leg, Red Star Belgrade 3 v Manchester United 3 (Manchester United won the tie 5-4 on aggregate), Manchester United's Bill Foulkes (right) challenges a Red Star player for the ball with United's Mark Jones racing in, United having led 3-0 were pulled back to a 3-3 draw, This was the last game Manchester United played before the tragedy of the Munich air disaster, returning from this game when disaster struck on 6th February 1958 (Photo by Bob Thomas/Getty Images)

  • Football, 5th February 1958, Belgrade, Yugoslavia, European Cup, Quarter-Final, Second Leg, Red Star Belgrade 3 v Manchester United 3 (United won 5-4 on aggregate), Red Star goalkeeper Beara leaps to punch clear from a Manchester United attack during the

    Football, 5th February 1958, Belgrade, Yugoslavia, European Cup, Quarter-Final, Second Leg, Red Star Belgrade 3 v Manchester United 3 (United won 5-4 on aggregate), Red Star goalkeeper Beara leaps to punch clear from a Manchester United attack during the match at the Jugoslav army stadium, The match was to be the final game that the 'Busby Babes' would play, as the plane on which they were travelling back to England crashed at Munich Airport (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

  • Soccer - 50th Anniversary Of The Munich Air Disaster

    File photo dated 06/02/1958 of Manchester United player Eddie Colman, one of the players who died after a plane crashed at Munich airport when flying them home from European Cup match.

  • Soccer - 50th Anniversary Of The Munich Air Disaster

    File photo dated 06/02/1958 Mr Walter Crickmer, Secretary of Manchester United FC, who was in the Manchester United party which went to Belgrade for the European Cup match that ended in tragedy when their BEA Elizabeth airliner crashed at Munich on the return journey to England.

  • Soccer - 50th Anniversary Of The Munich Air Disaster

    File photo dated 06/02/1958 of Manchester United player Geoff Bent, who died after a plane crashed at Munich airport when flying them home following a European Cup match.

  • Soccer - 50th Anniversary Of The Munich Air Disaster

    File photo dated 06/02/1958 of Manchester United player Duncan Edwards, who died after a plane crashed at Munich airport when flying them home following a European Cup match.

  • Soccer - 50th Anniversary Of The Munich Air Disaster

    File photo dated 29/08/1956 of Manchester United player Tommy Taylor, who died after a plane crashed at Munich airport when flying them home following a European Cup match.

  • Soccer - Munich Air Disaster - Ken Morgans - Manchester United

    Manchester United Outside right Ken Morgans pictured with his fiancee Stephanie Lloyd driving away from Liverpool Street Station after returning from Munich. Ken Morgans was the youngest survivor of the Munich air disaster on the 6th of February 1958.

  • Soccer - Munich Air Disaster - Gladstone Edwards and Len Morgans

    Gladstone Edwards (left) and Len Morgans, the fathers of two Manchester United players injured in the Munich air crash. They are preparing to travel to Germany to visit their sons (Duncan Edwards and Ken Morgans) in hospital. Duncan Edwards died as a result of his injuries on the 21 February 1958. Ken Morgans was the youngest survivor.

  • Soccer - 50th Anniversary Of The Munich Air Disaster

    File photo dated 12/02/1958 of Mourners standing in silence as the coffin of Manchester United captain Roger Byrne is taken on its last journey to the crematorium. Byrne died after a plane crashed at Munich airport when flying the team home following a European Cup match.

  • Soccer - 50th Anniversary Of The Munich Air Disaster

    File photo dated 17/01/2008 The Munich clock reads 3.04pm, the time that the plane crashed on Feb. 6th 1958. February 6th marks the 50th Anniversary of the Munich air disaster.

  • Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Manchester United v Portsmouth - Old Trafford

    Manchester United fans display a Lest We Forget banner in the stands in Memeory of those who lost their lives in the Munich Air Disaster

  • Soccer - 50th Anniversary of Munich Air Disaster

    Manchester United fans gather outside Old Trafford, Manchester, for a memorial service remembering the Munich air crash, on the 50th anniversary of the disaster in which 8 Manchester United players died.

 

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