February 6th 1958 is a date to remember in the history of association football. At 3.04pm on a slush filled runway at Munich Reim Airport the BEA Elizabethan twin engined chartered aircraft BE 609, named Lord Burghley, with 44 passengers on board roared down the runway on a third attempt at a take off on a cold and snowy afternoon. Twice before Captain John Thain had tried and failed to get enough power and had returned to unload his passengers.
Yesterday was a sunny day in Manchester as I made my way from the Old Trafford MetroLink light rail stop down Brian Statham Way past Old Trafford cricket ground, across Chester Rd with its tatty half dozen fast food outlets, past The Trafford Pub and down Sir Matt Busby Way to the S E Corner where the clock high on the wall is permanently stopped at 3.04pm and a plaque to the deceased United players and staff is located. There were already hundreds of floral and photo tributes, scarfs, flags, and more. I went to the memorial service in the overflow International Suite in the West Stand, with the survivors of the crash and familes round the corner in the Manchester Suite. The service was on MUTV and I cried. Club captain Gary Neville lit 23 candles, one for each of the dead, Sir Alex Ferguson read a lesson, Sir Matt Busby's grand daughter as well. Then the thousands of fans outside burst into song after the minutes silence at 3.04pm. Across Europe at the exact spot at the now closed Riem Airport in Trudering, outside Munich, another service was held, and FC Bayern President, former European Football of the Year, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge spoke about how he was a Manchester United fan. The silence there was at 4.04pm, Central European time.
In the city The Manchester Evening News was being given away free, as it is every weekday these days, including a reproduction of two of the pages from February 7th, 1958. Then the newspaper cost 3 pence, (about 3 cents) and so inflation hadn't increased the price. The season before I think I paid about 20 cents to stand at a league match at Old Trafford. Try $70 today, but now you get to sit down.Captain Roger Byrne, Geoff Bent, Mark Jones, Liam Whelan, Eddie Colman, Tommy Taylor and David Pegg died at the scene. The Manchester based journalist who died included Frank Swift, former England and Manchester City goalkeeper. Matt Busby was in hospital for 2 months. He had also played for Manchester City before World War II, and won the F.A. Cup with them. There were no club directors on the trip, and assistant manager Jimmy Murphy was preparing Wales for a World Cup qualifier against Israel instead.
On the third attempt it seemed to get enough power and lifted off the ground, but struck a fuel truck and then a house at the end of the runway and broke in two. Twenty-one of twenty three were dead at the scene. The co pilot and one player, Duncan Edwards, died later in hospital. Eight players died plus eight journalists, the club secretary, trainer and a few fans and travel agents. Goalkeeper Harry Gregg found his way out of the wreck and was told by the approaching captain, holding a fire extinguisher 'get the hell away before it explodes'. He didn't, and went back three times to carry the survivors out. Five hours later a couple of German journalists entered the wreck and found 18 year old Kenny Morgans in a coma and still strapped to his seat. He needed 10 pints of blood and returned back to England by train and ferry with Dennis Violett. Morgans was in the squad for the F.A. Cup Final 3 months later but was left out of the team. The following Tuesday in the European Cup Semi-Final against AC Milan he was the best player out there. United won 2-1 but lost by four goals away at the San Siro.
The team was returning from a EUROPEAN CUP quarter final in Belgrade where they had tied Red Star Belgrade 3-3 in front of 65,000 at the Partizan Stadium, and advanced on 5-4 aggregate. They had a memorable banquet in the Yugoslav capital at the Majestic Hotel after the match and the Yorkshire born players had started singing 'On Ilkley Moor Baht'at' (without a hat), the county's unofficial anthem. They were given permission to go out into town and then returned to play poker in the lobby before a short sleep and a bus to the airport. With the weather and two aborted take offs in Munich they should have spent Thursday night in a hotel. The Football League had threatened them with sanctions if they did not return in time to play Wolverhampton Wanderers on the Saturday
In 1955 the European Cup was launched with Real Madrid beating Reims of France in Paris, and I had watched on television and was excited for the future of European football. Chelsea had been bullied by the league not to take part after winning the old First Division and wouldn't get another chance for 50 years. but Matt Busby, manager of now two time league champions Manchester United defied the authorities. In their first season they had lost to holders Real Madrid, 3-1 away and tied 2-2 at home, but had beaten Anderlecht, Belgian champions 10-0 in an early round at Maine Road, home of Manchester City. Old Trafford didn't yet have floodlights, and had been damaged by bombs during World War II. They were a poor club, with players earning maximum wage of £15 a week in the season and £12 a week in the off season. Maybe two players had cars. There were 11 club employees and only one radio, which was in the laundry room. Most players would walk or take to bus to the ground.
Thirteen days after the crash, coached by Murphy, they hosted Sheffield Wednesday in a televised F.A. Cup 5th Round tie. 60,000 showed up. Ernie Taylor an England international was signed from Blackpool and 2 days before the match Stan Crowther from Aston Villa. Harry Gregg played and another survivor Bill Foulkes led them out as the new captain. The official programme, now a collectors item, was blank where the United line-up should be. The team was decided at the last minute and had many reserve and youth team players. United beat Wednesday, captained by Albert Quixoll, later to be signed by United 3-0 and eventually made it to the F.A. Cup Final at Wembley where they lost 2-0 to Bolton Wanderers. The team had spent a lot of time at The Norbreck Hydro on The Fylde Coast, to get them away from the gloom in Manchester, and I use to ride my bike from home to watch The Busby Babes train.
Ten years later Manchester United became Champions of Europe by defeating Benfica of Portugal after extra time at Wembley Stadium. The rest, as they say, is history, and a glorious one.