6th February 1958 will forever be a sad moment in football history. Words cannot describe the loss to the footballing world on that fateful day. On the 58th anniversary of the unfortunate accident, let us remember all those who lost their lives and others whose career was brought to a halt. Yet, there were others who bounced back and went on to become legends of the game.
The Munich air disaster occurred when British European Airways flight 609 crashed on its third attempt to take off from a slush-covered runway at Munich-Riem Airport, West Germany. On the plane was the Manchester United football team, nicknamed the “Busby Babes”, along with supporters and journalists. 20 of the 44 on the aircraft died. The injured, some unconscious, were taken to the Rechts der Isar Hospital in Munich where three more died, resulting in 23 fatalities with 21 survivors.
The “Busby Babes” were named after their manager Matt Busby, recruited and trained by Manchester United chief scout Joe Armstrong and assistant manager Jimmy Murphy. The players were trained from an early age and progressed from the youth teams to the first team throughout the 1940’s and 50’s. The speciality of the group is that most of them were developed by the club itself. Just like Sir Alex Ferguson’s team of 1990 or Barcelona’s class of 1987, the Busby Babes were young, well loved and exceptionally talented.
The football team was returning from a European Cup match in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (now Serbia) against Red Star Belgrade. The flight stopped to refuel in Munich because a non-stop flight from Belgrade to Manchester was out of the “Elizabethan”-class Airspeed Ambassador aircraft’s range. After refuelling, pilots James Thain and Kenneth Rayment twice abandoned take-off because of boost surging in the left engine.
Fearing they would get too far behind schedule, Captain Thain rejected an overnight stay in Munich in favour of a third take-off attempt. By then, snow was falling, causing a layer of slush at the end of the runway. After the aircraft hit the slush, it ploughed through a fence beyond the end of the runway and the left wing was torn off after hitting a house. Fearing the aircraft might explode, Thain began evacuating passengers while Manchester United goalkeeper Harry Gregg helped pull survivors from the wreckage.
Geoff Bent(25), Roger Byrne (28), Eddie Colman (21), Duncan Edwards (21), Mark Jones (24), David Pegg (22), Tommy Taylor(26) and Billy Whelan (22) lost their lives as a result of the crash.
However there were many who lived to tell the tale. Matt Busby himself was severely injured and was twice given his last rites. In the 1960s, Busby rebuilt the Manchester United team. The biggest success of his career came in 1968 when the team won the European Cup. He retired as manager in 1969. He was awarded the CBE in 1958 and knighted following the European Cup victory in 1968.
Harry Gregg (goalkeeper) was 24. He had joined them 2 months before the crash, but was immediately welcomed into the fold. He survived, and was cited for bravery for going back into the burning wreckage to rescue passengers.
Bobby Charlton (forward) age 20. Just breaking into the team at the time of the crash, he scored twice in Belgrade the night before. He went on to become one of the game’s greatest players and remains one of its most respected ambassadors. His partnership with future signings George Best and Dennis Law is still regarded as one of the greatest trios ever. In 1968, Manchester United became the first club from England the win the European Cup.
Ray Wood (goalkeeper) was 26. Lost his place to Harry Gregg, but one of United’s legendary goalkeeping heroes. Another who suffered terrible head injuries, he rarely played again. Dennis Viollet (striker) was 24. A prolific goalscorer and a great player before the crash, he went on to set a United scoring record in 1959-60 with 32 league goals. Later joined Stoke City and served them well for many years. It is said he was never quite as good after the crash, and that he was potentially one of the best strikers in the history of the game.
Although the accident resulted in United losing a majority of the players, other clubs loaned out some of their own players to help the team in need. This act of gratitude enabled the club to survive through hard times and ultimately United were soon back to the top tier of World football producing greats like Ryan Giggs, David Beckham and Michael Carrick among others. Football is all about the passion and desire. The Busby Babes were full of it. And they will be forever remembered rightly so.