In February 1958, Manchester United experienced one of the most agonizing tragedies ever to befall a sports team. Eight of United’s players perished in a wretched plane-crash at the Munich-Riems Airport in West Germany.
The stadium of Old Trafford stands proudly above the surrounding buildings like a monument associated with commercialism, dominance and authority. More than 76,000 odd fans flock to the home of Manchester United, one of the most dominant teams in world football’s most popular league. Around 12,000 of them are usually seated in the East Stand – which also houses the Manchester United Megastore, a 1,600 square metre jungle of red shirts, scarves, posters and merchandise operated by Adidas, the club’s commercial partner. Images and advertisements for Adidas products regularly adorn the stand’s tinted glass exterior.
If you happen to walk from the Megastore doors, you will come across a corner of the stadium, where the East and South Stands converge. On the curved wall hangs an ever-present clock, with the date permanently set to Feb 6th 1958. That was the day when, according the International Herald Tribune, ‘time stopped for Manchester United.’ The demise of eight of the club’s players was described by The Times newspaper the next day as ‘the blackest hand yet set upon football in these islands.’
On a wintry evening of 5th February in 1958, the atmosphere in the upper half of Manchester was as optimistic as ever. A bunch of young men, who fondly went by the name of the Busby Babes, had guided the then little-known club to the semifinals of the European Cup after ousting Red Star Belgrade 5-4 on aggregate. A 3-3 draw in the city of Belgrade had succeeded in instilling unfathomable belief in the minds and hearts of fans and the players that this club from Manchester could possibly etch its name into the annals of time.
Before Sir Matt Busby had taken over the reins in 1945, the club hardly had a stadium of its own. The park-like stadium known as Old Trafford was reduced to ashes by Luftwaffe’s bombs but Sir Matt seemingly had ambitions of his own. For almost ten years, he had overseen its reconstruction, while at the same time building perhaps the finest team ever to play football. United had an average age of just 21 when they captured the 1956 league title. They retained it in 1957, and paid back Aston Villa, the side who beat them in the 1957 FA Cup final, with a 4-0 thrashing in the opening match of the following campaign.
English football was lucky to have been embraced by this crop of young dynamos who were supposed to carry the torch forward. Every tidbit in English football seemed to revolve around the likes of Duncan Edwards, Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet, who were destined for massive feats in their respective careers.
Apart from domestic success, Busby had dreamt of something no other manager of an English club had contrived of. His dream was to win the European Cup, which was launched in the 1955-56 season. Busby, a visionary, knew that United needed to enter the European Cup to have any hope of bringing his lofty ambitions some random form. And what Busby had yearned for achieving was gradually coming into shape and now, it looked as if history could well be written.
On the 6th of February, 1958 at around 9 in the morning, the United party flew out of Belgrade on Lord Burghley, A British European charter plane, to commute to Munich where they’d halt for a refuel. The pilot, Captain James Thain flew the Elizabethan class Airspeed Ambassador to Belgrade but handed the controls to co pilot Kenneth Rayment for the return. The takeoff from Belgrade was delayed for an hour after Johnny Berry lost his passport, and the plane landed in Munich for refueling at 13:15 GMT.
At 14:19, the craft was given clearance to take off by the control tower and the famed Busby Babes set off, never to come back again..
The first attempt at take off was abandoned by Rayment as Thain noticed the port boost pressure gauge fluctuating when the plane reached full power and the engine sounded awkward while accelerating. Around 3 minutes later, the flight, the pilots and the gilded passengers prepared themselves to take off again. The second attempt was abandoned, owing to the fact that the engines were running on an over-rich mixture, causing them to over-accelerate, a common problem for the Elizabethan.
After the second attempt to take flight failed, the players alighted from the plane and made their way into the airport lounge. Outside, the weather began deteriorating and snow fell from the cloudy skies of Munich. And by the look of it, it seemed unlikely that the plane would take off that day.
A 22 year old and already world renowned Duncan Edwards, who had finished third in the race for European Player of Year in 1957, sent a telegram to his landlady in Manchester. It read:
“All flights cancelled, flying tomorrow. Duncan.”
Pilot James Thain was frantic to adhere to the schedule and suggested a way for taking off on time, suggesting that opening the throttle slowly would be sufficient, meaning that the plane would not achieve take-off velocity until further down the runway, but with the runway almost 2 kilometres long, he believed this would not be a problem.
After spending 15 minutes in the lounge, the players were recalled to board the plane. A few of the players in there were not confident fliers, particularly Liam Whelan, who reportedly said:
“This may be death, but I’m ready.”
Others, including Duncan Edwards, Tommy Taylor, Mark Jones, Eddie Colman and Frank Swift, moved to the back of the plane, believing it would be a tad safer. Thain and Rayment got the plane moving again at 14:56. At 14:59, they reached the runway holding point, where they received clearance to line up ready for take-off.
The pilots agreed to attempt their third take-off, but that they would watch the instruments for surging in the engines. At 15:03, they told the control tower of their decision.
Rayment did as he was told by Thain, releasing the brakes slowly and the plane began to accelerate.Amid the snow and slush, the place gathered speed.
At 85 knots, the port engine began to surge again just like the previous failed attempts, and Rayment pulled back marginally on the port throttle before pushing it forward again. As the plane approached 117 knots, Rayment announced that it wasn’t safe to abort their take off anymore. Both Thain and Rayment went through some seconds of expectancy, hoping that when the place reached 119 knots, they would’ve soared into the skies of Munich.
But, contrary to what was expected, the speed decreased instead of touching 119 knots. And Rayment yelled in desperation:
“Christ, we won’t make it!”
The plane skidded off the end of the runway, crashed into the fence surrounding the airport and across a road before its port wing was torn off as it caught a house, home to a family of six. The father and eldest daughter were away and the mother and the other three children escaped as the house caught fire.
And as the people on the streets of England and particularly Manchester, picked up the newspapers from roadside stands on the 7th of February, they failed to comprehend what was written in bright, bold letters on the front pages.
7 members of the Busby Babes, lay defeated on the spot. Although, defeat was something they never accepted on the turf of the game that gave them their all, death was something which never gives you an opportunity to do what they did to their opponents on the field. Prized asset Duncan Edwards, did manage to survive the ill fated accident but conceded defeat to a brain damage 15 days later.
6th of February, which is often dubbed as ‘The darkest day in the history of football’ still manages to bring tears into the eyes of football fanatics, irrespective of the club that they support. The side which could go on to be one of the best the world had ever seen, the side out of which a lot was expected, set off for its home but never to come back again.
The lost souls have although perished, but still continue to act as inspirational figures for Manchester United players and fans all over the world. Their flair, panache and gusto was unmatched and their desire to never give up stood above any other force the world has seen. All their qualities are now hallmarks of the club that has reminded the world that it can never be taken for granted.
While the likes of Sir Matt and Albert Scanlon remained in Germany, a makeshift United side took to the pitch for the first time since the Munich air disaster. And on that emotional day, the Reds emerged as 3-0 winners against Sheffield Wednesday.
And that’s when the story of Manchester United actually began. It began when the existence of the club was about to vanquish into thin air. It began when people mourned for it, thinking it was all over for it, thinking the club will never be the same again. But darkest times are the ones that often demand the best of the sufferer, although testing. Jimmy Murphy famously said, when Manchester United was about to be closed down :
“Don’t tell me what can’t be done. When Matt Busby brought me here they told me we’d never make a go of it, that it couldn’t be done. That Manchester United would never make a success. Told us we couldn’t win the league playing kids. Told us we couldn’t match the best teams in Europe. And every bloody time we proved them wrong, so with respect sir, it can be done, it will be done, I’ll make sure of it.”
And although, rival fans may be laughing at United’s status quo right now, they can make hay while the sun shines. They can laugh at United when they lose a game, but that doesn’t mean too much for a club that, at one point of time, didn’t have a team to play, a stadium to play in and was about to lose the status of being a ‘club’ itself. They can laugh as hard as they can till they have time to do so. Because it’s only a matter of time before Manchester United comes back on top again. And when they do so, they’ll be the one to laugh at the ones who were laughing at them. Because after all —
“It is in the fabric of this football club, it is in the soul of this football club. They never, ever give up!”