At Belgrade today in warm sunshine and on a grass pitch where the last remnants of melting snow produced the effect of an English lawn flecked with daisies, Red Star and Manchester United began a battle of wits and courage and rugged tackling in the second leg of their quarter-final of the European Cup competition.
- Don Davies, The Manchester Guardian
“Heroes all. None greater than Billy Foulkes. None greater than Bobby Charlton, who has now scored twelve goals in the eleven games he has played since he went into the side at inside-right on 21 December. But all eleven played a noble part in this memorable battle.”
- Henry Rose, Daily Express
Reading the match reports of the 1958 European Cup Quarter Final, Second Leg tie between Red Star Belgrade and Manchester United, you can’t help but feel an unwitting sense of metaphorical foreboding by the journalists who watched the game.
It would prove to be the last report on that United side, referred to as ‘heroes all’, playing on a pitch akin to an ‘English lawn flecked with daisies’.
An even more prophetic scene followed later that evening, at the team’s final dinner before heading back home to Manchester. Enjoying a banquet at the Majestic Hotel in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, journalists and players alike stood up to serenade the Yugoslav staff waiting on them:
“We’ll meet again, Don’t know where, don’t know when, but we know we’ll meet again some sunny day…”
Quite a scene sounds almost fictional, an embellishment to an already tragic story.
In a tale told countless times yet still stirs tears amongst United fans and followers of English football, 23 lives were lost on the slushy runway of Munich Airport on 6th February, 1958. Eight of them Manchester United players, the famous Busby Babes squad was ripped apart in an instant. Eight journalists perished in the tragedy, including the quoted pair of Don Davies and Henry Rose, as did 3 further members of the United staff, two flight crew, and 2 other passengers that made up the club entourage.
It would be unfair to single out individual men who died on that runway, but there still to this day remains a sense of loss and ‘what if’ about that famous side. They had secured the place in the semi-final of the European Cup the day before against Red Star, and were subsequently drawn to play AC Milan in the semi final.
Understandably, a rag tag United team lost 6-2 on aggregate to AC Milan, as Real Madrid went on to win the tournament in Brussels.
During the aftermath of the disaster, the footballing world came together in a show of support to the club. Real Madrid and the iconic Santiago Bernabeu famously offered the European Cup trophy to United after defeating AC Milan, but Busby and co. graciously declined. In a further show of solidarity, the Spaniards offered Alfredo Di Stefano – the world’s greatest player at the time – to United, the short-term loan only falling apart due to the opposition of the English FA.
Looking at the list of players who lost their lives in Munich, it can be easy to imagine where English football and Manchester United might have ended up where it not for the cruel tragedy.
The Busby Babes were well on their way to domestic and European domination at the time of the crash. The previous season, United had reached the tournament’s semi-finals only to lose to the white giants of Madrid 5-3 on aggregate, who went on to win their third successive trophy.
Madrid were undoubtedly the team of the 50’s – we’ve not seen dominance like it in the proceeding half century – but it is not a stretch to argue that United would’ve curtailed that dominance. The pair likely would’ve met in Brussels in May of ’58, and as the Babes matured, would Madrid have claimed the 1959 and 1960 titles? It’s too easy to say no, but it does stir the imagination.
Likewise, English football might have another World Cup or two to their name were it not for Munich. Three of the eight who perished in the crash were England internationals, including the great Duncan Edwards and Tommy Taylor. Others, including Geoff Bent and Roger Byrne and David Jones would undoubtedly have gone on to enjoy long England careers. England were amongst the favourites for that summer’s 1958 World Cup. As it were, England went out in the group stages with a side lacking key figures.
Bolton Wanderers legend Tommy Banks, who played at left back in Sweden ’58 when otherwise it would’ve been Byrne, is in no doubt that England could’ve won the whole thing were it not for Munich.
“I’ve no doubt in my mind that we’d have won the World Cup in Sweden but for the disaster. It robbed us of our key players and we couldn’t replace them.”
Likewise, the cutting short of Duncan Edwards’ career – and life – leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Close friend and team-mate Bobby Charlton, who survived the crash, insists to this day that ‘Big Duncan’ was the greatest he’d ever seen. The fact the Charlton, himself regarded as one of the greatest footballers ever, felt inferior to Edwards speaks volumes:
“He was incomparable, I feel terrible trying to explain to people just how good he was. His death was the biggest single tragedy ever to happen to Manchester United and English football. I always felt I could compare well with any player – except Duncan. He was such a talent, I always felt inferior to him. He didn’t have a fault with his game.”
Edwards’ heroic struggle to overcome horrific injuries in the aftermath of the crash reads like a superhero comic. It took fifteen days for the injuries to claim the live of Edwards, but he put up one hell of a fight in front of astonished doctors and nurses.
Charlton’s sorrow at losing his friends and team-mates in the crash is well known – those close to him recall a distinct change in his personality before and after the crash. Where once he was described as ‘one of the boys’ amongst the squad, he swiftly became withdrawn and distant. Google quotes about Duncan Edwards and you’ll find several more from Charlton:
“Ask me who is the greatest footballer the world has ever seen. Ask me who is the greatest footballer I ever played with. Ask me who is the greatest footballer I ever played against. Same answer: Duncan Edwards.
Don’t ask me how much greater he would have become. It defies imagination. What’s bigger than a colossus? Think about that. Then remember that I played not only with George (Best) and Dennis (Law) but with Bobby Moore. That I played against Pele. They were truly great, but Duncan was the greatest.”
Perhaps there’s a sense of nostalgia and guilt associated with Charlton’s views on Edwards, but there is no doubting the talent he possessed, much like the entire squad.
Ten years on from the Munich Air Disaster, Matt Busby’s recreation of his Babes culminated in the lifting of the European Cup at Wembley, his new side featuring Charlton, George Best, Nobby Stiles and Alex Stepney battering the mighty Benfica. It was the perfect tribute to the eight who died a decade previous. His summary of the achievement says it all:
“This is the greatest night of my life, the fulfilment of my dearest wish to become the first English side to win the European Cup. I’m proud of the team, proud for Bobby Charlton and Billy Foulkes, who have travelled the long road with me for the last 11 years.”
60 years to the day, we remember the 23 who perished in the Munich Air Disaster.