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Manchester Utd - A Dynasty Born Through Tragedy

Written by Ian Park

The 6th of February 2011 marked the 53 year anniversary of the Munich air disaster. A crash that not only wiped out nearly a whole football club, but a disaster so wasteful it catapulted the Manchester United football team into the hearts and minds of the World.

Following a European Cup match against Red Star Belgrade, the United team’s plane made a refuelling stop at Munich airport in Germany. Due to adverse weather conditions two attempts to take off were aborted after the pilot noticed one of the planes engine gauges was giving fluctuating pressure readings. The third and fatal attempt saw the plane not have enough power to get off the ground in time before it crashed through a perimeter fence, crossed a road, hit a house and a fuel truck and burst into flames, killing 22 of the 44 passengers on board. Many of those killed were members of the now famous Busby Babes. A squad built by Matt Busby to take Manchester United from English league winners into the elite of European football. This was Busby's dream and vision. To turn his team of young men into a true World football force.

The side was full of young, talented and hungry footballers, who were just starting to reach their true potential. They had won the league the season before the ill fated night in Munich and were being tipped for great things by sports writers across the World. One of the eight United players killed in the crash was Duncan Edwards, a young man who was already gaining a reputation as a World class defender, being the youngest player to ever represent England at senior level in the post war years. Jimmy Murphy, who was Busby’s number two, once said of Duncan “When I used to hear Muhammad Ali proclaim to the World 'he was the greatest of all’, I used to smile, you see the greatest of them all was an English footballer called Duncan Edwards”. Edwards died 15 days later from Kidney failure, due to complications with his injuries.  The doctors in the Munich hospital commented on his apparent strength and willingness to live, but he eventually succumbed to his injuries.

Salford born full back, Geoff Bent, also lost his life.  He left behind a four month old daughter. Bent was on the verge of becoming a first team regular and offered Busby cover for current left back Rodger Byrne. Byrne was known for his less than flamboyant football ability, but his outstanding work ethic matched with an extraordinary football brain, would have found out he was to become a father when he arrived home to Manchester. Unfortunately he never returned.  The youngest person to lose his life was Eddie Colman or ‘Snakehips’ as he was known to fans after his amazing body swerves, he was only 21.  He had made over 107 first team appearances in under two years for the Red Devils. Pipe smoking Mark Jones, the former Yorkshire bricklayer, left behind an unborn daughter and 2 year old son Gary. David Pegg was part of the United team that had won 2 consecutive league titles, he was 22. Tommy Taylor or the ‘Smiling Executioner' as he was known, was a gentle giant of a man who helped a young Bobby Charlton settle into life in Manchester after his move from the North East. He too lost his life.  He had made 18 appearances for England as a centre forward and scored 16 goals. A glaring talent, who would have gone on to become an English Football legend. Dubliner inside forward Liam “Billy” Whelan had a fear of flying and was heard to comment whilst sat on the plane “Well, if this is the time, then I’m, ready”.  He too died on the Munich tarmac.

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As well as players, the club secretary Walter Crickmer, trainer Tom Curry and chief coach Bert Whalley lost their lives, as well as eight sports reporters. One of which was former Manchester City goalkeeper, Frank Swift, who was reporting for the News of the World. A travel agent, as well as Willie Satinoff, a close friend of Matt Busby, also perished.

Other United players who were also seriously hurt included Johnny Berry and Jackie Blanchflower who never played football again.  Bill Foulkes, Kenny Morgans, Dennis Viollet and Ray Wood all escaped with their lives. Goalkeeper Harry Gregg climbed from the rubble of the plane and rushed into the burning house the plane had initially hit to help out home owner, Vera Lukic and her daughter Venona.  At the time of the crash Mrs Lukic was pregnant with her second child Zoran who also survived. Future World cup winner Bobby Charlton escaped the crash with only minor injuries.  His brother Jack said of Bobby that he “seemed to stop smiling” and came back from Munich understandably “a different man”.

Matt Busby survived the crash but suffered serious injuries.  Whilst in hospital in Munich, he was read the last rites by staff on more than one occasion. On reflection, Busby held himself accountable for the accident and felt massive guilt; it was he who decided the club should charter a private plane home on the night of the game with Belgrade. This was done to ensure his players received enough rest before their league game with Wolverhampton Wanderers the following Saturday. He did consider quitting football altogether whilst convalescing in Switzerland. Only a reminder by his wife that ‘his lads would want him to carry on’ persuaded the Scot to return to Old Trafford.

Busby, with the help of right hand man Jimmy Murphy, quickly got back to work at building a squad he hoped would match that of his previous team. The legendary George Best exploded into Manchester and the football World. He, along with the likes of Dennis Law, Bobby Charlton, Brian Kidd and Nobbey Styles formed a formidable team. In 1963 United beat Leicester City in the FA Cup final. 1965 and 1967 saw them win the league. Matt Busby finally lived his dream in 1968 and won the European Cup at Wembley, beating a strong Benfica team whose numbers included the football genius Eusabio. United won the thrilling final in extra time. With a winning goal from club captain, Bobby Charlton, he was the only member of the United team who was at Munich on that fateful night. Busby had realised his dream and managed a Manchester United team through the battlefields of European football, emerging victorious.

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Harry Gregg played for Manchester United from 1957 until 1966 and was seen as the best United keeper ever. Unfortunately he never won any major silverware. He was ruled out of the 1963 FA Cup Final due to injury. He also missed out on league winner’s medals in 1965 and 1967. After retiring from the game he took up a number of management jobs. He will always be remembered for his selfless acts on the night of the Munich tragedy. He returned to the scene of the crash to mark the 50th Anniversary, he met Zoran Lukic, the unborn baby whose mother Harry had pulled from the flaming house. He received a MBE in 1995.

Bobby Charlton left Manchester United in 1973.  He had played over 758 games and scored a record breaking 249 goals for the club, a record that still stands today. He returned in 1984 to take over the vacant president position left by Sir Matt Busby's retirement. He was vocal in his support of Alex Ferguson, when the United manager’s job came under scrutiny, following his first two disappointing seasons in Manchester. He was knighted in 1994 and was also awarded the BBC Sports Personality of The Year Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008.

Matt Busby became ‘Sir Matt’ on the Queens Honours list in 1968. He continued to work at Old Trafford moving up to club president. He was still often seen at United games after his retirement, up to his death in 1994. The same year a fellow Scot, Alex Ferguson led his United squad to the league championship after a twenty five year wait. A statue Of Sir Matt Busby now proudly stands in his honour outside Old Trafford.

© Words Ian Park/ ZANI Media
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