Today marks the 60th anniversary of the Munich air disaster, in which eight Manchester United players, three United staff members, and 12 others were killed. A service is taking place at Old Trafford today to mark the occasion, which will include a minute’s silence at 15.04, the time of the crash.
That young United side, the Busby Babes, were the reigning champions of English football. They were returning from a 3-3 draw with Red Star Belgrade, which had put them through to the semi-finals of the European Cup. Having stopped in Munich to refuel, their plane tried three times to take off in snowy, icy conditions. The first two attempts were abandoned; the third failed.
20 of the victims died immediately. Frank Swift, journalist and former Manchester City and England goalkeeper, died on the way to hospital, and Duncan Edwards passed 15 days later. Six weeks after the crash, co-pilot Ken Rayment became the final victim of the crash. Manager Matt Busby was read his last rites twice, but eventually made it back to health.
In his absence, assistant manager Jimmy Murphy, who had missed the trip due to his involvement with the Wales national team, had scraped together a side of survivors, emergency signings, and reserves. That patchwork team made it through to the FA Cup final, which they lost 2-0 to Bolton Wanderers. A convalescent Busby was watching from the Wembley stands. The following season, he returned to work.
It took Busby 10 years to rebuild the team and to finally win the European Cup. On the field in 1968, along with George Best and Brian Kidd, were two survivors from the crash: Bill Foulkes and Bobby Charlton. It was a glorious victory but a heavy one, freighted with remembrance and absence. Charlton recalls being unable to join the “families of the Munich lads” for the celebrations:
I was sitting on the bed [at the hotel]. When I stood up the blood seemed to drain out of me. I tried five times but couldn’t get up. I lay on top of the bed in my clothes and felt fine, but every time I reached the door I was gone again.
And David Sadler, who’d joined the club in 1963, remembered Busby looking “drained”:
The Boss looked very old, which he had never seemed. There was a sense that this was the end of something momentous.
Duncan Edwards, by common account one of the finest players ever to wear United red, would have been 31 years old.
There are a few pieces on the crash and its aftermath that are well worth a read today. In the Independent, Miguel Delaney describes the rebuilding process, and the journey’s of Busby, Charlton, and the rest, as one of “sport’s greatest ever stories”. In the Guardian, Jamie Jackson meets Geoffrey Fink, who has held a United season ticket since 1945:
They were the best team in the country by far and many were young – one wondered how good they were going to get to be.
Eight of those killed in the crash were journalists, reporting on the European Cup campaign. Also at the Guardian, Roger Domeneghetti has an interesting piece on how the disaster transformed football journalism. Finally, the Mirror have a look back at how they covered the disaster at the time.