In sport there is sometimes a strange idea that emotion can be detrimental; a weakness to an athlete, coach, or fan. Yet sport wields emotion at will, beautifully, and uncontrollably. Professional sport in particular is financially maintained through an incredible emotional investment by everyone in a team, staff, and community. In the case of Manchester United, that community has grown well beyond the reaches of Old Trafford and Salford.
The reason why is The Busby Babes — the famed early team of Sir Matt Busby in the 1950s.
A team that should have won it all, and nearly did, but were tragically lost in 1958. The story doesn’t end there though, and despite the enormous loss on that fateful day in Munich, Manchester United survived with the mission to honor them. Never say die has a different meaning for Manchester United fans, but the greatest comeback in club history happened over 10 years. It began with tears of sorrow, but ended with tears of joy and remembrance.
Manchester United had become the force of English football in the 1950s. Sir Matt Busby’s young team had won 3 First Division titles, including back-to-back in 1956 and 1957. The 1957/58 season was set up to be perhaps the greatest in the club’s history as they aimed to be the first club to take down Real Madrid in the European Cup. The Football League was not exactly thrilled about Manchester United taking trips between league play to travel the continent and compete with the best. United were favorites to win a third straight league title, and had made great runs in both the FA Cup and European Cup as well.
On February 6, 1958, while returning from a 3-3 away leg against Red Star Belgrade, Manchester United’s charter plane crashed on takeoff after refueling in Munich, Germany. 23 people lost their lives, including 7 players and 3 club staff.
Busby and other players who survived were not told of the casualties to help keep up their strength in recovery, but when news finally reached them they were overwhelmed. Busby broke down, and believed he could never go on managing after losing his young players in such an unspeakable tragedy. The sporting world mourned the loss of incredible young talents such as Duncan Edwards and Tommy Taylor, and the shock of the disaster had a permanent effect on the survivors, the community, and the club.
Busby spent months in the hospital recovering from his injuries, and was even read his last rites twice only to pull through again. He dealt with survivors’ guilt, having survived when so many of his young players had not, and told his family that he felt personally responsible having insisted on United competing in Europe against the wishes of the Football League.
United carried on with healthy survivors, inexperienced youth players, and hastily brought in veterans. Despite the burden of both tragedy and fatigue from being undermanned they managed to reach the FA Cup Final under caretaker manager Jimmy Murphy. They lost to Bolton Wanderers in the Final, but Busby was convinced to take up the job again after recovering from his injuries. He had a difficult task ahead to build a side as strong as the one that was lost, but was encouraged by his wife Jean to carry on to honor those lost.
Busby went about rebuilding his team the same way he built the first one: Giving youth a chance. It’s been one of the core values of the club and its fanbase for generations now. The United faithful love a good tale of homegrown triumph, but this was no straightforward success story.
United struggled for years to become as strong as they once were, but they had one advantage.
Sir Bobby Charlton, one of the legends of the game and arguably the greatest Manchester United player of all time, became the centerpiece of Busby’s team post-Munich. He was one of the youngest of the Busby Babes at the time of the disaster, and was one of the players who survived in Munich without serious injury. He was pulled from the wreckage by goalkeeper Harry Gregg, who saved many lives that day, and recovered in time to even play before the end of that season.
Charlton felt a responsibility, which was partially placed on him as well, to lead the new team from the front and be a leader in the rebuilding efforts.
It may have cost Charlton some of his prime years at club level, but his commitment to bringing Manchester United back to the top of football is why he is remembered as the legend that he is. United slowly but surely became one of the best again, and in 1963 won their first major trophy in 6 years. Dennis Law’s arrival earlier that season helped to bolster an increasingly fresh and ruthless United attack, and 1963 was also the year that a young George Best emerged as a promising academy prospect. Best helped Jimmy Murphy’s youth side win the FA Youth Cup for the first time since before Munich, and the next season completed a United Trinity with Charlton and Law in United’s first league title-winning campaign since 1956/57.
The 1964/65 and 1966/67 league titles earned United a spot back in the European Cup. They fell short of the challenge in 1966, but it was clear that they were now a side capable of winning it all. Best was turning into one of the biggest superstars in the game, Charlton was a crucial leader in England’s 1966 World Cup win, and Dennis Law was scoring goals for fun as the spearhead of the trio. Each would win a Ballon d’or (Law 1964, Charlton 1966, Best 1968), but the biggest prize of all remained the European Cup — the mission since day 1.
The 1967/68 campaign saw United face Europe’s best once again. Long trips to Malta, Yugoslavia, and Poland in the first 3 knockout rounds put a difficult strain on their league and cup form, but the target was always Europe. A semi-final date with Real Madrid was a daunting task, but symbolic considering Madrid were always the side that won in the early years of the European Cup, when United took their first shot at the competition. A narrow 1-0 win at Old Trafford in the first leg gave United the upper hand, but a wild 2nd leg nearly cost them a trip to Wembley for the final. Los Blancos went up 3-2 on aggregate by half-time of the 2nd leg, and required an incredible comeback from United. In a performance that would set the tone for classic European nights, United scored twice through Bill Foulkes, another original Busby Babe, and David Sadler, an academy product.
In the final, Manchester United faced Benfica — led by an all-timer in Eusebio — on home soil at Wembley. Doing things the hard way, it took extra time for the Red Devils (dressed in blue) to make their mark on the match. But when they did, they did so emphatically. Despite the loss of Dennis Law earlier in the season, Best and a young Brian Kidd helped captain Charlton lead the line, and each of them bagged goals after extra time to seal a 4-1 win. Ten years on from Munich, Manchester United were champions of Europe for the first time ever.
Charlton nearly collapsed after the final whistle, exhausted emotionally and physically after 10 years 113 days and 120 minutes plus stoppage time. Eventually he found his manager, whose eyes were equally glazed over with tears. They hugged, and found the rest of their team to celebrate the triumph, gather themselves, and climb up the steps to receive the beautiful, big-eared European Cup. “Almost to a man we went over to Matt and congratulated him first,” goalkeeper Alex Stepney recalled. It was clear to the entire team what an emotional moment it was for him and the survivors.
“The moment when Bobby took the Cup... it cleansed me,” Busby said afterward. “It eased the pain of the guilt of going into Europe. it was my justification.”
In reality neither Charlton nor Busby, nor any other surviving team member from 1958 needed justification. No one should or would have blamed them if going back to football after Munich was too much for them. But they decided that it was up to them to be the leaders of a rebuild, and alongside the other survivors set about building Manchester United back up to what it was before.
Charlton and Busby are rightfully remembered as two of the most important figures in Manchester United history. Theirs is the most important story in the long and storied history of Manchester United. Their determination and incredible passion rebuilt the greatest club in football, and honored the memory of those whose passion inspired them to do so.