In 2022, it is incredibly tough to put into words and imagine how Manchester, as a city, reacted to the tragic Munich Air Disaster of 1958. After all, it was a different world altogether. It was devoid of this constant and ever-flowing barrage of information that often makes us immune to anything shocking in the current age. It was a time when a football club was truly a club; it was a community bound together by values and ethics that meant much more than winning or losing football matches.
People were closely connected through working class bonds and face-to-face meetings, as they went about their daily work while seeking solace through the performance of the 11 men that represented their town on the football pitch at the weekends. It was the peak of the Cold War, but the memories of World War II were still fresh in the minds of many. Even Sir Matt Busby and the club’s saviour - Jimmy Murphy, had seen the war from close by. Manchester was slowly undergoing a folk revival and in many ways, the 1950s transformed Britain’s social and cultural landscape.
More than anything, there seemed to be a real hope that the Busby Babes were on the brink of doing something special. They hadn’t just captured the hearts of the people in Manchester, but they had made a mark in the minds of the masses in the whole country. There was something fresh about them - something that was never seen before. They were young and as Sir Matt Busby would say - they went out there to enjoy themselves. Nothing fazed them.
David Hall, in his book ‘Manchester’s Finest’, has written about the aftermath of the disaster in tremendous detail. He mentions for Manchester and Britain itself, the Munich Air Disaster was like John F Kennedy’s assassination or the 9/11 and the emotional impact was more wide spread than we can think of.
It was a time when players earned as much as the people. Footballers would earn about £20 per week and £4 in bonuses. A lot of players didn’t have the luxury of cars and used public transport to get to games, travelling to the stadiums like any fan would. And with the luxury of hindsight that we have now many decades on, it is understandable why the city could connect to the Busby Babes in a very intricate way. They were truly a part of a closely-knit community.
Jimmy Murphy, who should forever be remembered for saving United when the club could have closed down, had told Sir Matt before the team flew to Belgrade that he wanted to travel with the players and not attend Wales’ international game against Israel at Ninian Park. Even when his Welsh side was taking on Israel, United’s game in Belgrade was said to be constantly in his mind. Murphy got off the train at Manchester’s London Road station late in the afternoon and in the freezing cold, headed for Old Trafford as he wished to greet Sir Matt and the players after the game in Belgrade.
While in his office, Murphy was stopped in his tracks by his secretary - Alma George. When told about the news of the disaster, he didn’t know how to react. He couldn’t comprehend it. Numb, he cried.
In Stephen Morrin’s book about the disaster, Murphy said: “The numbing horror of that moment will never leave me until my death.”
Murphy picked up the phone and gave the information to whoever would need it - the police and the press. Press Association’s update on the teleprinter said:
‘MANCHESTER UNITED AIR- CRAFT CRASHED ON TAKE-OFF . . . HEAVY LOSS OF LIFE FEARED.’
People all across the country could not comprehend what had happened. In Manchester, word spread by mouth. Workers from factories, in a herd, went to the vendors to know what had happened. Morrin’s book states that children ran back home to ask their parents if the rumours were true.
Hall, in his account, has described how he felt on that harrowing day as a school going kid who lived in Wythenshawe. It was ‘bitterly cold’ in Manchester that day and he could feel that snow was coming. What really mattered to him was United’s next game against Wolves. His father, who had served in the British Army in India, had promised that they would go and watch the Busby Babes if the game wasn’t called off because of heavy snow. Hall and his father were United born and bred and so was his grandfather.
Hall had begun following United only two years prior and admits that he had never seen the Busby Babes lose. While Elvis was top of the charts at that point with ‘Jailhouse Rock’, ‘Manchester United Calypso’ was his favourite song at that point. It can still be found on Youtube.
Hall admits to never missing Tom Jackson’s match reports for the Manchester Evening News. The headline of the report that day read: ‘It may be the Spaniards next, but United will never have a tougher fight than this.’
Hall’s father was back from work later than usual. Time stood still when his father rushed into the kitchen and the moment, he describes, was etched into his memory forever. His father said that United were ‘wiped’ out. A young Hall didn’t understand what was said. They switched on the radio and a voice from the BBC Home Service announced the news.
His family wasn’t interested in any other news and they were in a state of ‘indescribable’ shock. Food for later that day was left untouched and only those with the privilege of a television knew other minute details of the crash.
By the next day, the news had spread across Manchester. The newstands which said ‘United in the semis’ were replaced by ‘United disaster’. This was a Manchester that had witnessed many of its historic buildings get obliterated by the German bombs in the early 1940s. Up to 165 warehouses were destroyed and Old Trafford itself was brought to its knees by the bombings from Hitler’s army. And there they were, reading about another tragedy in Germany.
Work in factories stopped earlier than usual, almost paralysed by the tragedy. The bright and bouncy conversations that the workers shared about United beating a foe at the weekend were replaced by an eerie silence. Workers from the factories around Trafford Park had seen the club emerge from ups and downs and the players were almost like their children.
There was an aura of uncertainty lingering about too, as the papers had used the term ‘unaccounted for’ when referring to the players that were no more. The term was also used for journalists that had travelled with the team and other people that were on the flight. Walter Crickmer, Bert Whalley and Tom Currie were also ‘unaccounted for’, so were Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Duncan Edwards, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Liam Whelan.
Pubs in Manchester were empty and cinemas didn’t do business either. The grief in all of the city’s emerging social life was more than just palpable. In his book, Hall recalls that he and his sister would generally go to friends’ to watch television. They couldn’t afford a television set at that point, as even renting it cost about 50p per week. After watching television, they would pray but on the day of the crash, they prayed for those that lost their lives.
While the crash did expose some wounds that the German army had given to Manchester, a feeling of unity soon came about. Ordinary German people were working day and night to save the lives of England’s heroes at the hospital, while sacrificing their own sleep.
Geoffrey Fink, a United season ticket holder since 1945, told Jamie Jackson in an excellent interview back in 2018 that even Manchester City fans were sorry. David Clowes, a Manchester City from Greater Manchester, wrote a letter to the Guardian some days after saying: “No, Mr Fink, the lives of so many people cut short made us far more than just’ ‘sorry”. If I remember, we reached out to you in common humanity that transcended a mere Saturday afternoon rivalry.”
It was much more than about an inter-city rivalry. And it transcended England. The infamous Superga tragedy, which had killed 18 of Torino’s Il Grande Torino side back in 1949, was still fresh in the minds of many. The tragedy wounded not just Torino but also severely wounded the Italian national team and Italy as a whole. Il Toro were at the pinnacle of Serie A at that point. With four games to go, they were at the top of the league and had been dominating Italian football - just like how United were doing it in England before the disaster had struck the Busby Babes.
Due to debt, Torino had to give up their ground and share Juventus’ stadium. They and the other teams that they had to play for the remainder of the season played with the youth teams out of respect for Il Toro. Even United had massive financial burdens after the disaster. At one point, they couldn’t even afford a typewriter, let alone signing players - wrote Jim White in his biography of Manchester United.
A club from a Durham coalfield offered three players to United and Jimmy Murphy couldn’t say ‘no’ to the chance. Murphy was always on the phone, upholding what Sir Matt had told him when he was at the hospital bed in Munich - “Keep the Red flag flying high.”
Before the game against Sheffield Wednesday, Murphy took a team of unknowns, apprentices and youngsters away to Blackpool for a week just so he could take them away from the gloom of Manchester. Albert Quixall, the then Wednesday captain, told Morrin that the whole country was behind United. Quixall said that United ‘ran their hearts out’ in the 3-0 win over the Owls and they were playing like ‘men inspired’.
It was truly an encapsulation of the worker bee - the modern-day emblem of Manchester. It is a city which is proud of the past and it remains a city which has learned how to come back from disasters. And even today, you can feel something about those times when you walk across Old Trafford on a cold evening in the winters. It could have been felt as recently as last season when United came back in pretty much every game to win them. In every comeback under Sir Alex Ferguson, you could sense the spirit that modern-day United was founded on.
And only a limited few deserve a statue outside Old Trafford more than Jimmy Murphy does. If not for him, United would never have existed today.