“You’ll never win anything with kids.” That was the common opinion across England in response to Sir Matt Busby’s philosophy of promoting young players to Manchester United’s senior team. At a time when most teams were filled with players carrying years of experience under their belts, Manchester United’s team was built around players as young as 18 years of age. Young players who everyone across England believed wouldn’t be able to achieve anything. Little did they know, that these ‘kids’ would soon change the way football was played across the country, and turn what was seemingly impossible, into reality.
Despite missing out on the league, Sir Matt never lost his faith in his philosophy, or in his players. And his faith was duly rewarded when the Busby Babes, as they would soon be nicknamed, won back to back English League titles in 1956 and 1957.
The year 1956 would in fact go down as a special one in history, when Manchester United as English champions, became the first English team to play in the European Championship in the 1956-57 season. And a memorable European campaign at that, with a 10-0 thrashing of Anderlecht, before storming past Borussia Dortmund and Athletic Bilbao. It was only an Alfredo di Stefano powered Real Madrid that stopped Manchester United’s progress in Europe this season. Nevertheless, Europe had just got a glimpse of what the Busby babes were all about. And winning the 1956-57 English Championship meant they would once again witness this young Manchester United team take on some of Europe’s powerhouses the following season.
The following season once again saw a young Manchester United stroll through the initial stages of the League, the FA Cup, and of course the European Championship, where Red Star Belgrade stood between United and a place in the semi-final. Eddie Colman and Bobby Charlton inspired Manchester United to a 2-1 win at Old Trafford, before traveling to Belgrade, Serbia. And a 3-3 draw meant that United had booked a spot in the semi-final, against the mighty AC Milan. Celebrations were rightly in place, as it looked like no team across Europe seemed to be good enough to stop the ‘kids who would never be able to win anything’…or so it seemed.
February 6th, 1958, a date no Manchester United fan or millions of football followers across the world will ever forget. Flight 609 carrying the team back to Manchester halted at Munich for re-fuelling. Runway conditions were dicey. A third attempt to take off from a slush-covered runway, proved too costly for everyone on board. 23 of the 44 passengers lost their lives as the aircraft skidded off the runway and crashed into the fence surrounding the airport. Among those who lost their lives were 8 journalists, former England and Manchester City goalkeeper Frank Swift, flight crew members, 3 Manchester United support staff members and 8 of Manchester United’s famous Busby Babes – Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor, Liam Whelan and the very very special Duncan Edwards, who survived the crash but lost his life in the hospital 15 days later. Sir Matt Busby survived the crash but remained in a hospital in Munich to recover from his injuries. Harry Gregg, Bill Foulkes, Kenny Morgans, Albert Scanlon, Dennis Viollet, Ray Wood and Bobby Charlton were the other players who survived, along with Johnny Berry and Jackie Blanchflower, both of whom were never able to play again because of the extent of their injuries. What was meant to be a fairy tale ending to a football team’s story of glory, suddenly turned out to become a story of utter tragedy.
After losing half the team in the plane crash, Manchester United Football Club was expected to be shut down temporarily. In fact, this choice was also being seriously considered by the board at the time. But Manchester United was not just any other club. This was a club that had made it a habit of doing what the rest of the world thought impossible. Whether it was coming back from relegation in 1922, or finding itself on the brink of bankruptcy in 1927, or witnessing the complete destruction of Old Trafford in 1941 as a result of the bombings during the Second World War, this was a club that always found its way forward.
Jimmy Murphy, Manchester United’s assistant manager at the time, had not travelled with the squad to Belgrade. And it was Jimmy Murphy’s resilience and determination that ensured not just the club’s survival, but also its rebuilding and sustained growth in the years to come. Of course, there was also help from not just the fans, but also clubs across England and Europe, whether it was financial help or allowing their players to join Manchester United till the end of the season.
One of the biggest gestures in support of United came from Real Madrid, who made a memorial pennant with the names of the those who lost their lives, called ‘Champions of Honour’. This was sold in Spain to raise money for United. They offered their facilities to the injured and their families of the deceased, for free, and also arranged for a series of fundraising friendly matches to be played between Real Madrid and Manchester United. In addition, Real Madrid also offered Alfredo di Stefano, possibly their most prized asset to Manchester United till the end of the season, also offering to pay half his wages while he played for United. This move was however blocked by the FA, who believed it would halt the progress of a British player.
It’s a shame the FA as an entity at the time could not be ‘red carded’ or suspended for some of their decisions that left an impact on English football. Refusing to acknowledge the European Championship as a legitimate competition. Disallowing Chelsea to participate in the European Championships in 1955. Almost threatening points deduction for Manchester United for participating in the European Championship and therefore not complying to the FA rules and schedules. And later blocking a move for Stefano to play for United are just some of FA’s decisions that I find controversial to say the least.
United’s first match in the aftermath of the plane crash was an FA Cup encounter with Sheffield Wednesday. And despite fielding a team largely made up of reserves and youth team players, it was United who secured a 3-0 win. But just one league win for the remainder of the season saw Manchester United finish the season in 9th place. However, a good run of results in the FA Cup meant Manchester United had reached the final of the tournament, where they lost 2-0 to Bolton Wanderers. Jimmy Murphy’s makeshift Manchester United team even took on AC Milan, managing a 2-1 win against the Italian giants at Old Trafford, before losing 4-0 at the San Siro, and crashing out of the European Championship. Real Madrid eventually went on the beat AC Milan in the final of the European Championship, but generously suggested that the trophy be awarded to Manchester United. A suggestion that was backed by Red Star Belgrade, but this eventually failed to materialise.
Sir Matt Busby continued to recover in Munich, where he also contemplated retiring. He even recovered in time to make it to watch United play the FA Cup final. His biggest motivation to return as Manchester United’s manager proved to be something his wife told him, “You know Matt, the lads would have wanted you to carry on.” The following season saw Sir Matt return as Manchester United manager and attempt rebuilding the club. And rebuild the club he did. 10 years later, Manchester United went on to taste European glory, becoming the first English club to win the European Championship, beating Real Madrid in the semi-final and Benfica in the final with George Best, Bobby Charlton and Brian Kidd finding the back of the net. It was a fitting tribute to everyone who lost their lives in Munich 10 years ago.
None of us will know what these ‘kids’ would have gone on to achieve. Would they be the special team that would stop Real Madrid from winning European Championships for the third year running? Would Duncan Edwards go on to become the best English player as many had believed? Would Europe be chanting the names of the Busby Babes? It is all very likely, but we will never know.
While February 6th, 1958 will always be remembered as a day of tragedy. But it is also a reminder of the talent, courage and sacrifice of a group of young footballers who dared to take on the best. It is also a reminder of the day when Manchester United went out to conquer Europe, and made friends across the world, and a reminder of the day when Manchester United refused to stay down, but fight back. It is a day that offers proof as to why Manchester United is such a special club.
Decades later, this is a tribute to the 23 passengers who lost their lives in a plane crash, and particularly the 8 players who repaid the club with their talent, their skill, their courage, their dedication, and eventually, their lives. Busby Babes, we’ll never forget you.