Tuesday marks the 60th anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster, a tragedy that took the lives of 23 people, including eight Manchester United players.
As familiar as anyone may be with the events of that time in history, it still blows the mind to think about the realities of the horror that the club had to deal with.
The first team was more or less wiped out, the manager was on death’s door and there were genuine fears over whether the club would still exist going forward.
“Manchester United are going to carry on with all their fixtures because they believe it is their duty to the public and to football,” the club announced, reassuring the fans. Although they were unsure as to when they would be able to field a team again.
Matt Busby was read his last rites twice and Jimmy Murphy took charge of the team in the manager’s absence. “Keep the flag flying, Jim,” Busby had instructed him.
The Reds played their next game less than two weeks after the disaster and beat Sheffield Wednesday 3-0 with a line-up largely made up of youth team players. The programme had blank spaces where the players’ names should have been.
50 years after Munich, United played rivals Manchester City at Old Trafford and both sides wore plain shirts like the teams in the 1950s wore. United were beaten 2-1, the first time they had lost at home to their rivals in over 30 years. It was devastating for the fans. If there was any game they had wanted their team to win that season, it was that one, in honour of the Busby Babes.
Sir Alex Ferguson claimed after the game that the occasion got to the players, but that didn’t wash with the supporters. If Man United could win their first game after Munich without the emotion getting the better of them there was no excuse for this team.
It’s unlikely that Ferguson was so defensive of the team behind closed doors though.
As Reds fans trudged away from Old Trafford that day, plenty were grumbling that the only way they would forgive the players for that horrific display was if they reached the European Cup final in Moscow and won. United went on to do exactly that, beating Chelsea on penalties, and fittingly it was Sir Bobby Charlton who lead the team up to collect their medals.
This competition was the holy grail for Busby and in 1957 United became the first English team to enter it. Chelsea, as champions in 1955, had been invited to take part the season before but declined due to pressure from the football league.
Football League secretary Alan Hardaker had referred to continental opposition as “wogs and dagoes” and didn’t want English clubs to take part in the European Cup. He called the competition a “waste of time” and introduced the League Cup as an alternative in 1960.
Busby felt differently though and United reached the semi-finals in their first attempt. The great Real Madrid side that was inspired by Alfredo Di Stefano knocked them out.
Some might argue that the Football League played their part in the tragedy too, when putting pressure on United to get home after knocking out Red Star Belgrade to reach the semi-finals again in 1958.
Hardaker insisted that United had to return that day otherwise they would be forced to forfeit their game on Saturday against Wolves. They were fighting to retain the title and couldn’t afford to give up on the precious points.
After two failed take offs, the plane attempted a third, and this is when the crash occurred.
Busby had reportedly claimed that his football management days were over as a result, unable to carry out in the game due to his grief and guilt, but his wife convinced him otherwise. “Matt, I don’t think that the boys who have gone would want you to finish. They would want you to go on.”
So, he did and in 1968, just 10 years after the disaster, Busby rebuilt his team and United were crowned champions of Europe, the first English team to win the trophy. Three players who had been at the club for Munich played in the final, among eight players from the academy.
“There was never a day went by when the old man didn’t think about Munich,” Charlton later reflected. “Those were his kids who died that day. Sir Matt never really got over it. He’d been one of the pioneers of European football, and I think he always felt responsible.
“He was really satisfied when we won the European Cup in ’68 – but he’d rather have done it with his beautiful boys. The final against Benfica was the biggest game any English club had played in, and for those of us who had survived Munich it was a doubly emotional occasion.”
After the final whistle, Charlton and Busby silently clung to each another.
“I didn’t say anything to the old man, because I didn’t need to,” Charlton continued. “I knew exactly what he was thinking, and how he was feeling. It was a big thing for the club, but it was a bigger thing for him personally. The lads who were killed in Munich had been his babies.”
At Old Trafford, where Charlton now has his name on a stand, United beat Huddersfield 2-0 on Saturday, the game closest to the 60th anniversary. A minute’s silence was held before the game and the fans sung “we’ll keep the red flag flying high cos Man United will never die,” immediately after the referee’s whistle.
The chances of United honouring the Babes with a Champions League win this season are fairly slim, given the weaknesses of the current team, even if they do have an easier draw against Seville in the next round.
But every manager that has followed Busby has stayed true to his tradition of putting faith in youth.
The club’s record of including an academy graduate in every match day squad has now surpassed 80 years, with Jesse Lingard, Scott McTominay, Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba all playing in the game against Huddersfield. 17-year-old Angel Gomes played last week in United’s FA Cup win against Yeovil.
While modern football has changed so much about United, the important traditions are still clung on to tightly, and on Tuesday supporters the world over will be thinking about Busby and his fantastic team of youngsters who could and should have achieved so much.