The Busby Babes: Remembering the Flowers of Manchester
Remembering those who lost their lives, and those whose lives were irrevocably changed by the Munich air disaster in '58.
"We'll meet again, Don't know where, don't know when, But we know we'll meet again some sunny day..."
5th February 1958, Red Star Belgrade (Crvena Zvezda) vs Manchester United
European Cup, quarterfinal 2nd leg, United leading 2-1 from the first
The last remnants of the East European winter still clung on to the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) Stadium pitch as the two teams made their way out into the warm Belgrade sunshine. With the inimitable poetry of words from a bygone era of sports reporting, Don Davies, of the Manchester Guardian, likened the pitch to "an English lawn flecked with daisies".
That was, though, an understatement. The snow had melted a touch, enough to turn it into a mosh-pit, an evil concoction of mud, grass, and snow... but that did little to stop United from starting the game like the 'Busby Babes' oft did... on the front foot.
Dennis Viollet seized on a lucky ricochet just outside the Red Star Box, brushed aside a late, despairing lunge from fullback Miljan Zekovic and smashed a superb low finish past Continental Europe's finest goalkeeper, Vladimir Beara.
The match had barely ticked over into its 90th second.
With Duncan Edwards seizing the game by the scruff of its neck, Red Star and their brilliant halfback Dragoslav Sekularac were being kept comfortably at arm's length. Bill Foulkes would, a long time later, comment on just how good Edwards had been that day - "He just ran the show, ran the whole game. The field was quite muddy but he had this ability... the mud didn't make any difference to his passes. He had the strength and the finesse [to] sort of skim the ball over the top of the mud with such power, with spin, that it made no difference. [Us] lesser mortals, we were struggling in the mud, but Duncan..."
On the half-hour mark, young Bobby Charlton made it two when he challenged, and dispossessed, Bora Kostic forty yards out, sprinted ten yards, and absolutely leathered one in from outside the box - the ball whizzing comfortably past another futile Beara dive.
Two minutes later, Edwards miscued a shot that turned into a pass for Viollet. The inside forward ran into the box but had his shot blocked by Novak Tomic with Beara stranded - only for the ball to fall at Charlton's feet, and the young man made no mistake from 12 yards out.
In the second half, off the back of a bollocking from Milorad Pavic, Red Star raised their game a notch or three and Bora Kostic smashed in a delightful effort past the previously under-employed Harry Gregg within a minute of the restart.
With the partisan crowd roaring them on, the hosts found a way back into the game through a rather contentious penalty that allowed Lazar Tasic to smash them back into contention (Bill Foulkes and Lazar Tasic tumbled in the box, Foulkes maintaining post-match that Tasic had slipped and pulled him down with him, the Yugoslav obviously stating the exact opposite).
Eight minutes later, Gregg was adjudged to have handled the ball outside the area as he came charging out to close down Tasic and from the resulting freekick Kostic stroked home a lovely equaliser. 3-3 on the night, 4-3 on aggregate in United's favour.
Half an hour to hold a roaring, brilliant, team at bay with a hostile crowd at their back and a whistle-happy referee who frowned upon the rough-and-tumble of the English approach... this was the kind of match that would separate the boys from the men.
If the score, which remained at 3-3 - and the angry snowballs being pelted at the end of the match - was any indication, Busby's Babes proved they were all that and more.
They impressed their opponents so much that the club officials felt compelled to host a dinner party at the hotel they were put up, the Majestic Hotel, and as the friendly occasion petered out, the buoyant Roger Byrne, captain of United, led his team on a rendition of Vera Lynn's hit wartime number, "We'll meet again, Don't know where, don't know when, But we know we'll meet again some sunny day..."
Little did he know that they... he... wouldn't.
When a tale passes into legend, we remember the characters in it, the names, the facts, but at times the legend so outgrows them that we lose sight of the base human nature of their lives.
It's not a slight upon any of us, that's just how it is.
When we talk about that fateful morn in Munich, we talk about it in sweeping terms, what happened to the club, what it meant to football, how it united a nation, tragedy overcoming the violent tribalisation of the beautiful game... we rarely talk about the people.
We tend to glaze over the fact that Roger Byrne was the initial Captain Marvel - as one report after a particularly feisty Mancunian derby in '56 put it, "Here was the captain courageous - a strong man who listened to the crowd's boos and heard a call to action; who listened to two stern lectures from the referee and charged back into the game as if they had been pep talks. This was the moment when Byrne stepped in, the longer they booed, the harder he played. He loved it!"
We tend to overlook the fact that Byrne's wife, Joy, had been waiting for her husband to land so that she could tell him that she was expecting their first child.
We forget that Tommy Taylor, regarded by many as the finest centre-forward to pull on the red shirt of United, was a prolific scorer (131 goals in 191 apps, 16 in 19 for England) and so impressed the great Alfredo di Stefano that he called him 'Magnifico'.
We miss out on the fact that Taylor worked at the Wharncliffe Colliery at age 14, a coal-miner and part-time footballer till he got his first big break with Barnsley... and was drafted into Matt Busby's team of stripling young academy graduates as a readymade superstar for £29,999 (Busby handing £1 to the tea lady at Barnsley, so that Taylor wouldn't be burdened with the distinction of being a £30,000 player).
And the fact that his fiancee, Carol, never got the wedding - and the life - she'd been so looking forward to.
We look past Eddie Colman's sheer skill on the ball, his crowd-pleasing commitment to attack constantly, his trademark body swerve that led to the nickname 'snakehips', his Sinatra-esque swagger, the sheer joy his smile, and his game, fostered in all those who witnessed it
Some of us tend to dismiss Bobby Charlton's assertions of just how good Colman's partner at halfback was as the nostalgic ramblings of a man who desperately misses his best friend, the rest of us just nod along sympathetically thinking of it more like hyperbole, exaggeration borne out of tragedy, but we don't take the time to understand just how bloody good Duncan Edwards was.
We often dismiss words like Tommy Docherty's - "Pele and people like that, Cruyff, and Beckenbauer, and George Best - fantastic players, but I think Duncan would have surpassed them all" - with the studied nonchalance of omniscient sympathy, but we tend not to stop and bask in the glory of a 16-year-old, 6ft 1 and 13 st., breaking into the Manchester United first team and amassing 177 caps in the five years he had left on this planet.
We forget that Edwards was just a young man of 21, a man who - despite having the world at his feet - still had the cares and joy of all men that age.
While he lay on that hospital bed in Munich, dying, his fiancee, Sarah Anne had flown out to see him with his parents, and she'd reminded him about the Morris Minor 1000 that he had bought for himself just four months earlier.
He'd told her, with a smile, "You keep it there until I get better."
We miss this side of the tale far too often.
Sadly, we often brush past the others involved in the accident; journalists, club officials, flight crew relegated to a mere cursory mention.
Men like Don Davies, who wrestled a job out of the Manchester Guardian by sending in fictitious match reports, so neatly written that they couldn't possibly ignore him and Frank Swift, a magnificent goalkeeper who was denied proper playing time in his prime by the onset of World War II, but became a football correspondent for the News of the World to remain close to the game he loved.
Men like Archie Ledbrooke of the Mirror, who sent his daughter, Helen, a lovely postcard from Belgrade, "This is the famous Blue Danube river. Not much snow here but saw plenty on the way. Love Daddy." - the last that Helen, her sister Jane, and their mother Eileen ever heard from him.
Or like Tom Curry, a former left half who became a trainer at United in 1934 and one of the most beloved members of Matt Busby's staff and like Tommy Cable, a flight steward and United fan who managed to switch his detail with those supposed to be on the Elizabethan charter aircraft G-ALZU because he just wanted to be near the team he loved.
Like Willie Satinoff, a United fan and a friend so close to Matt Busby that he had travelled with the team on all their European trips since their journey began in the 1956/57 season... a man who lived his life supporting his team, and died doing just that.
We miss out on the human tragedy.
Let us not keep repeating this mistake.
Let us not let the grand scale of the tragedy sweep aside the individual human lives that were lost that day, or the sorrow their families and dear ones would have had to endure. Let us understand the pain in Sir Bobby Charlton's words when he speaks about Edwards - "He was more than a great player – sometimes he seemed like some bright light in the sky. He was a giant, and even today his loss is the hardest thing to bear."
Best friends, Brothers, Fathers, Fathers-to-be, Heroes... that plane crash killed more than just a football team.
May they rest in peace, may the survivors continue to live, knowing that we will never, ever, forget them... the men.
Which is not to say that we shouldn't talk about the tragedy in terms of what came after... in terms of the legacy it left imprinted indelibly in our collective conscious.
Had Jimmy Murphy (head coach and at the time acting manager) not looked deep within himself and sought out every ounce of determination in his soul, had he not sat in front of a broken, bankrupt board and told them 'Don’t tell me what can’t be done', had Harry Gregg not brushed off his personal trauma and just bloody well got on with it, had Bobby Charlton slipped into depression as the memories of his teammates - the memory of his best friend irrevocably drifting toward death - assaulted him, had Matt Busby allowed the pain that subsumed his body to take over... Manchester United Football Club may well have ended.
"It is in the fabric of this football club... it's in the soul of this football club .. they never.. never.. give up! They just do it time after time after time... United hit back!" Gary Weaver may have been commentating on Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez's late, late, goal that sealed a superb 4-3 comeback win against Newcastle United, playing on United's propensity to continually come back from the verge of defeat late in games... but knowingly or unknowingly he hit the nail on its proverbial head.
Not giving up, not backing down, not accepting defeat... the way everyone associated with Manchester United looked tragedy in the eye and asked it to f**k right off, the way everyone at United fought, the power of their belief in themselves and those around them... that kind of strength passes through generations, gets inextricably woven into the shirt and the badge... you don't, you can't, wash that stuff off.
Forget the points they rack up at the end of every season, forget the revenue they rack in from tractor sponsorships and deals with noodle makers, forget the big names that have come, keep coming, and will come through the doors of Old Trafford, forget the goals and trophies and the medals.
If there is one thing anyone should learn from Manchester United, it's that you do not let circumstances determine your fate, you do not let tragedy bend your future to its will... no matter what happens, you do not f*****g give up.
"We'll meet again, don't know where don't know when, But I know we'll meet again some sunny day... Keep smiling through, just like you always do, 'Till the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away.
"So will you please say hello to the folks that I know, Tell them I won't be long. They'll be happy to know that as you saw me go, I was singing this song."
May the Flowers of Manchester... those that passed away on that slush-filled runway in Munich, those that succumbed to fate in that cold hospital so far away from home, those that survived and fought and fought before leaving us... may they rest in peace.
As Thomas Campbell once so succinctly put it, “To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.”
Gone, but never forgotten; Remembering the Flowers of Manchester
Roger Byrne (defensive rock, captain, fullback, 28)
Eddie Colman (the great entertainer, 'snakehips', halfback, 21)
Geoff Bent (the able deputy, backup fullback to Byrne and Foulkes, 25)
Mark Jones (the charismatic pipe-smoking core, halfback, 24)
David Pegg (the mazy dribbler, backup outside left to Scanlon, 22)
Tommy Taylor ('magnifico', centre-forward, 26)
Liam (Billy) Whelan (the Irish wizard, inside right, 22)
Duncan Edwards ('the Greatest', halfback, 21)
Walter Crickmer (In charge of the side during the war, Club secretary, 58)
Bert Whalley (Half-back turned chief of Jimmy Murphy's coaching staff, 44)
Tom Curry (Half-back turned trainer, 63)
Willie Satinoff (fan, Busby's friend, businessman, 48)
Tommy Cable (fan, flight attendant)
Capt. Kenneth Rayment (former RAF Flt. Lt., co-pilot of G-ALZU, 37)
Bela Miklos (travel agent who organised the trip)
Alf Clarke (journalist, Manchester Evening Chronicle)
Henry Rose (journalist, Daily Express)
Archie Ledbrooke (journalist, the Mirror)
Tom Jackson (journalist, Manchester Evening News)
Eric Thompson (journalist, Daily Mail)
George Follows (journalist, Daily Herald)
Frank Swift (former Man City and England goalkeeper; journalist, News of the World)
Don Davies (journalist, the Manchester Guardian)
Sir Matt Busby (one of football's true greats, then 49, remained United's manager till 1969)
Johnny Berry (goal-scoring winger, then 31, never played again)
Jackie Blanchflower (versatile fullback, then 24, never played again)
Sir Bobby Charlton (inside-forward-turned-attacking-midfielder-turned-United-legend, then 20, captained United to a cathartic European Cup triumph in 1968)
Bill Foulkes (fullback, 26 at the time, played on for 12 years at United)
Harry Gregg (goalkeeper, then 24, joined United in December '57, pulled out Charlton, Blanchflower, Viollet, Busby and Vera Lukic - and her unborn daughter Vesna - out of the burning wreckage, absolute hero)
Ken Morgans (fast, tricky winger who kept Berry out of the side, then 18, never played again)
Albert Scanlon (fast, tricky winger, then 22, played on for various clubs after 2 more years with United)
Dennis Viollett (prolific goal-scoring inside-forward, then 24, would go on to score a lot more goals, but never hit the heights of his pre-crash years in terms of pure performance)
Ray Wood (goalkeeper, lost place to Gregg when the Northern Irishman came in, then 28, rarely played again)
Frank Taylor (journalist, at the time 38 and writing for the News Chronicle, OBE)
Peter Howard (photographer, Daily Mail)
Ted Ellyard (photographer, Daily Mail)
Mrs. Vera Lukic (wife of a Yugoslav diplomat, pregnant at the time with daughter Vesna)
Mrs. Miklos (wife of the travel agent, Bela Miklos)
To the Busby Babes, and the immortal beauty of their game: