The Flowers of Manchester
The Fatal 1958 Air Crash
2 back to back Championships in England, on course for a third straight title with a 7-2 win against Bolton, an epic 5-4 victory against Arsenal and a second straight European Cup semi-final. Could anything stop the Busby Babes?Only one thing could…3:04 pm, February 6th, 1958.
For those of you, who know nothing or little about the Busby Babes….Busby Babes was the nickname that was given to the Manchester United team that Sir Matt Busby had built. In 1945, when Sir Busby took over the helm, United were in shambles, close to bankruptcy and a bombed out stadium. Sir Busby along with his assistant Jimmy Murphy had built a team based on youth. Hence the name “Babes”. A team that looked invincible even though the average age of the team was just 22. A team with stars like Duncan Edwards, Robert Bryne,
Bobby Charlton, Harry Pegg and Bill Foulkes. This team was tipped to reign not only British football but also European football for years to come. Would they? The world of football knew this answer. But would they be given a chance to…
After a great debut season in the European Cup, they had an easy outing so far. Next up was a Q-F against Yugoslavian outfit Red Star Belgrade. The first leg went 2-1 to United. The Babes now had a difficult match in hand in front of thousands of Yugoslav voices. The match will always be remembered. Not for the great attacking football by the Babes or the outragious referring or the fact that United had made it to the semi-final, but for something much more important. The Babes left Belgrade with the words ..” Come and visit us, the doors of Old Trafford will always be open to you “. They did not know what lay in store for them. The match against Red Star was the last game the Babes played together.
The team left Belgrade in an Airspeed Ambassador Elizabethan-class aircraft. As it did not have the capacity to make the 1179 mile journey in one go, it had to make a refuelling stop in Munich. The cold European weather was at its peak. There was snow everywhere as the aircraft lead by Captain James Thain and co-pilot Kenneth Rayment landed in Munich. Everyone on board was in a relaxed mood. Some were catching up on lost sleep, some were playing cards, while some were busy chatting.
At 2:31 pm, Captain Thain made an attempt to take off. They could not take off because of a common problem with the aircraft called ” boost surging “. 3 minutes later another attempt was made. Yet again they failed to take off. With two failed attempts and heavy snow, the possibility of a third attempt was looking bleak. The players had resigned to the fact that they will have to stay over in Munich. However they were called back by Captain Thain. After discussing the problem with the station engineer, he was confident of handling the problem and dismissed the idea of halting at Munich.On the third attempt, the surging was finally controlled. However something else had gone wrong. The aircraft suddenly lost speed making take off impossible. The aircraft had hit a layer of slush that had built up at the end of the runway. As the captain looked up, all he could see was a lot of snow and a house and a tree right in the path of the aircraft.
The aircraft left the runaway and went through a fence before its port wing struck a house. The impact was such that the wing and part of the tail were torn off. The cockpit struck a house and the starboard side of the fuselage hit a wooden hut containing a truck loaded with the fuel. Foulkes and Gregg remained unscathed and as they looked around all they could see was the tail ablaze and bodies around. They tried to rescue as many they could from the wreckage. This effort was later to be referred to as Gregg’s greatest save. The injured were taken to the Rechts de Isar hospital in Munich.
It was not until the next day that the injured realised the true horror of the day before. Sir Busby was in an oxygen tent, Edwards was badly hurt, Charlton had a bandaged head, Blanchflower had a badly gashed arm, Albert Scanlon had a fractured skull and Dennis Viollet suffered a gashed head and facial injuries. But the worse was yet to come. None of them knew the true implications of the afternoon before until someone asked ” Where are the other survivors “. The reply was a single line. ” Others? There are no others, they are all here. Thats when the truth hit them…..the Busby Babes were no more.
Roger Bryne, Geoff Bent, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Liam Whelan, Eddie Colman and Tommy Taylor had been killed instantly. Club secretary Walter Crickmer had died along with team trainer Tom Curry and coach Bert Whalley. Duncan Edwards and Kenneth Rayment succumbed to their injuries 3 weeks later. 8 of the 9 sportswriters had also perished. 23 lost their lifes that afternoon. Only 21 survived to tell the tale.
Jimmy Murphy also the manager of Wales at that time had missed the match due to a World Cup qualifying game. When he reaches Old Trafford, he could not believe what he was being told. He was stunned, just like the rest of the footballing world. When he landed in Munich all that Sir Busby told him was…” keep the flag flying “. Manchester was in mourning. The bodies of its famous footballing heroes were flown home to lie overnight in the gymnasium under the main grandstand. Thousands of supporters turned out that night to pay their last respects. There was only one thing that could drive United forward. Football had to return to Old Trafford.
The team had to be rebuilt. This task was placed on the shoulders of Murphy. Just 13 days after the Munich disaster, United took the field at Old Trafford. Murphy had managed to put out a team consisting of a few new signings, reserves and only two Munich survivors, Foulkes and Gregg. Old Trafford was packed with spectators. Some had draped their red-white scarves in black. Till today they remain United’s main colours. Banners across the stadium read ” United will go on “..” Manchester United will rise again “. The United team sheet was blank that day. No one would ever see the Busby Babes play again.
The match against Sheffield Wednesday ended 3-0 to the home team. The new team had carried on where the Babes had left off. There are no better words to describe the match that night than the words of Albert Quixall. ” I don’t think anyone who played in the game or who watched it will ever forget that night. United ran their hearts out, and no matter how well we had played they would have beaten us. They were playing like men inspired. We were playing more than just eleven players, we were playing 60,000 fans as well “. Defying all odds, United reached the FA Cup final that year. They even managed to beat AC Milan in the first European match after Munich. They had pulled off a miracle.
It was Sir Busby’s ambition that United should challenge for honours in Europe although the FA did not approve of it. That’s why he blamed himself for what had happened in Munich. It took exactly 10 years, 3 months and 20 days to erase that guilt from his mind. It was the European Cup final against Benfica. Sir Busby had put out a young side that epitomized what the Babes stood for. At the final whistle, the scoreline read 4-1 to United. Sir Matt collapsed as he was embraced by Munich survivors Charlton and Foulkes. As Charlton took the Cup, the world of football knew, the supporters knew, the Munich survivors knew, Manchester United knew…that this was a tribute to the team they all love ….the Busby Babes.
It has been 52 years since that fateful day. A clock on one side of the South stand at Old Trafford shows the normal time but has the date February 6th 1958 etched across it. What it says is simple. Manchester United has moved on, but the Busby Babes are the foundation on which the club stands today. To this day, Manchester United play the Busby Babes brand of football. It runs in their veins. The Busby Babes taught Manchester United how to play football. Harry Gregg best described the Babes…” they laughed, they loved, they played the game together, they played the game and gave it every ounce of life and the crowds – they thronged to see such free, young spirits “. But for Munich no one knows how far the Busby Babes would have gone. At the time of the tragedy, the Babes were just untouchable. Be it their legendary defense or their feared attack, world football was mesmerised by Sir Matt Busby’s team.One thing is for sure, they will always be remembered as one of the greatest teams, if not the greatest, the world of football has and will ever see.
Below is a tribute song written by Eric Winter.
The Flowers of Manchester
One cold and bitter Thursday in Munich, Germany,
Eight great football stalwarts conceded victory.
Eight men will never play again, who met disaster there,
The flowers of English football, the flowers of Manchester.
The Busby Babes were flying home, returning from Belgrade,
This great United family all masters of their trade.
The pilot of the aircraft, the skipper Captain Thain,
Three times tried to take off and twice turned back again.
The third time down the runway disaster followed close,
There was slush upon that runway and the aircraft never rose.
It ploughed into the marshy ground, it broke, it overturned.
And eight of that team were killed when the blazing wreckage burned.
Roger Byrne and Tommy Taylor, who were capped for England’s side,
And Ireland’s Liam Whelan and England’s Geoff Bent died.
Mark Jones and Eddie Coleman and David Pegg also,
They all lost their lives as it ploughed on through the snow.
Big Duncan he went too, with an injury to his brain,
And Ireland’s brave Jack Blanchflower will never play again.
The great Matt Busby lay there, the father of this team,
Three long months passed by before he saw his team again.
The trainer, coach and secretary and three members of the crew,
Also eight sporting journalists who with United flew,
And one of them was Big Swifty who we will ne’er forget,
The finest English ‘keeper that ever graced a net.
England’s finest football team it’s record truly great,
It’s proud success mocked by this cruel turn of fate.
Eight men will never play again who met disaster there,
The flowers of English football, the flowers of Manchester.