What if: The Munich air disaster never took place

Manchester United, Munich Air disaster
Manchester United fans hold banners in remembrance of the Munich air disaster

Almost every person on this planet has thought of how things might have turned out had a certain incident happened differently. Few events may not be worth much but a few have changed the course of history.

One such event, it is unfair to call it just an event, it is more a tragedy, is the Munich air disaster of 1958 which shook the very foundations of English football and left England’s most successful team on the brink of utter devastation.

Manchester United, under the command of Matt Busby, had chartered a flight for their trip to Belgrade. After their European Cup game against Red Star, on their return journey home, the flight stopped at a refuelling station in Munich. After 2 failed attempts at a takeoff, the pilot tried a third time but was unable to get enough speed and elevation which resulted in the plane careening off the runway and eventually crashing into a house 100 yards ahead.

In that instant, a huge slice of English football history was lost forever. An entire team was eliminated from the face of the earth just as they stood on the verge of greatness.

Also read: What if: Steven Gerrard had never slipped against Chelsea

44 people were on the plane including players, journalists, club officials and a few others and 23 of them died either instantly or later in the hospital.

But what if that incident never happened? What if the slush that caused the crash had not built up on the wings and the flight had taken off successfully? What if the players returned to Manchester for a cold bath, a few beers and a chat about their next game?

Here we take a look at what might have transpired had nothing gone wrong on that ill-fated day of February 6th.

1) Manchester United would have been the first British side to win the European cup

Manchester United, European Cup
Manchester United won the European Cup for the first time in 1968 but could’ve easily done so much earlier

Manchester United had their best ever squad in history in the mid to late 50s and were well on course to making history in the European Cup (now called the Champions League). The “Busby Babes” as they were commonly referred to had already broken a record the previous year after thrashing Anderlecht 10-0 in the competition. They had also just made it to the semi-finals of the 1958 edition after a 3-3 draw away at Red Star Belgrade when their plane went down on the journey home.

Considered favourites for the title, United were expected to ease past the competition and potentially face Real Madrid in the finals. After their team was torn apart, though, the Red Devils succumbed to Milan in the semis who in turn fell to Real Madrid in the finals.

While most experts felt United could have easily won at least three cups in succession had their team stayed intact, the reality was that the Old Trafford side would have to wait until 10 years later before finally lifting the coveted trophy.

Meanwhile, Celtic became the first British side to lift the trophy after their victory in 1967.

2) Duncan Edwards would be United’s highest capped and easily their best ever player

Duncan Edwards, Manchester United
A statue of Duncan Edwards was made to remember his greatness

Most players and experts who watched Edwards play as a 21-year-old felt that he was destined for greatness. The youngster had penned a new contract a year before the tragedy and was just beginning to show his potential.

Edwards had played in 177 matches for the Red Devils by the time he passed away and would've easily held the record for most appearances, something which Ryan Giggs now lays claim to, with 963.

The United number 6, Duncan, also won 18 caps for England at a period where there were very few international matches. It was also very likely that he would have lifted their World Cup trophy in 1966 and not Bobby Moore.

The lad from Dudley was touted to be the greatest ever player in the history of football and received huge praise from Manchester United legend Bobby Charlton who said, "He was incomparable, I feel terrible trying to explain to people just how good he was, his death was the biggest single tragedy ever to happen to Manchester United and English football. I always felt I could compare well with any player - except Duncan. He was such a talent, I always felt inferior to him. He didn't have a fault with his game."

3) We might never have seen George at his “best”

George Best, Manchester United
George Best was arguably Manchester United’s finest ever player

George Best was one of Manchester United’s greatest ever players after signing for the club in 1961, just three years after the disaster. Best has since gone on to make over 450 appearances for the club and formed the Holy Trinity along with Denis Law and Bobby Charlton who returned to football after surviving the crash.

Best was voted 8th in World Soccer’s 100 greatest football players of the 20th century in 1999 and was also given the title of the greatest player ever by none other than Brazilian legend Pele.

Best, however, would never have gotten his opportunity at the Red Devils if the Busby Babes had still been alive and kicking. Wolves were interested in the man nicknamed ‘El Beatle’ as a teenager and it is very likely he would have ended up there, becoming a good player but not a great.

4) Anglo-German relations would still be strained

Matt Busby, Manchester United
Matt Busby owes his life to the doctors and nurses at the Rechts der Isar hospital

After 2 consecutive World Wars, relations between Germany and England were extremely tense. Most Brits believed that the Germans were hostile and mirrored their fascist dictators in many ways. People who had lost their families in the Battle of Britain felt especially aggrieved. After the crash, however, the perception of the public began to change.

Following the crash, survivors and wounded alike were treated in Rechts der Isar Hospital in Munich. A few of the people who managed to pull through attribute their survival to the dedicated treatment received at the hands of the German doctor Georg Maurer. Ironically, Maurer had earlier been awarded the Iron Cross for bravery in treating German forces during the Second World War.

Then manager Matt Busby especially owed his life to the doctor. Busby also recalled how an image of his father, who had been killed by a German sniper, kept him strong and fighting for his life. It was this that sparked a huge improvement in the relations between the two countries.

David Hall, author of Manchester’s Finest was quoted as saying, “Less than fifteen years after trying to kill their countrymen, we stood and applauded these people[Germans] as our heroes”.

5) Manchester United would never have been as popular as they are today

Manchester United
Manchester United are one of the most popular teams in the world

Although the disaster in Munich has got to be considered a tragic event, it did a lot to cement Manchester United’s place in history and make them the club that they are today. After the crash, fans of many other clubs turned and joined hands for Manchester United.

Initially, this was just in order to support them in their process of recovery, but over time, the support became genuine and the club gained a huge fan base. Without all this new found support, the Red Devils would never have had the capacity to exploit the support financially and become the force that they are today.

The tragedy helped define United as a club. It was also something that spurred on fans and players alike once they were able to put the event behind them.

Make no mistake, United were a great team then, possibly even greater than they are now, footballing wise, and they definitely would have been one of the top teams worldwide, but they would not be enjoying the iconic status they are today, without the disaster that shaped their future.

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Edited by Staff Editor
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