In a way it was fitting that we woke up to snow on Tuesday 06 February 2018, even if it was only a light dusting. As I walked my son down to school, children were making snowballs with handfuls swept off car bonnets, delighted at the novelty and diversion provided by the snow. Others tried skidding on icy patches on the path.
Many of these children would later play soccer after school in the park across the road, the snow having all but disappeared and snow-gloves put to the alternative use of saving goals. Many of them, like a fair share of children everywhere, probably support Manchester United, a club with a poignant anniversary to mark that day.
My son supports Manchester United. I’ve often been accused of having a soft spot for the club myself. I’d quietly told Blaise earlier that morning about the anniversary. He seemed to take it in his stride. A couple of years ago he’d seen the film ‘’Believe’’, a Billy-Elliot style film about a fictional boys team in Manchester in the 1980’s who inadvertently acquire a long-since retired Sir Matt Busby as manager, completely unaware of who he is.
As the film reaches its climax, there’s a scene where the ghosts of the eight players who died at Munich appear and help inspire the boys to victory. When Blaise saw that he wanted to know who the ghostly figures were, and that was where he first learned about Munich, ‘’The Busby Babes’’, the Holy Trinity of Best-Law-Charlton and the rest of the backstory to his adopted team.
It’s hard to comprehend the idea that half a football team could be wiped out in this fashion. Such are the potential dangers of air travel. Such tragedies aren’t limited to the 1950’s – as recently as 2016 the plane carrying Brazilian club Chapecoense to a Copa Sudamericana game went down, killing 19 players and 71 passengers in total.
Football tragedies aren’t limited to aircraft accidents. The most common type of tragedy has been fans being killed by poor crowd management by stadium authorities. Hillsborough resulted in the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans. In 1946 a huge crowd came to Burnden Park in Bolton to see Stanley Matthews play with Stoke City in an FA Cup tie. Two metal crash barriers broke and the resultant crush killed 33 fans.
Ibrox Stadium in Glasgow has seen two major disasters – in 1902, when a wooden terrace collapsed during a Scotland versus England game, killing 26, and in 1970 when 66 Rangers fans died in a crush near the end of an Old Firm game. The fire at Valley Parade, Bradford, in 1985 [as the team were meant to be celebrating promotion from the old Third Division] which killed 56 fans was something I saw live on television as a teenager and still have nightmares about.
The United players killed that day 60 years ago were Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Duncan Edwards, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Dubliner Liam Whelan [Edwards was pulled alive from the wreckage but died later that month in hospital]. The club secretary Walter Crickmer and coaches Tom Curry and Bert Whalley were also killed.
These were the original ‘’Busby Babes’’. The previous season they had become the first-ever English club to take part in the nascent European Cup and had got to the semi-final, losing to Real Madrid. The Munich disaster happened after the team had just made it to the semi-finals again, having knocked out Red Star Belgrade.
In an earlier round of that year’s European Cup, Shamrock Rovers had played Manchester United. ‘’The Busby Babes’’ had visited Dublin in September 1957 for the first-leg of the preliminary round tie, winning 6-0 in front of 45,000 at Dalymount Park. Some older readers might remember that game, or have relatives still alive who attended. Taylor scored twice, as did Whelan. David Pegg and Johnny Berry [who survived Munich but never played football again] also scored that day [Rovers put up a great show in the return leg at Old Trafford, losing narrowly 3-2].
It took United 10 years to finally claim the European Cup, with the next generation of ‘’Busby Babes’’. It’s hard to imagine the mixture of joy and sorrow that must have been going through the manager’s mind when he finally got to lift the trophy [‘’A Strange Kind of Glory’’, to quote Eamon Dunphy]. Or Bobby Charlton’s, a player who survived Munich. Today, only Charlton and goalkeeper Harry Gregg [a man who showed unbelievable bravery in pulling the injured out of the aircraft] survive of the players who escaped death that day.
Tuesday 06 February 2018. A day for football fans everywhere to take a moment to remember those killed in Munich, and the many other disasters football has seen over the years.