How the Munich Air Disaster changed Manchester forever
A cold winter's afternoon in Munich 1958 shook the world - and changed Manchester forever.
Just after 3pm on 6 February 1958, pilots James Thain and Kenneth Rayment made a third attempt to take the ‘Busby Babes’ back home.
English champions Manchester United were en route to the UK following a 3-3 draw with Red Star Belgrade – which had been enough to advance to the semi-finals of the European Cup.
Their British European Airways plane had temporarily landed in Germany for refuelling, but it was proving to be a problematic pitstop.
Snow had been coming down hard in Bavaria, creating challenging conditions and leaving thick trails of sludge along the Munich-Riem runway.
Two take-off attempts had already been abandoned due to engine faults, but at around 3.04pm, the pilots decided to have another go.
The plane powered down the tarmac, but failed to gain altitude. By the time the crew realised the plane wouldn’t make it off the ground, it was already too late.
The Airspeed Ambassador careered off the runway, tore through a fence and wrapped around a nearby house, bursting into flames.
23 of the 44 passengers on board were killed in what would forever be known as one of football’s greatest tragedies; a cold winter’s afternoon in Munich that shook the world – and changed Manchester forever.
Manager Sir Matt Busby had turned Manchester United into an international force since taking the helm in 1945 – building a team of gifted players that had brought major silverware to Old Trafford after rising through the club’s youth ranks.
The squad was tipped to continue filling out the trophy cabinet in Stretford for years to come. But in the winter of ’58, everything changed.
Eight members of the team died in the crash, and Manchester United instantly changed beyond recognition.
So too did the management team – with Chief Coach Bert Whalley, trainer Tom Curry and club secretary Walter Crickmer also passing away.
The eponymous leader of the Busy Babes, meanwhile, was rushed to hospital in critical condition.
With a generation of wonderful footballing talent wiped out and their leader gravely injured, the club was left rattled.
There were concerns that United could ultimately fold in the aftermath.
Eight players had gone forever, two former internationals – Johnny Berry and Jackie Blanchflower – were too badly injured to ever play again, and those who survived were still scarred by the incident.
The crash had left a permanent black mark on sport in Britain, taking too many young talents and coaches before their time.
But the footballing world stepped up.
Other clubs provided support wherever possible, with bitter rivals Liverpool even offering loan players so United could fulfil their remaining fixtures.
Real Madrid – the eventual winners of the 1958 European Cup – dedicated the win to the Busby Babes and even offered United the trophy (which was turned down), before selling memorial pennants and arranging friendlies to raise money for Manchester.
Tributes have continued for more than 60 years since.
Each February, hundreds flock to the Munich memorial at Old Trafford to pay their respects, with a rendition of Flowers of Manchester – a folk song written about the tragedy – performed at the home game closest to this date.
The 2008 Manchester derby was contested on the 50th anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster – with both teams wearing blank kits as a mark of respect (City, too, had suffered loss in the tragedy; former Blues goalkeeper Frank Swift had been on the plane in a journalistic capacity after becoming a sports correspondent for the News of the World upon retirement).
Football is a different beast to what it was back in 1958. But the sport still invariably takes a moment every year to step back from its modern glitz and glamour, pause, and remember the game’s incredible figures who never got to see how huge United – and indeed UK football – eventually became.
The reverberations of the Munich Air Disaster were so powerful they went beyond the game of football itself – even changing the way the sport was covered in the press.
11 of the north’s most prominent sports writers were aboard the flight that day – and just three made it out alive.
One of the three survivors, Frank Taylor of the News Chronicle, mentions in his book that he invited some of the other writers to join him at the front of the plane – where there were several seats still free. But the journalists, already settled, politely declined.
It was the rear of the vehicle that bore the brunt of the crash, and eight members of the press were killed.
In From The Back Page To The Front Room: Football’s Journey Through The English Media, Roger Domenghetti reveals that the Munich Air Disaster pushed football into national headlines – resulting in politics and news reporters being pulled into sport for the first time.
“They treated matches like they would any other event and began to ask experts, such as managers, for quotes to add to their pieces,” Domenghetti states – a new approach which ultimately changed the style of British sports journalism permanently.
World coverage of the crash continued several weeks after the initial accident – with newspapers offering updates on the condition of players and combing through the final moments leading up to the accident; attempting to understand what happened.
A fresh outpouring of grief came two weeks later when it was confirmed that Duncan Edwards – one of the most exciting talents in England at the time – had succumbed to his injuries and passed away in hospital.
Busby’s condition raised deep concern at first, but he slowly improved and eventually left hospital to recuperate. He briefly contemplated leaving football altogether, but was urged by his wife to continue, as she claimed it’s what the lads “would have wanted.”
Busby spent the next few weeks watching his team from afar as Jimmy Murphy took temporary charge – before easing his way back into football management the following season.
The rest was history.
Within years, he had created another incredible team – building a fresh squad around the remaining survivors such as Harry Gregg, Bill Foulkes, and Bobby Charlton.
Dr Guy Hodgson, a sports historian at Liverpool John Moores University, claimed that Munich played a role in Busby’s hunger to create another all-star side.
Dr Hodgson told Goal: “If it had not been for Munich, would he have bought players like Mike England and Alan Ball? Because if you look at the 1968 European Cup side, eight of them are home-grown players as he wanted to get the same home-grown thing again. Would he have changed his mind-set had he been building on success?
“Other things might have happened, like would Nobby Stiles have gone with his brother-in-law Johnny Giles to Leeds, because would he have got a game if Duncan Edwards and Eddie Colman had been around? He might never have got to play for United and might have had to go elsewhere for a position.”
Busby achieved his dream, bringing another four major honours to Manchester post-Munich – including two league titles, an FA Cup and European Cup.
An extraordinary feat in any capacity. Utterly miraculous in the circumstances.
Many of those who lived to tell the tale of the Munich Air Disaster have passed away in the 63 years since the crash.
The most recent was Gregg – who died in February 2020, age 87.
The goalkeeper was injured in the initial crash but regained consciousness whilst the airplane was going up in flames, managing to escape through a hole in the cabin.
Gregg has been described as a “hero” for returning to the wreckage and pulling out passengers – credited with saving several lives.
His death last year left Charlton as the last remaining survivor of the Munich Air Disaster.
Despite the crash, midfielder Charlton developed into one the greatest players to ever don the red shirt, winning multiple championships at United and becoming the club’s all-time record goalscorer until his tally of 249 was surpassed by Wayne Rooney in 2017.
He was also a member of England’s famous 1966 World Cup-winning side.
Following his retirement, Charlton briefly went into management with Preston North End, before serving in a directorial capacity with Wigan.
He joined the Manchester United board of directors in 1984 and continues to occupy a seat 37 years later.
Talking to the BBC about the crash back in 2017, Charlton said he was “just lucky and sitting in the right place.”
He added: “I wondered what would happen, I wondered how we would be able to recover but recover we had to do.
“We had to make the effort.”