A boy in tears. Remembering Manchester United and Munich 60 years on

Lining up for that last game together, against Red Star: (L to R) Edwards, Colman, Jones, Morgans, Charlton, Viollet, Taylor, Foulkes, Gregg, Scanlon, Byrne. By Scanpix, via Wikimedia Commons

Monsieur Salut writes: no one at ESPN will mind, I am sure, if I repeat an example of my own work for them to mark the anniversary of the Munich air crash that inflicted such terrible losses on Manchester United’s Busby Babes, and the journalistic talent of their city, 60 years ago today. This is how I remembered it in a piece published before a SAFC-Man Utd match five years ago. There will be small changes to make it more relevant to our supporters or update the text, which necessarily applied to the game I was previewing for ESPN. Sunderland were still in the Premier League and the article as it originally appeared would therefore seem a little outdated …

A skinny boy of nine was called in for what we called tea — the evening meal — after the usual post-school football game in the Hay Field behind our street, pullovers removed to serve as goalposts despite the bitter chill of a North-eastern winter.

Soon, he was in tears as his mother gravely told him of the awful events in Munich. BEA flight 609, carrying the glorious Manchester United team of Matt Busby, the first from England to play in what has since grown into the Champions League, had crashed on its third attempt to take off from a slush-covered runway.

I was the boy and the events of that day explain why I have never been a part of the collective disdain for United at any part of its spectrum from jovial banter to hate-filled malice. They were not my team then any more than they are now; mine, Sunderland, went down that year for the first time in the club’s 68-year history, while United triumphed heroically over appalling human loss — eight players dead, two injured so severely they never played again — to finish a creditable ninth, also reaching the FA Cup Final and European Cup semi-finals.

[From then: on Saturday evening – Oct 5 2103 – the inheritors of United’s legacy will be doing their utmost to make it more likely that Sunderland will suffer another relegation this season; just about every pundit in the land expects a comfortable away win at the Stadium of Light and I struggle to challenge their certainty. In fact, only two goals from Adnan Januzaj, later to be a fairly useless player on loan to us, enabled what was then David Moyes’s side to overcome Craig Gardner’s early strike for us. But we didn’t go down – Ed]

But football results were far from our thoughts on that evening of February 6 1958 as we kept eyes glued to the flickering black-and-white television for the grim, developing news.

The accident had happened in mid-afternoon. I no longer recall exactly how quickly we knew the names of those who had died, but I do have vivid memories of holding out irrational hopes, as the details trickled out in updates, interrupting scheduled television programmes. Once the information became clearer, some feared dead would turn out to be among the survivors after all.

Duncan Edwards, a towering prospect among those great footballing heroes of the day and later described by Bobby Charlton, a Munich survivor, as “the only player that made me feel inferior”, did live but only for 15 days. Edwards symbolised the Busby Babes, and all that was then good about English football, and his fight for life gripped the nation, his chances of pulling through rising and falling in those two weeks following the crash, dominating news bulletins, newspaper columns, our hearts and our minds.

Three months later, neutrals raged at their television sets when Nat Lofthouse was allowed, in those charmed days for battering rams as centre-forwards, to bundle Harry Gregg over the goal-line for Bolton Wanderers’ second goal, putting the cup final beyond United. [2018 update: I just watched Harry Gregg reminiscing on the lunchtime news about the great side to which he belonged – Ed].

More than half a century has elapsed but I have never wavered in my affection for the club. It is not the same as “quite liking” Liverpool, for example, admiring Arsene Wenger or smiling if Celtic win, because it is driven by different emotions.

And I am sure it is a feeling that many, I hope most, proper football supporters can understand even if they do not share it and were, in any case, born long after the disaster. It is difficult to imagine any sane, decent fan of my own generation having anything but contempt for those who, to this day, use grotesque chants or gestures to mock the crash.

That emphatically does not mean United are my second club. I don’t really believe in having such a thing, though I have been known to follow the fortunes of Sunderland reserves — these days known as the “development squad” — with absent enthusiasm. As I wrote six years ago, there is no room for another club in my life. I likened supporting anyone other than Sunderland to the “similarly disloyal” act of having a mistress.

Of course there are aspects of Manchester United, more global brand than football club, which I find irritating: the billion or more fans who could barely locate Manchester on a map, the swagger, recent memories of Fergie time, which implied belief that football ought to arrange itself around United winning everything in sight.

But even these objections are based, in part, on debatable assumptions. United’s arrogance is not much more than a magnified version of everyone else’s at the highest levels of the game.

[At the time this article appeared, that week’s Who are You? interview had not been published (it’s here and is a great read even now); I mentioned that the interviewee had recalled his earliest times as a United fan coinciding with a distinctly poor patch. “Is it embarrassing to have ‘fans’ who probably think that Best, Law and Charlton is a firm of solicitors?” he asked. “Absolutely. Should we curse people on the other side of the world who wear a United shirt and take pleasure in their success? Not really. It’s the world today. Get over it.”

I cannot raise too much objection to the point he makes. And that, plus those boyhood memories, may help to explain why I shall be rooting for a United win when they play Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League on Wednesday night [they won 1-0], though not as loudly as I’ll be urging an entirely unexpected Sunderland victory on Saturday.

** As mentioned in an editor’s note above, Man Utd came to the Stadium of Light and duly won 2-1. It left us bottom of the Premier League. Paolo Di Canio had just been sacked and worse was to come – the 4-0 hammering at Swansea – before Gus Poyet slowly got underway a revival that took us to Wembley for the League Cup final and set up a rousing finish, beating Man Utd and Chelsea away in the process, to stay up).

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5 thoughts on “A boy in tears. Remembering Manchester United and Munich 60 years on”

  1. Marvellous article. I was four years older than you yet still sobbed my heart out in my bedroom. It is one of those “where you you when Kennedy died?” moments and this piece is a reminder of the power of sport to transcend bigotry.

  2. To my mate Colin,

    I remember the day so well, my mother crying whilst reading the Northern Echo.
    Colin, a lovely tribute to a national disaster.
    Wonderful words.


  3. Thank you Colin,

    As a United fan and much younger than when the tragedy happened was surprised by the outpouring of genuine love and grief amongst all fans from all corners of the world. I personally believe the reason United have garnered so many fans over the years stems from the disaster that befell us. They say that team would’ve ruled Europe and domestically for years. Unfortunately we will never know.

    Thanks again for your article on our anniversary and your own personal experience of it.

    • I am 70 this year and still remember vividly the late afternoon of the crash when news was trickling in. I wasn’t a football supporter at this time, My dad who ran a local football side and was coached occasionally by the the then young Bobby Charlton had taken me to reserve games, but it was then all such a big yawn. to me I supported the exciting Salford rugby league club. The crash changed everything. My young mind couldn’t quite take in the extent of what was happening, but suddenly I was supporting United, which has since been a lifelong obsession. The weeks after the crash saw my cementing my love for the club, and later, like so many, couldn’t understand why Nat Lofthouse (the dirty bugger) wasn’t sent off for nearly breaking Harry Gregg’s neck in the cup final!

      Well here we are 60 years later (who knows where all that time flew by). and I still cry on the anniversary of the crash. I live in the USA now, but I still watch every match and curse and rant when the football isn’t in the tradition of “the United way” The world has changed a lot since those days, but I am heartened that there are still people who are not so partisan, that they can recognise the pathos and fully acknowledge the loss of greatness in the face such tragedy. This article prompted me to think that there is much more to life than love of self and the promotion of ego which is far more prevalent now than then. Thank you for the reminder.

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