Monsieur Salut writes: on reflection, I regretted that publication of a piece of levity prepared for Salut! Sunderland – Shaun Best on his groundhopping visit to the Stadium of Light – should coincide with the terrible news that a plane carrying 81 people, including players and officials of the Brazilian top-flight side ACF, or Associação Chapecoense de Futebol, had crashed in Colombia. Only six people survived. The human impact of any fatal air crash in enormous; the impact of this disaster on football, and not just in South America, is devastating.
The echoes of Manchester United, Munich and 1958 are inescapable. Shaun, the writer of the groundhopping piece, is a Man Utd supporter. As at Munich, great or greatly promising players, officials and accompanying journalists are among the victims. There are players who survived – just three according to the last report I saw – and there is, as in Munich, the story of at least one pulled alive from wreckage but dying soon afterwards.
As a further tribute to all those who perished, and to Chapecoense, a side with much of the the romantic appeal of the Busby Babes, I reproduce a piece I wrote for ESPN FC ahead of a Sunderland game against Man Utd three years ago ….
A skinny boy of nine was called in for what we called tea – the evening meal – after the usual post-school football game, pullovers removed to serve as goalposts despite the bitter chill of a North-eastern winter, in the field behind our street.
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 while attempting take-off from a slush-covered runway.
I was the boy and the events of that day explain why I could never be 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.
On Saturday evening, today’s inheritors of the United 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 [Januzaj scored twice for United, who won 2-1].
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.
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.
My Manchester United interviewee for Salut! Sunderland‘s “Who are You?” feature ahead of the weekend’s game puts it compellingly, recalling that his earliest times as a United fan coincided 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 Wednesday night, though not as loudly as I’ll be urging an entirely unexpected Sunderland victory on Saturday.
* Not all of the above is relevant to what happened in the chartered plane’s approach to Medellin airport. But the spirit of the piece is wholly relevant and that is why it appears. RIP all those who died at around 0345 GMT in Colombia.