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Wednesday, 6 February 2013

The Munich Air Disaster 55 Years On

55 Years ago today was one of the saddest days in English football history. A plane carrying Manchester United players, staff, a group of journalists and a few other guests crashed on a frozen runway in Munich.

Manchester United were on a one club mission to make an impact in Europe and despite a lack of support from the F.A they were winning matches as well as admirers on the continent. They had reached the semi-finals of the European Cup the previous season and needed only a draw away at Redstar Belgrade to do the same again. United left for Belgrade 6 points behind leaders Wolverhampton Wanderers in the league with 14 games to go, (Aiming to become only the 3rd club to win 3 league titles in a row) they had moved into the 5th round of the F.A Cup and were the holders of the Charity Shield. This was one of the finest teams of not only their generation but of every generation that went before and came after.

The young team from Manchester got the job done in Belgrade earning a 3-3 draw; they were
European semi-finalists for the 2nd year in a row. On their return the party had to make a brief stop in Munich so that the aircraft could refuel, not long now and the boys would be home.  However, the weather in Munich was far from perfect and snow had been falling steadily.  Once refuelled the plane made 2 aborted attempts to take off, but it seemed the weather was against them so an overnight stay in Munich beckoned. The pilot decided they would have one more go at trying to take off, but again the plane didn’t make it into the air, this time with disastrous consequences.  A layer of slush had started to build up at the end of the runway and when the plane hit it, it was unable to build up enough velocity to get off the ground. The plane skidded and went through the perimeter fence of the airport, its port wing was torn off as it hit a house, and the right side of the fuselage collided with a wooden hut, inside was a truck filled with tyres and fuel which exploded.

8 players, 8 journalists, 3 club officials, 2 other guests and 2 crew members lost their lives as a result of the crash. Among the journalists was former Manchester City and England goalkeeper Frank Swift, who was working for the News of The World. Duncan Edwards one of the most promising players in not only England but in Europe battled hard and survived for 15 days but eventually succumbed to his injuries. The teams’ manager and leader Matt Busby was seriously injured in the crash and was forced to spend 2 months in hospital where he was read his Last Rites twice.
One of the best teams in Europe had been torn apart, but this story isn’t over. There were stories at the time that the club would have to fold, but it fought on. Using youth and reserve team players as well as anyone else they could manage to buy and with Busby’s assistant Jimmy Murphy in charge, the team took to the field once more. A Manchester United team not only played Sheffield Wednesday, they beat them 3-0. In the match programme blank spaces were left on the team sheet where the names of those who lost their lives should have been. The club managed to complete the rest of their fixtures that season; they slipped to 9th in league and were knocked out of the European Cup by Milan despite beating them at Old Trafford. They also managed to make it to the final of the F.A only to lose to Bolton Wanderers with a recovering Matt Busby in attendance.

But from the most difficult season in the clubs history it would rise again. The following season after some convincing from his wife Jean, Busby returned to lead his team again. And in 1968 his European dream finally came true when his United team beat Benfica to win the European Cup.  But none of this would have been possible without those who lost their lives on 6th February 1958.

Lest we forget.

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