United After Munich: Manchester United, the Munich Air Disaster & European Cup Glory

7th February 2020

‘The Flowers of Manchester.’

The tragedy of the Munich air disaster ripped out the heart of a promising young team. However, it was not the end of the story. The legacy of the Flowers of Manchester lived on in the story of the survivors – the players, manager and staff who carried their memory and achieved the rarest of footballing greatness. The European Cup win is only part of the story.

Just ten years after the club’s darkest day (see part one), Manchester United were crowned European Champions. Among the squad that day were two survivors of the Munich air disaster under the watchful eye of Matt Busby.

‘Like family.’

Following the Munich air disaster, the football community wrapped around United. £52,000 (equivalent to £1.22million) was raised for the bereaved families.

Rivals Liverpool offered five loan players to help United through the season. Manchester City’s German goalkeeper Bert Trautmann offered his help as mediator and translator between United and the German authorities.

Most strikingly, however, an earlier friendship struck between Matt Busby and legendary Real Madrid president Santiago Bernabéu came to United’s aid. Dedicating their European Cup win to the fallen of Munich, Madrid offered their luxurious recuperation facilities to the injured and bereaved.

Incredibly, the Spanish giants also offered to loan 1957 Ballon d’Or winner Alfredo Di Stefano to United for the 1958-59 season, paying half his wages. Di Stefano had reportedly agreed to the move but it was blocked by the FA, who were concerned he would take the place of a British player.

The Spanish giants also struck deals to play a series of fundraising friendlies with United, waiving their normal £12,000 fee and agreeing to let United pay what they could. Aside from raising money, this gave the inexperienced United side a chance to play against the world’s best – Ferenc Puskas and Di Stefano among them.

The teams grew together over a series of friendlies with Busby claiming Madrid ‘had become like family.’

‘Right away, you could see the great chemistry between them. Great players know how to play together.’

The United rebuild was a slow one. Busby took back full managerial control for the 1958-59 season after recovering from his injuries. Though hugely successful in the long term, the signings of Albert Quixall, Maurice Setters, Denis Law, Pat Crerand and Noel Cantwell had little immediate effect.

Form was inconsistent. United lumbered to a 19th place league finish in 1962-63, but secured a 3-1 FA Cup final victory versus Leicester at Wembley – their first silverware since Munich.

A United rebrand followed. No longer feeling comfortable with the nickname Busby Babes after the disaster in Munich, Matt Busby sought something more intimidating. He borrowed an idea from neighbouring Rugby League side the Salford Red Devils.

January 1964 saw the first coming together of United’s legendary trinity of Charlton, Law and Best. A second place finish in 1963-64 became a league title in 64-65.

United players, Charlton and Nobby Stiles played key roles in England’s 1966 World Cup success as Old Trafford received significant upgrades in preparation for the tournament.

Another league title came in 1966-67 as United went unbeaten in their final 20 league matches of the season.

‘If it had to be anyone, then I’m glad it was them.’

United’s 1967-68 European Cup campaign began with a 4-0 aggregate victory over Maltese side Hibernians before narrow victories over Polish side Górnik Zabrze and Bosnians FK Sarajevo put United in the semi finals. A tie with Real Madrid beckoned.

Taking a slight 1-0 home win to the Bernabéu, United were far from favourites. A poor start saw Madrid take a 3-1 lead into half time – 3-2 on aggregate. But United came back strongly in the second half with David Saddler netting 15 minutes from time to level the tie.

Stalemate ensued until George Best crossed for Bill Foulkes – a Munich survivor, now 36 years old – to score. United won: a European Cup final with Eusebio’s Benfica at Wembley was on the cards. After the match, Busby’s old friend Bernabéu stated: ‘If it had to be anyone, then I’m glad it was them.’

In the final, Bobby Charlton’s opener was cancelled out by Jaime Graça and an incredible save from Alex Stepney denied Eusebio a last gasp winner. United ran out 4-1 winners in extra time after a George Best goal broke Benfica’s resolve, Brian Kidd and Bobby Charlton finishing the Portuguese Champions off.

Ten years after disaster, United were European Champions.

Busby was knighted and received the Freedom of Manchester. The players were to go down in history as legends of the game – the first English European Cup Champions. But the journey was never forgotten, nor those who sadly never got to make it.

The following list marks the names of those lost to the disaster:

Geoff Bent, Full Back  Roger Byrne, Full Back  Eddie Colman, Wing Half  Duncan Edwards, Left Half  Mark Jones, Centre Half  David Pegg, Outside Left  Tommy Taylor, Centre Forward  Liam Whelan, Inside Forward  Walter Crickmer, club secretary  Tom Curry, Trainer  Bert Whalley, Chief Coach  Captain Kenneth Rayment, Co-pilot  Tom Cable, Cabin Steward  Alf Clarke, journalist  Donny Davies, journalist  George Follows, journalist  Tom Jackson, journalist  Archie Ledbrooke, journalist  Henry Rose, journalist  Frank Swift, journalist and former England and Manchester City goalkeeper  Eric Thompson, journalist  Bela Miklos, travel agent  Willie Satinoff, racecourse owner and friend of Matt Busby


This is the second part of a two part article, check out the first part here.