The Munich Air Disaster: Manchester United and the Lost Generation
‘One cold and bitter Thursday in Munich…’
It’s a day that lives in infamy. On that cold, snowy runway in Munich, disaster struck and claimed the lives of more than just those who died. The Munich air disaster is remembered as one of darkest days of Manchester United, but also football in general.
20 passengers died at the scene, seven of them Manchester United players. Three more died of their injuries in the days and weeks following the crash, including former Manchester City goalkeeper and journalist Frank Swift, prodigal United left half Duncan Edwards and Flight Captain Kenneth Rayment.
The Munich air disaster cut down a promising young team just as they were reaching their potential – the survivors mourn both what was but also what could have been. This is the story of the last days of the Flowers of Manchester and their legacy.
This is part one of a two part article, check out the second part here.
‘All flights cancelled, flying tomorrow. Duncan’
Three years after its inauguration, Manchester United embarked on their second foray into the European Cup. A promising first run had ended abruptly with semi-final defeat to Real Madrid in the season before but a clear run to the final and a quality young squad whispered at glory for United.
With domestic games at the weekend and midweek European matches, the only reasonable route to games was by air. A drawn out ferry and train ride back to Manchester after a tie in Prague had tired the players who fell to a disappointing draw with Birmingham City the following weekend.
Keeping schedule was of utmost importance as the team looked to maintain their 11 game unbeaten run to catch Wolverhampton Wanderers at the head of the Football League. However, an aggregate success over Serbian side Red Star Belgrade was cause for celebration.
‘This may be death, but I’m ready.’
Captained by former RAF flight lieutenants James Thain and Kenneth Rayment, British European Airways Flight 609 made two aborted take-off attempts on the second leg of its journey home from Belgrade via Munich.
Snow began to fall heavily. Expectations grew that the team would not return home that day.
However, a third attempt was proposed by Captain Thain, sure of a solution to the engine problems grounding the flight. Passengers re-embarked. Unsteady fliers Duncan Edwards, Tommy Taylor and Eddie Colman took up seats at the back of the plane, believing it safer.
Forward Liam Whelan reportedly spoke the immortal words: ‘This may be death, but I’m ready.’
A third and final take-off was attempted at 15:03. The clocks stopped.
‘I’ve been called a hero after the Munich air disaster, but I’m not really a hero.’
Captain Thain freed himself from the wreckage, urged on by the still-trapped Captain Rayment, and began directing the evacuation of the plane’s burning wreckage.
United Goalkeeper Harry Gregg, stirred from unconsciousness, kicking a hole in the cabin large enough to escape from. In the decades after Munich, Gregg quietly played down his heroics of that day in Munich as, aided by Bill Foulkes, he led teammates Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet from the wreck as well as a pregnant mother with her infant child.
‘You know Matt, the lads would have wanted you to carry on.’
Players Johnny Berry and Jackie Blanchflower’s injuries prevented them ever playing football again while United Manager Matt Busby was twice read his last rites during a two month stay at Munich’s Rechts de Isar Hospital. He considered giving up the game, but his wife, Jean, urged him on.
United took on emergency transfers, including the signings of three players from non-league Bishops Auckland. But it had little impact.
A depleted United team limped to the season’s end – beating Sheffield United 3-0 in the first game after the disaster but failing to win another league game under the guidance of Assistant Manager Jimmy Murphy.
The team lost 2-0 to Bolton in the FA Cup final, watched by a recovering Matt Busby, while a European Cup semi-final against Milan proved too much. Eventual cup winners, Real Madrid, suggested awarding that year’s trophy to United out of respect.
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 first part of a two part article, check out the second part here.