06 February, 2008

Remembering the Busby Babes

Like I’m sure plenty of people in my generation, I have to say that until recently the Munich Air Disaster kind of passed me by. I mean I’d obviously heard the bare bones over the years, but it took today’s 50 year anniversary to really galvanise me to find out exactly what happened. The basics for those in a similar position are as follows: on February 6th 1958, a airplane carrying the famous Manchester United “Busby Babes” side crashed on it’s third takeoff attempt, after failing to reach adequate height due to a slush-covered airstrip. It’s a tragedy of little comparison since, with 23 of the 44 passengers on board dying, including 8 of the United team.

The Busby Babes were exceptional for many reasons; developed all by the club themselves, the side came through the youth system together before winning back to back League titles convincingly in 1955-56 and 1956-57, before tragedy struck. With an average age of 21, the side had not even reached it’s full potential but were already a dominating force; to put things into perspective, Bobby Charlton, still England’s all time International goal-scorer, was considered at the time to be one of the ‘weak links,’ if such a term is appropriate. Comparisons therefore of the current 2007-08 squad with this glorious outfit are as high a praise as can be dealt out in English football. Current club captain Gary Neville offered the following:

“These guys are mythical figures to us, the Busby Babes and Sir Matt. Growing up as a United fan you sing songs about them, you are aware of the statues and memorials around the ground.”

In addition to the 8 players who lost their lives, Johnny Berry and Jackie Blachflower were also so badly injured internally that they were unable to ever play again, while manger Matt Busby was forced to spend two months in intensive care as doctors feared he could still die any day. There were rumours that the club might even cease to exist altogether. To quote Wayne Rooney, talking this week to The Sun:

“For a disaster like that to happen is horrible in any walk of life. For a football club to bounce back from something as terrible as Munich, and to go on and become the huge club it is today — it’s just an honour to be a part of it and part of the history of United.”

An inexperienced side battled on to complete the season, even reaching the FA Cup Final, before Busby returned to the helm the following year and rebuilt the club into what was to be perhaps the most iconic footballing side of all time, with the likes of George Best and Dennis Law debuting alongside crash survivors Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes.

The 1958 season played out with Manchester United match programmes simply leaving black spaces where each lost player’s name should have been, while at Old Trafford commemorative plaques were placed on the stadium front, the Director’s Box and the Press Box to remember each the on-pitch losses, the backroom losses, and also the journalistic losses. Fast Forward 50 years and this weekend’s Manchester derby aims to be a fitting tribute to those great men (Rooney: “It will be emotional. I think it will be a celebration as well though”), with Manchester United playing the game in a replica of that 1958 shirt, removed off all badges and sponsorship. In a show of surprising sensitivity, the club has also decided to side-step any potential marketing that might come from this by not selling the shirt to the general public.

R.I.P. Geoff Bent (full back), Roger Byrne (full back), Eddie Coleman (wing half), Duncan Edwards (wing half), Mark Jones (central defender), David Pegg (winger), Tommy Taylor (centre forward) and Liam ‘Billy’ Whelan (wing forward), as well as Walter Crickner (club secretary,) Bert Whalley (chief coach), Tom Curry (trainer) and the 8 journalists just catching a ride home.