Originally posted on 2/6/08.
Today is the 50th anniversary of the air crash that killed eight members of the Manchester United football team among 23 who died when a plane they were on crashed on take-off. It was the aircraft’s third attempt to gain altitude but the snow and ice that had accumulated on the plane and slush at the end of the runway ensured it never achieved the lift necessary for take-off. The plane clipped a fence at the end of the runway and split open on impact. The team members who died were Roger Byrne, Billy Whelan, Tommy Taylor, Duncan Edwards, Mark Jones, Eddie Colman, Geoff Bent and David Pegg. It is hard to underestimate the impact the tragedy had on Manchester and England at the time. All were members of a youthful team dubbed the Busby Babes so named after the team's manager. Many of the dead not only played team football but had already been named to the full England team despite their youth. There was a wider context in that the crash occurred only 13 years after the end of WW2 and this team somehow represented a new generation free from the expectation of deprivation and war. In contrast to the US, the nation was only just starting to come out of the war years and rationing had only just ended.
Duncan Edwards, ‘the young colossus’ was the soul of the team. At 21, he survived the actual crash but died from his injuries 15 days later. Perhaps the intervening years have added to his mystique but even in his day he was considered a special footballer. Bobby Charlton who survived the crash and went on to a phenomenal club and international career has said he was "his hero and a beautiful, beautiful footballer and he has never seen one better." Bobby played with George Best and against Pele, Eusebio, Beckenbauer among other great players of the 1960s and 1970s. Family legend has it that some of the team were billeted in a rooming house my grandfather owned near the ground and that my father had a kick-around with Duncan and the other team members from time to time.
Manchester United is a world club just like the Yankees but bigger. The Munich disaster punctuates any discussion about the team - even today, whether the fan is in Japan, China or England. It is one of those club facts that a new fan - or in my case a young fan becoming more aware - is confronted with. At the ground, despite all its changes in the years since, still has a clock set to the time and date of the crash. No one visiting the ground can fail to see it.
No one knows what the Busby Babes team could have accomplished. This team, with an average age about 22, had already won the league title twice and the night of the crash they went into the semi-final of the European Cup for the second straight year. Sir Matt Busby, who almost died in the crash, went on to rebuild the team around the nucleus of the remaining players. It took another ten years until the team led by Bobby Charlton and another Busby wunderkind named George Best conquered Europe. Today, and this weekend there will be commemorations about this event for ‘the young players with the world at their feet – suddenly no more,” lest we not forget them.