February 07, 2008

Memories of a fateful day 50 years ago

By H Natarajan

It was on February 6, 1958 the world grieved to one of the biggest disasters in sports history. It was on this fateful day, fifty years ago, that Manchester United lost eight of its players in an air crash on take-off in snowstorm at Munich. The plane, which was carrying the Man U team home from a European Cup game in Yugoslavia, had halted in Munich for re-fuelling. The team had drawn 3-3 with Red Star Belgrade and qualified for the European Cup semis in their last match before the crash.

During my visit to Manchester United, I saw the painful memories of that disastrous day displayed at the club’s museum. Just imagine losing a sizable number of your favourite team in such tragic circumstances and you can probably appreciate how colossal the loss was to the champion side. David Gill, the club’s chief executive, believes that what we see today of Manchester United has much to do with that tragedy.

I was given to believe that the tragic air crash, which decimated a generation of players with a rich future, triggered a new thinking as even those with not much interest in the game emotionally connected with Man U following the tragedy and offered their support in rebuilding their fortunes.

Champions are a breed apart and in that champion side was a man who risked his life to save the lives of many of his fellow-passengers. That man was the team’s goalkeeper, Harry Gregg, who went inside the wreckage ignoring the captain’s warning that the plane would explode anytime. Among the lives Gregg saved were that Yugoslav diplomat’s pregnant wife and her young daughter.

One of the survivors was the legendary Bobby Charlton, who played 106 caps for England and went on to be part of the England team that won the World Cup in 1966. He was named “European Footballer of the Year” the same year and two years later was part of the United team that won the European Cup. Though Bobby Charlton achieved much in his life, something in him died that tragic day with many of his loved team mates. As Bobby’s brother Jack – also a member of England's World Cup-winning team, says: “Robert was never the same again. I saw a big change from that day on. He stopped smiling, a trait that continues." It’s traumatic to come out of an airplane crashing at 150 mph and emerge from a wreckage where many of your near and dear ones, with whom you were laughing just moments ago, lying lifelessly in the most gruesome manner.

But one of the biggest losses in that air crash was the death of 21-year-old Duncan Edwards, who punctured a lung in the accident. Charlton summed up Edwards’s talent by saying: "He was the only player who made me feel inferior". The crash also saw the demise of Roger Byrne who was expected to lead England in the future. If Byrne had returned home alive, he would have delighted to know that he was going to be a father for the first time.

Sir Matthew Busby was another big name to survive the crash was. Busby managed Manchester United the longest - between 1945-1969 and again for the 1970-1971 season. In fact, the youthful Man U side of his time was fondly named as Busby Babes. Busby was found in the wreckage by Gregg with his foot pointing round the wrong way! He spent two months in a German hospital after the crash nursing a huge guilt as he felt he was responsible for the death of so many young lives.

What happened 50 years ago was a monumental tragedy. Many of the young heroes who died in the crash would have gone on to become great players had their lives not been cut in their primes. But even in their death they emerged as huge inspirations as the tragedy spurred on generation of players that followed them at Manchester United to great heights.

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