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The Busby Babes - Tragedy In Munich
Ben Lyttleton, February 2004

British Council

This article was generously provided to ClubFootball by the British Council, which operates in China as the Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy.

Red Star Belgrade 3, Manchester United 3, 1958

Eight Manchester United players died on their way back from a European Cup quarter-final in Belgrade in 1958. When United won the European Cup ten years later, the mood was one of commemoration. Ben Lyttleton looks at this defining moment in the club's history.

Manchester United went to Belgrade for the second leg of the European Cup quarter-final in good spirits. They had won the first leg at Old Trafford 2-1, and had just beaten Arsenal 5-4 in the league. After a semi-final exit to Real Madrid the previous season, there was a belief that this was the season when coach Matt Busby and his attacking team - nicknamed the Busby Babes - would conquer Europe. Eight of the team, though, never returned.

United, as they had against Arsenal the previous Saturday, raced into a 3-0 half-time lead, Bobby Charlton scoring two goals and Dennis Viollet the other. In the second half, though, their exertions against Arsenal caught up with them, and Red Star came back to earn a 3-3 draw. It was a match typical of the side, full of goals and flair, with defending left to one side. The game was to take on a dreadful significance though. At the museum at Belgrade's Marakana stadium, an entire display cabinet is given over to the game: it was the last time the Busby Babes played together.

After refuelling at Munich, United's plane was on its third attempt at take-off when it failed to gain sufficient height, crashed through a boundary fence and split in half, the port wing and tail section striking a house. Goalkeeper Ray Wood remembers Roger Byrne, the team's captain calmly announcing: "We're all going to be killed." The skilful Irishman Liam Whelan, a devout Catholic, replied: "Well, I'm ready." Wood survived; Byrne and Whelan did not. Geoff Bent, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, David Pegg and Tommy Taylor also died in the wreckage; Duncan Edwards, the icon of the side, hung on for 15 days before he died. A further 15 coaches and journalists also lost their lives.

Busby survived after spending three months in hospital. He initially wanted to give up the game, but his wife Jean persuaded him to carry on. With Busby in charge, United won the European Cup ten years later.

But from the horror had grown a legend. United had been one of the most popular sides in England because of the youth of their side and the freedom with which they played; the tragedy brought them new fans and their struggle to win a European Cup became a thing of romance.

In 1968, when Busby finally brought the European Cup to England with a 4-1 victory over Benfica in the final at Wembley, the mood was more one of commemoration rather than of celebration. Busby sat a table at the Russell Hotel in London, surrounded by his team of Munich survivors alongside the families of those who had died. He sang 'It's a Wonderful World'.

Only Bobby Charlton was absent; he was so overcome that he could not leave his room. "He couldn't take it," his wife Norma said at the time. "Complete strangers coming up and slapping him on the back and telling him what a wonderful night it is. He's remembering the lads who cannot be here tonight."

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Published on: 2005-10-04 (2916 reads)

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