Man United survivors recall 1958 air crash

Bobby Charlton recalls the worried silence of his teammates as the plane roared down the snowy runway for the third time.

Kenny Morgans remembers being hurled backwards into the luggage compartment when the plane hit a fence.

Albert Scanlon doesn’t recall the crash at all. When he came to in the hospital, no one told him seven of his Manchester United teammates were dead.

For these and the other survivors of the February 6 1958 Munich air crash that took away the heart of the so-called Busby Babes, the 50th anniversary of one of soccer’s worst tragedies is more of an ordeal than simply remembering lost teammates.

”I’m now 72,” said Scanlon, a winger who suffered a fractured skull, broken right leg, kidney damage and broken shoulder in the accident. ”For 50 years I’ve gone around with this. The hardest part of my life since the air crash is meeting relations.

”I hate meeting families. I used to meet Eddie Colman’s dad and I always had the feeling he’d look at me and he’d be thinking, ‘Why is he stood [standing] there and my lad’s dead?”’

Colman was one of seven of Scanlon’s teammates who were pronounced dead at the scene of the crash at Munich Airport. The others were Tommy Taylor, Roger Byrne, David Pegg, Liam Whelan, Geoff Bent and Mark Jones. Duncan Edwards, considered the best of them all at age 21, died in a hospital 15 days later. The rest of the 23 fatalities included eight reporters.

To mark the anniversary next Wednesday, the five crash survivors who are still alive today — manager Matt Busy and four others died over the years — will join the current Manchester United players and families of those who died in a memorial service at Old Trafford.

Four days later, when United face neighbours Manchester City in a Premier League game at Old Trafford, there will be a minute’s silence to honour the dead. Both sides will wear special shirts, with the United players donning the style worn by the 1958 team.

The Munich crash was more than just a tragedy for the families of those who died. In soccer terms, it effectively robbed the game of a team who seemed destined for greatness.

The young Manchester United team looked capable of matching star-studded Real Madrid, who had already won the first two European Cups, beating United in the 1957 semifinal.

Busby knew that his young stars were a year older and stronger this time. Charlton believed that, if Munich hadn’t happened, the team had the players to win the European title.

”Manchester United could have won it in 1958. But there was no Duncan Edwards, no Tommy Taylor, no Roger Byrne. No David Pegg,” Charlton said. ”So it was just such a massive tragedy. It was so bad because the team were so good.”

Busby, who was twice given the last rites in the Munich hospital, recovered to rebuild the team. The likes of George Best and Denis Law teamed up with Charlton in a stand-out strike force and the Red Devils realised Busby’s dream by winning the European Cup in 1968 — 10 years after Munich.

Today, Manchester United are right up there with Real Madrid and the other giants of European soccer. Under Alex Ferguson, the Red Devils have won nine Premier League titles in 15 years, and the club’s five FA Cup titles under the Scot have taken it to a record 11. United also picked up the European Cup — now called the Champions League — in 1999.

”What we see today has all its foundation from back in those days, particularly the way it was done with young players,” Ferguson said. ”It brought a great deal of sympathy at the time and, from then on, the romance was built purely because of the way Matt rebuilt the team and won the European Cup in 1968 and did it the right way.

”That’s created the romance of what we see today, the affection around the world because the club has always played the right way with entertaining, attacking footballers.”

Disaster

It was this sort of dominance that Busby was hoping for back in the 1950s and, first as a player and recently as a club director, Charlton has been involved throughout.

Although aged only 18 when the crash happened, Charlton had played 32 times for the Red Devils and scored nine goals in his previous five appearances. That included two goals in the 3-3 draw at Red Star Belgrade, the game from which the team were returning when the disaster occurred.

The plane stopped in Munich on the way home to refuel, but heavy snow made the runway slushy while ice was forming on the wings. The pilot aborted two attempts to take off, and there was another delay for discussions about a third attempt.

In those days, the Football League dominated English soccer and regarded the European Cup as something of a sideshow. It had given United a deadline to get back home to prepare for its next domestic game two days later, so it was decided to go for a third attempt at a take-off.

Charlton said the players were concerned as the plane went down the runway with no sign that it was leaving the ground.

”I was conscious of the quiet on the plane. As we went through a fence and collided with a house, I didn’t hear the semblance of a scream,” he said. ”There had been just a vast and empty silence in the plane. The last thing I remember was the terrible rending noise of metal upon metal.”

Although he lost consciousness, Charlton escaped serious injuries and went on to become one of England’s all-time greats, scoring 49 goals in 106 appearances for his country and scoring twice in United’s 4-1 victory over Benfica in the 1968 European Cup final.

Morgans, an 18-year-old winger at the time, was also knocked out by the impact and discovered later he was thrown back among the suitcases in the luggage compartment at the back of the plane. He wasn’t found until four hours later.

”Two German reporters went back to the plane and they were looking for something and I was still in the plane at that point,” he said.

Bill Foulkes, a centreback who went on to play on the team who won the European Cup 10 years later, couldn’t believe the pilot was going to attempt take-off for a third time.

”I felt we were in trouble and I was waiting to see what they were going to do, but they said, ‘No — we go.’ I thought, ‘This is stupid, they’re going to take off.’ The back end [of the plane] came up and I saw it come up and down again, and this meant all the stuff came out of the back and hit me in the back of the head and put me in a bad way.”

The crash still resonates with today’s United stars.

”The air disaster had an effect not just on the UK but around the world,” said winger Ryan Giggs, who has been with the club throughout his 17-year career and scored 100 goals in more than 700 appearances.

”People never forget and they appreciate and realise what happened with the Busby Babes and what effect they had on the footballing public and general public in Britain around that time.”

Giggs said that, despite the horror of the crash and the loss of life, the rebirth of the team under Busby was one of the greatest success stories in the history of the game.

”That is something Manchester United has always prided itself on, the history and carrying on that legacy,” he said.

”You’re a young lad representing Manchester United abroad, playing in the right manner, exciting supporters and wherever you go getting people off their seats, and that has got to go on because that is one of the things that sets this club apart. You never stand still. It always goes forward.” — Sapa-AP

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