On February 6, 1958 a BEA Airspeed AS-57 Ambassador skidded on take-off at Munich’s Riem Airport, smashing into a nearby building and bursting into flames; ultimately killing 23 of those on board. A tragedy at any time but what made this appalling event even more heartbreaking was that on the plane were a group of young men who were seen as the personal friends of millions around the world – the “Busby Babes.”
Manchester United looked set to become the first English club to lift the relatively new European Cup in 1958 and were also on course for a treble as they were still well placed in the league and FA Cup, but those hopes were dashed in an event which would shape the history of the club to this very day.
United were one of the most exciting football teams around under the guidance of their Scottish manager Matt Busby and were travelling back from Yugoslavia following an impressive 3-3 draw which meant they would progress to the semi-finals of the competition 5-4 on aggregate.
After celebrating their progression with cocktails at the British embassy in Belgrade the players left for Manchester the following day as they had an important league fixture with Wolverhampton Wanderers on the Saturday; sadly, for many of the party, they would never reach their destination alive.
The team’s chartered plane made a routine stop in Munich to refuel but the area had quickly become shrouded in snow and low cloud, meaning the pilot, Captain James Thain, had to use the anti-icing equipment on the wings prior to landing.
The severe weather didn’t appear to worry the United players though, many of whom enjoyed a snowball fight outside the airport terminal before savouring a quick snack prior re-boarding the aircraft.
The first signs that things were not right came when the plane attempted to take-off once more as a strange noise from the engine caused Captain Thain and his co-pilot, Captain Kenneth Rayment, to abort the attempt. The pair tried again some moments later but the second effort fared no better, with Captain Thain explaining that they would have to return to the stand and carry out a routine engine check.
Many of the group fully expected to spend the night in Germany before heading home in the morning but Busby and the club were under a certain amount of pressure to get back that night.
The Football League were not happy about them competing in a tournament which they viewed as a distraction from domestic obligations, so much so that they had even denied Chelsea’s participation in the competition two years before. So in order to avoid the wrath of Chairman Alan Hardaker, Busby knew his side must play against Wolves at the weekend or face the consequences.
With many players uneasy about another attempt, it was decided they would try for a third time with Mark Jones, Tommy Taylor, Eddie Colman and Duncan Edwards so concerned that they even moved to the back of the plane believing they would be safer there if the worst happened.
A third attempt was made just after 3pm on a runway which was by now covered in snow and slush but this time the aircraft failed to gain height as it tried to lift off and crashed through a fence at the perimeter of the airfield and into a building at the end of the runway; bursting into flames as it came to a halt next to a nearby fuel silo.
Seven players died at the scene, including Coleman, Taylor and Jones who had swapped seats, along with the plane’s co-pilot and journalists who were travelling with the team including former Manchester City goalkeeper Frank Swift.
Duncan Edwards, regarded as the greatest player in the game at the time, passed-away in hospital two weeks later while Johnny Berry and Jackie Blanchflower were so severely injured that they would never take to the field again.
Meanwhile, Matt Busby was so severely injured he was actually issued with the last rites by a priest on two occasions but would miraculously make a full recovery along with several others, including Bobby Charlton.
Back in Manchester crowds gathered outside Old Trafford awaiting information about the crash, while around the world news began to spread of what had happened to probably the most famous football team on the planet at the time.
24 hours later the bodies of those who died were flown home and laid to rest in the Old Trafford gymnasium. In the days that followed thousands of people lined the streets in the bitter cold as the funerals were held and at matches everywhere the following weekend a two minutes’ silence was impeccably observed.
Despite losing more than half of their players in the crash, United were determined to continue and as manager Matt Busby recovered in Munich’s Rechts der Isa hospital, along with many of his players, the job of rebuilding the side fell to Busby’s assistant Jimmy Murphy, who had been away on international duty at the time and wasn’t on the plane that fateful day.
Murphy set about recruiting a whole new team, while still attending as many funerals as he possibly could and assisting the injured. Just 13 days after the disaster his newly assembled United side ran out at a packed Old Trafford in an FA Cup tie against Sheffield Wednesday.
Even the programme that night was unable to print the names of the players, instead leaving eleven blank spaces as reserve players such as Ian Greaves, Freddie Goodwin, Ronnie Cope were drafted in along with a certain Shay Brennan, who scored twice that night and would go on to become a legend in his own right.
The disaster inevitably took its toll and United would only win one more league game that season as the side who were looked on as challengers for the title eventually finished in 9th place. But in the FA Cup it was a different story as Jimmy Murphy incredibly guided his make-shift side to a Wembley final against Bolton Wanderers.
Watching his side that day was Matt Busby, just three months after a crash which so very nearly cost him his life, unsteady on his feet and walking with the aid of sticks; but there was to be no fairytale finish as United were beaten 2-0.
They would soldier on in the European Cup too, despite Real Madrid’s sporting offer to award them the trophy in honour of those who had perished in Germany; beating AC Milan at Old Trafford in the semi-final before eventually losing out on aggregate.
Phoenix-like Manchester United would eventually rise from the ashes of Munich and go on to become the greatest side in Europe when they beat Benfica in the final of the European Cup at Wembley on May 27 1968.
Munich survivors Shay Brennan and Bill Foulkes were in the side that night along with Bobby Charlton, who scored two goals before climbing the famous steps to lift the huge trophy on an emotional night for everyone concerned.
To this day, February 6, 1958, still remains the darkest hour in the club’s long and illustrious history for anyone involved with the club, whether they are a player, official, or a supporter, and one that is rightly remembered each year on the anniversary of that awful day.