Sixty years on

The Munich Air Disaster Changed Football

After the War, under their inspiring Scottish manager Matt Busby Manchester United became one of the most brilliant and exciting football teams in England.

They won the FA Cup in 1948 and in 1957 the young ‘Busby babes’ were the first English Club to enter the European Cup.

The following year, on the 6 February 1958, on the way back from Yugoslavia and a 3-3 draw with Red Star Belgrade, Busby and his players and staff boarded a BEA aircraft at Munich airport in a driving snowstorm.

There was snow and ice on the runway and the plane taxied out to take off, but returned. The same thing happened a second time.

Apparently the pilot was not getting enough power from the engines, but he was determined to go ahead with the flight and at the third attempt the aircraft rose a few feet off the ground and ran into a wooden fence. The port wing hit a building and the plane caught fire.

Of the forty-four on board, twenty-three were killed. They included eight United players and three officials – the team’s coach, trainer and secretary – as well as seven sports journalists. United’s Duncan Edwards had initially survived but died 15 days later in hospital.

Matt Busby, who was badly hurt, and Bobby Charlton, a future England international, were among those taken to hospital. Charlton had come round to find himself outside the plane, but still strapped into his seat.

Aside from the players and journalists who boarded the plane on that snowy day were Vera Lukic, the air attaché’s wife, their baby daughter Vesna, and Bato Tomasevic who was Manchester United manager Matt Busby’s interpreter.

Bato had been a child soldier in Yugoslavia fighting the Nazis during the Second World War at aged just 13 alongside the future leader of Yugoslavia, Tito.

In 1953 Bato was sent to learn English at Exeter University where he met his future wife Madge Phillips from Exeter.

As a Yugoslavian diplomat in London, Bato was assigned to Manchester United for their trip to Belgrade. Bato survived the crash and later became the head of a TV station in Sarajevo before that was bombed out of existence, then he fled the former Yugoslavia with Madge and moved to Exeter. Bato Tomasevic died aged 87 in June last year having survived the Nazis, an air crash and the war.

Mrs Vera Lukic and her daughter were pulled from the crashed plane by Harry Gregg the goalkeeper who still keeps in touch with the Lukic family sixty years on.

So when that plane crashed at Munich on its final doomed attempt at take-off on February 6, 1958, in those terrifying, terrible moments, a great slice of English football history was lost to us for ever.

What they might have been. What they might have done. It’s the torment that tortures the families and friends of any young man or woman taken before their time.

And in the case of the Busby Babes, the wondering and the dreaming has been done by a nation of football lovers for sixty years. A team was wiped out when it stood on the verge of greatness. Obliterated as it was about to do things no other English team had done before. If eight of the Busby Babes had not lost their lives as a result of that crash, we would have had a different history, a different set of football icons.

Matt Busby’s young team was going for a third successive league title after winning it in 1956 and 1957. That would have given them a special place in history. Who knows whether they might have won four, even five, on the trot. They were pioneering English involvement in the European Cup, too.

They were on their way back from completing an aggregate victory over Red Star Belgrade when they stopped to refuel in Munich. Nothing is certain but they may have become the first British side to win the competition, long before Celtic managed it in 1967. They might have built a dynasty at Old Trafford that outshone that established at Real Madrid. The Munich Air Crash made the Busby Babes forever young in our memories, forever puffing out their chests in pride.

Not withered by age or hobbled by the kind of humdrum injury that could end a career over half a century ago. And because of that, because Busby fought his way back to health after being read the last rites and helped his team to rise again, United have a claim to be the most famous club in the world.

It was Munich and the club’s resurrection after it, the emotion of the renewed pursuit of the European Cup culminating in that 4-1 triumph against Benfica after extra time at Wembley in 1968, that gave the club its mystique.

In a way, it was Munich that gave George Best his platform, Munich that allowed him to take the grand stage as the heir of the Babes, the man who finally allowed Busby to achieve the dream his team had died chasing.

That was what turned United into the self-styled “biggest club in the world”.
That was what spawned the commercial power they have now. That’s why they have a bigger, wider fanbase than any other English club.

Manchester United and English football were robbed of part of their histories when that plane crashed at Munich 60 years ago.

But the legend of the Busby Babes, the dream of what they might have become and the memory of their youth and their promise lives on and on.

Ben Fox

Author: Ben Fox

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