It is often said that you can never count out Man U till the final whistle is blown. As if on cue, last Saturday, Carlos Tevez stuck a dagger into the heart of Spurs in the final seconds of the match as Man U walked away with a face saving draw after their opponents put on a magnificent display.
The indestructibility of Man Utd soccer has its genesis in the horrific events of the Munich air crash that took the lives of 23 players, staff, reporters, and crew on February 6th, 1958.
Yesterday, on the 50th anniversary of that great tragedy, a sombre audience observed a minute’s silence in their honour before the Switzerland game. At Old Trafford, Sir Bobby Charlton, a crash survivor and record goal scorer for his club and country, attended services of his fallen team mates. Alongside him were fellow survivors and mates Albert Scanlon, Bill Foulkes, Kenny Morgans, and Harry Gregg.
Eight players, the Busby Babes, representing the future of the club were killed. Players like Duncan Edwards, barely 18, in his short lived career already touted as England’s best player. We laud Arsene Wenger with his eye for youthful and cheap talent but it is useful to remember that fifty years before Matt Busby was doing the same with English players from gritty working class neighborhoods. Only days before Man Utd’s teen squad had played Arsenal and won their league game, 5-4.
John F Burns quoting the Telegraph reports of the match:
“The Babes played like infants in paradise. The ball, it seemed, had been placed in the arena for their own amusement. With the utmost abandon and cherubic cheerfulness, the Manchester United marvels kicked, headed and dribbled among themselves. When, on rare occasions, an Arsenal player knocked them sliding into the mud, or momentarily took the ball away, it was all part of the fun.”
In addition to Edwards; Man Utd lost Liam Whelan, David Pegg, Roger Byrne, Tommy Taylor, Geoff Bent, Eddie Colman, and Mark Jones. Two other players Jackie Blanchflower and Johnny Berry had their careers cut short because of the severity of their injuries. Their manager, Matt Busby lay in the hospital near death with multiple injuries. In one shattering moment, the club had lost its core.
Out of that great tragedy, great tenacity of purpose was born.
Man Utd soldiered on. The team was able to complete their season and in its first match after the disaster beat Sheffield Wednesday, 3-0 playing with their reserves and youth squad. They lost their league matches but were still able to reach the FA Cup final against Bolton, losing 0-2.
It took a generation but the second version of Busby’s Babes which included Denis Law and George Best took them to the 1968 European title, the first English club to do so. From the smoldering embers of Flight 609, the team rose to its pinnacle. Fittingly under a manager who had been administered his last rites, not once but twice. Charlton was the captain of that team, scoring two goals as Man Utd beat Benfica, 4-1. As the first survivor to walk out of the hospital and his reputation as a talented striker, there was an immediate expectation that he help re-build Man Utd. There was no time to grieve for his fellow team mates, for David Pegg who he had exchanged seats with before takeoff.
But the price that the surviving players paid was enormous. Kenny Morgans, 68, recalls the almost brutal dressing-room mood in the months afterward.
The victims, he said, became nonpersons: “It was as if they had never played for United. There was nothing like grief counselors or anything like that. We didn’t talk about it among ourselves. Nobody did. We wanted to blank it out. You always wondered why you were alive and others were dead.”
At the risk of sounding Tolkien-ish, it was a simpler time. The tragedy took place a decade after the end of World War II amidst a generation limping to normalcy from the Battle of Britain and its fear inducing air raid sirens heralding death and destruction. Grief counselors for working class players when an already stretched country needed collective therapy? It was a time to hide grief behind closed doors. Stoicism was a celebrated value. A far cry from the locker rooms of now, the richest and most widely watched league where every sulk and tantrum is seemingly encouraged and deconstructed by an avid media. Publishing houses have become proxy grief counselors and PTSD is a fashionable byword which Wayne Rooney suffers from endlessly at the hands of Mark Clattenberg and Rob Styles.
I am not sure given these present times, a club undergoing Man Utd’s magnitude of tragedy suffered fifty years ago would survive, let alone go on to nirvana like accomplishments. The system of checks and balances has long gone. We live in an age of Bosman transfers and financial fluidity. Player fealty is harder and a team is measured by its titles. Clubs have collapsed living beyond their means.
It is a good time to remember even in the moment of this great tragedy, that the game was carried on the backs of players like the eight who died and those who survived. On February 6th, for a day, we became Man Utd fans.