Back in 1958 Munich was just the name of a city in West Germany. From around 3pm on Thursday 6th February 1958 it became immortalised as the city where one of the greatest of all football sides was destroyed at the end of its, then, airport runway. I say then as Munich now has a newer modern airport across the city.
On the 6th February 1958 I was ten and a half and still at primary school, about to sit my eleven plus exam. For those of you who have no idea what that was, it was an exam which determined if you went to Grammar, Technical Colleges or went to a Secondary Modern School. After school that day I went for extra tuition to see if it would help me pass these exams (it didn’t!) As I was trudging home with my school stuff over my shoulders, an already dark Salford winter afternoon, cold, grey, light very much going, the fumes from factories and the mist from the, then, working docks across the way not helping. As I neared home off Ordsall Lane near to where the Colgate Palmolive Factory was, I went to look for some mates near the local paper shop .The billboards hit me full on…
‘MANCHESTER UNITED IN PLANE CRASH’
As I have mentioned before in these articles, and will probably raise again, the world was not media full on. Newspapers and the radio was your source of information, although television was starting to become available in the extremely working class area such as I lived in Salford. No mobiles, twitter, Facebook, virtually no land line telephones, so news was very scratchy. We did have a black and white telly, and at six o’clock, Kenneth Kendell the BBC newsreader solemnly announced what had happened at Munich airport that afternoon, that the Manchester United team had suffered grave losses in a plane crash at the end of the runway as they had attempted to take off for the third time after re fuelling on their homeward journey from Belgrade where the day before they had qualified for the European Cup semi final for the second successive season.
I was nearly eleven, only seen death once when I had been walked around the open coffin of a relation I did not really know. This was a tragedy that hit me, even at that early age, slap bang in the face. Life was very grey in those days, people never seemed to wear colour so seeing a football team in these bright red shirts and a goalkeeper in an even brighter green one was eye catching. Going to watch them play, and the real thrill of seeing them be so successful, meant a real way of life to me.
On the following day, Friday 7th February 1958, I went to school and all everyone was talking about was the crash. The Headmaster stood up in assembly and gave it more than a mention, even naming those that had been reported as being dead. One of them was Eddie Colman who lived quite close to me near to Ordsall Park.
I made an instant decision.
At dinner time I would take all my souvenirs round to his house on my way home, so I got all my pictures, news cuttings, scarf, the lot and went round to Archie Street where he lived, knocked on his door and handed them over. I cannot remember who to, but when I got home I got a right rocket off my mum for doing it. I was nearly eleven, they were more than heroes to me and Eddie in particular was a local lad made good, if he had done it so might we. An interesting side line to Eddie’s street by the way. When Granada TV started transmitting Coronation St in 1960, they used a black and white Salford street to show how Coronation St might look. The street they choose, and it was on the start of Corrie for years, was Archie Street.
Programme collecting was always my way into watching football. At one stage I had every Manchester United home programme except about four since the Second World War and one of them was for the home match against Stoke City played at Maine Road when United had to share because of the bomb damage to Old Trafford. The match was played on a Wednesday afternoon with the crowd only being about 8,000, one of Manchester United’s lowest ever attendances to start with, so not many copies around. The after effects of Munich also created massive collectable programmes. On Saturday 8th February 1958, United were due to play Wolverhampton Wanderers at Old Trafford in a top of the table match and all the programmes had been printing for the game, indeed, a stop press was on page three congratulating the side on getting the 3-3 draw in Belgrade and qualifying for the European Cup semi-finals again. All those programmes were supposed to have been destroyed but various numbers, possibly fifty, were kept by some people and those fetch amounts in the low thousands today. The first match Manchester United could play after the crash was against Sheffield Wednesday in the fifth round of the FA Cup in mid February. Again, the programme for this game is hugely sought as the United team line up was left blank as nobody really knew what it would be. So much so that Stan Crowther was signed by United at about 6.30pm that night and played in the game. Crowther had actually played for Aston Villa against United in the 1957 FA Cup Final and had also appeared for Villa in the 1958 competition so became the only man to have played for two clubs in the same season FA Cup competition. I have to say that I penned in the names of the United team as I would never get rid of that programme but those with an empty team line up are quite valuable.
The Munich air disaster affected me very badly. I could not face going back to Old Trafford, the team I knew had gone and those left were not my side. Looking back it is a strange feeling as in fairness to the lads who came in I had seen them play as I probably went more to the reserve and youth games than first team matches so I did know them, but they were not Byrne, Colman, Jones, Edwards, Whelan, Taylor and Pegg. Geoff Bent who also died was Roger Byrne’s regular understudy but did not get enough chances. He was a top class left back who would have walked into any other side, and was so good he would then have even challenged Byrne for his England spot.
The only matches I saw in the rest of the 1957/8 season were via television when the semi final replay with Fulham was show live on a Wednesday afternoon and when the 1958 FA Cup Final was shown live against Bolton Wanderers. For the semi replay I actually thought of a way of skipping school, although a very painful way! I stood on a nail which infected my foot and was lying on the couch watching the grainy black and white pictures as United beat Fulham 5-3 to get through to Wembley for a second successive season. The 1958 final was another case of a goalkeeper getting assaulted and effecting the result. Early in the second half, Harry Gregg parried a shot, turned to catch and was barged in the back and into the back of the net by Bolton Wanderers centre forward Nat Lofthouse. Not only was a foul not given but a goal was given which put Wanderers 2-0 up having taken an early lead from another Lofthouse goal.
As you can imagine, Nat Lofthouse was not my favourite cup of tea, but incredibly in later life I got to meet and know him well, indeed becoming a close friend. This all came about when I approached Manchester United in the early 1980’s to create a junior supporters club like Manchester City’s junior blues. United, sadly, did not want to know so I approached Bolton as we lived not that far and one of my sons actually finished up supporting them. I approached Wanderers and met Nat and am still proud today, thirty odd years on that the Bolton Wanderers Junior Whites is still going strong. I must say though, that Manchester United missed a trick and should have a junior set up.
In my book ‘The Unfulfilled Dream’ covering Manchester United throughout their two Busby Babes title years of 1956 and 1957, I also did a diary of the week from the Arsenal match on Saturday 1st February 1958 to the Thursday of the crash 6th February 1958. Briefly, on the Saturday the team was in great heart after their fantastic victory over Arsenal by 5-4 and had travelled back to Manchester in great spirits. Some of them such as Colman, Charlton and Pegg had gone off to the younger entertainment spots of Manchester in those days, whilst some of the older players such as Taylor, Blanchflower and Viollet had gone off to the older night spots of the time. On the Sunday any injuries were treated and Roger Byrne was a real doubt for Belgrade so Goff Bent was called into the traveling party instead of Ronnie Cope. Whilst Ronnie was a bit annoyed, it was Geoff who travelled and died in the crash.
Monday the team set off to the Manchester airport which in those days was referred to as Ringway airport. Manchester on that Monday was a foggy, damp miserable place and, indeed, the flight was delayed due to the fog with eventually it taking six hours to get to Belgrade after a stop in Munich to re fuel. Also in recent years, along with the brilliant boxing trainer Brain Hughes MBE I wrote a book called ‘Viollet’ about Dennis who was a truly great player. This was a great success getting to number two in The Times Christmas lists behind a book called Seabiscuit about a famous horse. During writing that book Dennis told us of the state of Belgrade in 1958, not a pretty sight! Remember we were only two years after the nearby Hungarian uprising against the Soviet Union and Dennis recalled that there was virtually no food in the shops and people were walking about sometimes with no shoes or makeshift pairs from old tyres. The team was followed by army personnel at all times. Dennis also recalled the weather conditions were also bad with lots of snow about, the match being under real threat of being called off. Wednesday came and the weather relented but snow was all around but United were brilliant in the first half taking a 3-0 lead which virtually put them through. Red Star were a very good side though, and the came back to 3-3 and nearly won it late on. Dennis recalled how happy the team was and later that night a few of them found whatever entertainment there was in Belgrade before going to bed.
Thursday 6th February 1958 was the end of the dream and end of lives for so many people.
The question of how did Britain regard Manchester United at the time and after Munich is an interesting one. At the time of the crash, a lot of people had nothing really so there was not a great deal of jealousy around. People for example left the doors unlocked because they had nothing really of value to pinch, and anyhow, the communities were so close you would soon have found out who the villain was. Football wise, clubs kept their players really. Locally in the North West, Blackburn Rovers had such as Bryan Douglas and Ronnie Clayton, both England Internationals, Blackpool had such as Stanley Matthews and Jimmy Armfield, Bolton Wanderers had Nat Lofthouse, Burnley such as Jimmy McIlroy and Preston North End Tom Finney, who was, incidentally, the finest none Manchester United player I ever saw. These players stayed loyal to their side, their community. Amongst all the things I mentioned NOT being around, Match of the Day did not even start until 1964, so except really for the FA Cup Final or actually going to a match, you only knew of these players by word of mouth. The country seemed to give out a collective grief, people of my age, fifty eight years on can never forget.
Perhaps the so called ‘Swinging Sixties’ when people did start to have things, did start to question things, was the root of jealousy. After the 6th February 1958 Manchester United became well known all over the world, by the mid sixties they had virtually rebuilt and had household names such as Bobby Charlton, now a fully grown man after being a youth in 1958, signed the brilliant Denis Law and produced the charismatic George Best, still the greatest Manchester United player I have seen.
Winning the European Cup in 1968 confirmed the mystic, fifty years on it is still there.