Munich Air Disaster by Stephen Morrin

PUBLISHED: 01:25 18 January 2010 | UPDATED: 14:59 20 February 2013

Munich Air Disaster

Munich Air Disaster

Aviation historian Steve Morrin, the author of a new book on the Munich air disaster in February 1958, looks back to the tragedy which gave birth to a legend

THE Busby Babes revolutionised British football. With their beguiling skills, youthful exuberance and sportsmanship, Manchester United swept all before them and looked set to reign over their rivals, at home and abroad, for the next decade.

Matt Busby was made manager in 1945 and guided the aging side he had inherited to the FA Cup in 1948 and the League Championship in 1952 and then aspired to achieve even greater heights by assembling a new, youthful team from scratch. Hundreds had trials but only the exceptional few were chosen and having won the league with successive titles in 1956 and 1957, the Babes looked set to take Europe by storm.

They had an average age of 22 and were on the threshold of achieving their full potential when fate struck them down. In the 1957-58 season United looked set to complete an unprecedented treble of FA Cup, league and European Cup success.

In January 1958, they beat Red Star 2-1 at Old Trafford in the first leg of the European Cup quarterfinal. In the second leg United were 3-0 up at half time and although Red Star fought back to earn a 3-3 draw, United won 5-4 on aggregate. On the return journey the plane stopped to re-fuel at Munich where the weather was awful: thick, low cloud, sleet and snow. Captain James Thain and his co pilot, Kenneth Rayment, managed to land safely on the slush- covered runway and the United party scurried for shelter in the airport lounge.

An hour later, with the aircraft refuelled, Captain Thain made two aborted attempts to take off. After some maintenance work, the aircraft taxied out for a third attempt. The throttles were opened and the airliner accelerated down the runway with the wheels throwing up great whorls of brown slush.

When the plane had covered twothirds of the runway it entered a deeper layer of undisturbed wet slush. The airspeed suddenly dropped and with the end of the runway looming, Rayment, pulling hard back on the control column, yelled out above the roaring engines: 'Christ, we won't make it!'

The plane left the runway, smashed through the perimeter fence and across a road. Seconds later the port wing scythed into a house, setting it on fire. A hundred metres further on, the right-hand side of the fuselage struck a small oil compound, severing the tail section. The fuel in the compound exploded enveloping the tail and its occupants in flames.

The forward section of the plane carved its way through the snow for a further 70 metres before coming to rest. The plane lay broken and smouldering in the snow, a mile from the main terminal. Among the 23 dead were eight players, three United officials and eight top sports journalists. Matt Busby came close to perishing with them.

It was an event etched into the memory of a generation and became part of United folklore. Busby said: 'Before that terrible day, I could see ten years at the top with nothing to stop us. After it, I had two choices. I could either lie down and hide, or pick myself up and accept the challenge.'

Busby accepted the challenge, returned to Old Trafford and began building another great team that included some world class players who, like the Babes, became legends, including Denis Law, George Best and Brian Kidd. United won the First Division Championship in 1964-65 and again in 1966-67. In May 1968, 40 years ago this year, Busby's European dream became reality when United won the European Cup, beating Benfica 4-1.

Busby cried that night. The dream he thought had died along with his Babes at Munich ten years earlier had finally come true. He said: 'That moment when Bobby Charlton took the cup, it cleansed me. It eased the pain of the guilt of going into Europe. It was justification.'

In the aftermath of Munich, Busby was awarded the CBE, and following the European Cup triumph, he was knighted. For the rest of Busby's life the memory of Munich and players lost would often cast a dark shadow over his face. It was at these times he would turn to a close friend and whisper in their ear: 'Sometimes I still see them play.'

On January 20, 1994, the grand old man of English football died from blood cancer at the age of 84. Football fans everywhere mourned his passing.

The Munich Air Disaster, by Stephen Morrin is published by Gill and Macmillan at 10.99.

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