The European Cup was created, in many ways, because it could be. The end of the Second World War left Europe with a sizeable quota of aircraft to be converted for commercial use. This, combined with the boastful claims of Wolverhampton Wanderers (who claimed to be the champions of Europe after friendly victories against the likes of Dynamo Moscow and Honved of Budapest) led to the creation of the European Cup. Real Madrid had won the first two competitions in 1956 and 1957, but in 1957/58, Manchester United loomed large on the horizon. Matt Busby’s team had won the Football League Championship in 1957, and going into the spring of 1958, they were strongly placed – in the quarter-finals of the European Cup against Red Star Belgrade, in fourth place in the League again and in the Fifth Round of the FA Cup, they also provided the possible backbone for a future England team, with several already established international players such as Duncan Edwards and Roger Byrne.
Having won the First Leg 2-1 at Old Trafford, they drew the Second Leg in Belgrade 3-3 to book their place in the Semi-Finals. On the return journey home, the plane made a scheduled stop-off to refuel in Munich – not uncommon in an age when passenger aircraft were considerably smaller than they are now. After refuelling, the plane attempted to take off twice in exceptionally, but was unable to get sufficient speed to take off. On the third attempt, the plane overshot the runway and crashed into the fence surrounding the airport, and then into an empty house. Initial reports blamed pilot error, stating that his failure to de-ice the wings of the plane prior to the take-off attempts, but it was later confirmed that the blame was most fairly to be lain at the door of fate. It was eventually confirmed that a build up of slush on the runway meant that there was no way that the plane could have reached a great enough speed for the plane to take off. Manchester United lost seven players, their coach, their secretary and their trainer. An eighth player, Duncan Edwards, died fifteen days after the crash. Eight journalists also died, along with one supporter, one steward, a travel agent and the co-pilot. Matt Busby’s condition was so bad that, as a Roman Catholic, he was read the last rites. He, however, survived, although he wouldn’t be fit to manage again until the start of the following season.
United’s match the next Saturday was cancelled, but they had to resume shortly afterwards with an FA Cup Fifth Round match against Sheffield Wednesday. With Busby in hospital in Germany, it was left to his assistant Jimmy Murphy (who had not travelled with the rest of the squad because he was coaching Wales in an international match against Israel) to take over the team. His patchwork team was made up of stop-gap signings such as Ernie Taylor from Blackpool and Stan Crowther from Aston Villa, alongside a mixture of youth and reserve team players lined up on a night of almost overwhelming emotion at Old Trafford. Indeed, one of the most haunting images of the Munich Air Disaster is the United programme that night – such was the extent to which no-one knew who would be playing that night, that the United team list was left blank, with empty spaces for spectators to fill in, should they choose to. United won the match 3-0, but their season would crumble away as an under-experienced squad won just won more League match that season, finishing in ninth place. In the European Cup, they lost the semi-final over two legs against Milan. In the FA Cup, they made Wembley and the final against Bolton Wanderers, but lost this match 2-0.
The Munich Air Disaster is emblematic of its era. This was the early days of mass flight, and accidents were more commonplace than they are now (the famous Torino team of of the immediate post-war years – “Il Grande Torino” – were killed in an air crash in 1949). The black and white Pathe News footage of the aftermath of the accident lends it a strange, faraway feel. Similarly, one could hardly imagine a football club allowing the sort of chance that was taken in attempting three take-offs in such appalling conditions as happened on that day. Footballers weren’t considered the valuable commodities that they are now in 1958. Munich did, to a point, form part of the myth that made Manchester United the club that it is today. The wave of sympathy that Munich elicited would bring in a generation of supporters that would be the beginning of the process that has resulted in them being the biggest football club in the world. The loss, however, was that of the whole of English football, so if you are asked to keep quiet for one minute either tomorrow night or on Saturday afternoon, there isn’t really much of an excuse if you don’t.