Saturday 6th February marks the 58th anniversary of the biggest tragedy in Manchester United’s history – the Munich Air Disaster.
The fateful plane crash, which took place in Munich, 1958, claimed the lives of 23 people, including eight of manager Sir Matt Busby’s famous ‘Busby Babes’.
There were 17 United players in the crash, leaving nine survivors. However, two of those men sadly never played again – Johnny Berry and Jackie Blanchflower.
United were also without manager Sir Matt Busby. Although the Reds’ legendary manager survived from the events of Munich, he did not resume his duties as manager until the start of the following season due to his injuries. In his absence, his assistant Jimmy Murphy took charge of the team.
The Reds’ had been in Munich after a European away match with Red Star Belgrade, ending in a 3-3 draw. United’s last home outing before the disaster, however, was in a 2-0 win over Charlton Athletic in an FA Cup tie at Old Trafford.
Unbelievably, Bill Foulkes and Harry Gregg both returned for United’s first match after the disaster – another FA Cup tie less than three weeks after the crash. The Reds admirably defeated Sheffield Wednesday 3-0 in the match at Old Trafford, despite being without fourteen players because of the crash.
Gregg, who played in every match for the rest of the season, was keeping fellow survivor Ray Wood out of the team in the goalkeepers’ spot.
Four players made their United debuts in the match, all playing a key role in United’s remainder of the campaign. Stan Crowther signed from Aston Villa just an hour before making his debut and was given special permission to play in the competition, despite having represented Aston Villa earlier in the same season.
Double goalscorer Shay Brennan was another of those debutants, whilst Ernie Taylor and Mark Pearson also played for the club for the first time that day. The remaining five United players in the starting lineup had only made a combined 102 appearances for the club – highlighting the inexperience in this makeshift team.
The result put United into the FA Cup sixth round though and, despite the Reds’ league form understandably tailing off, Jimmy Murphy’s team continued to perform well in the FA Cup, especially considering the awful circumstances.
Sir Bobby Charlton returned for the sixth round tie on March 1st, away to West Bromwich Albion, where the Reds drew 2-2. Just five days later, United progressed with a 1-0 victory at Old Trafford in the replay, with another debutant, Bobby Harrop, starting the match.
Neither of the remaining injured players from the crash, Kenny Morgans and Dennis Viollet, returned in time for the semi-final with Fulham on March 22nd or the replay four days later, after another 2-2 draw in the original tie. Rather unsurprisingly, Sir Bobby Charlton scored both United goals in that match.
The replay was an eight goal thriller, encapsulating Manchester United’s long-held attacking traditions. The Reds came through with a 5-3 victory, thanks to a hat-trick from Alex Dawson, who had made just three appearances before the crash, and a goal each from new face Brennan and Charlton.
Despite the toll the Munich air disaster had taken, United had reached the FA Cup final in a manner embodying the values of the club, demonstrating a ‘never say die’ fighting spirit and a sign of success in adversity.
Dennis Viollet and Kenny Morgans had both returned from injury before the final on May 3rd, but only the former started the game. Fellow Munich survivors Harry Gregg, Bill Foulkes and now club ambassador Charlton also formed part of United’s starting eleven.
United’s dream of an FA Cup victory proved a step too far, as Bolton Wanderers took the trophy that day in a 2-0 win. But the football was merely a side story in this extraordinary journey, in which the Reds’ players had already established themselves as true heroes in the aftermath of such a horrific tragedy.