The 50th anniversary of the Munich disaster which decimated the Busby Babes has drawn to a close… after days of build-up in newspapers, magazines and the television. A period of silence was observed before England’s friendly against Switzerland at Wembley.
It was likewise at Old Trafford, and the silence was timed to coincide with the moment of the crash. Club chaplain, Reverend John Boyers, led the memorial, followed by speeches from Bobby Charlton, Harry Gregg and Prince Charles.
While the Old Trafford’s Manchester Suite and Sir Matt Busby Way was jam-packed with fans, the centrepiece was the unveiling of a free, permanent exhibition of the Busby Babes in the South Stand tunnel, now renamed the Munich Tunnel.
Over at Germany, a simultaneous service at the crash site, conducted by an English-speaking Catholic priest, took place. A group of 400 fans left scarves and hung flags at the site. The names of the dead were read out, while the lyrics of The Flowers of Manchester played in the background. Bayern Munich chairman Karl Heinz Rummenigge was among those to address the mourners.
The home games of Northern Ireland and Wales also paid tribute. On Sunday, there will be another minute’s silence prior to United’s home Premier League game against Manchester City. City, whose former goalkeeper Frank Swift was killed in the crash while working as a journalist. Both teams will wear special kits (without sponsors) as a sign of respect.
It is fair to say that this disaster not only affected Manchester United but changed the landscape of English football and society. Football was until then a working class game and it was far from developing into the magnitude of a national sport - however, the aircrash galvanized friends and foes alike. Even neutrals who had no interest in soccer began following the fortunes of United and willed them to win.
The Busby Babes, nicknamed after manager Matt Busby and because they were so young (in their early twenties), brought United the championships in England in 1956 and 1957. They were on the brink of superstardom by being first team to conquer Europe.
However, fate dealt a cruel hand on 6th February 1958. The team had drawn 3-3 with Red Star Belgrade to reach the European Cup’s semi-finals. While on a refueling stop in Germany, the British European Airways flight 609 crashed on its third attempt to take off from a slush covered runway at Munich Airport. In all, 23 people were killed in the crash.
If the Busby Babes had gone on to achieve success in Europe, it will have been the glory of Manchester United alone. Certainly, it will not have captured the world’s imagination and catapulted United into one of the most supported clubs today. A blessing in disguise, if you want.
The spirit of Matt Busby lives on. It symbolizes fortitude in the face of harsh adversity. Here was a man who was badly injured and twice given the last rites but he recovered and went on to rebuild the team. In 1968 United became the first English club to win the European Cup. They also won the FA Cup five years after the crash and the league title in 1965 and 1967.
What makes Busby so special, to create a championship team twice in a row, the second time almost starting from ground zero?
Nobby Stiles, an Old Trafford apprentice at the time of the crash, recalled Busby’s crowning glory at Wembley in 1968. “He told us to go out and play and entertain. That’s how we were brought up. It’s the Manchester United way,” said Stiles.
The focus on youth is the right direction for an average footballing club to elevate into the stratosphere of elites. Not the sugar daddy style of injecting endless amount of money to buy success. Bobby Charlton said: “Busby’s ambition was to get young players, get local players if he possibly could, because he wanted to instil in them something which was the introduction of the Busby Babes.
“He played 16 and 17-year-old players in the hardest league in the world and everyone thought he was stupid. But he wasn’t stupid.”
Charlton himself is a living legend, so when he says something, we listen. He survived the crash, went on to win the World Cup with England in 1966 and the European Cup with United in 1968. Having been named European footballer of the year in 1966, he was knighted and is arguably England’s most famous footballer.
Alex Ferguson has built several teams during his reign at Manchester United and his current crop comprising Rooney, Tevez, Ronaldo, Anderson, Nani, Carrick and Evra is his “best team ever.” Certainly, the club is in safe hands and the future is bright.
The same goes for Arsene Wenger where his policy of signing unknown players at a young age into the academy and then developing them into brilliant all-rounders has laid the foundation for Arsenal to be title challengers for many seasons to come. Not to forget healthy finances too. Only regret is the United Nations environment under Wenger, and few, if any, England players have benefited.
While we reminisce about the loss of the cream de la crop, Matt Busby’s legacy is left for posterity. Premier League clubs which depend on external funds for the brief fling with success should reflect on the essence of what makes a successful club. Go back to the basics and focus on the youth. It may be a long process before rewards are reaped but it will much more satisfying and long-lasting.