The Flowers of Manchester: 66 Years Later

At 15:04 on the 6th February 1958, disaster struck in Munich. Having defeated Red Star Belgrade in modern-day Serbia, Manchester United had progressed to the semifinals of the European Cup – but celebrations would swiftly turn into a nationwide outpouring of grief.

One cold and bitter Thursday in Munich, Germany

Wednesday had seen Manchester United partake in the second leg of their European Cup quarterfinal. The Red Devils had secured a slender 2-1 victory at Old Trafford in the first leg, but would be forced to settle for a 3-3 draw in Belgrade against an impressive Red Star outfit.

Bobby Charlton netted two goals on the half-hour mark, after Dennis Viollet’s early strike in the 3rd minute. Despite conceding thrice, the Red Devils had still performed well enough to set up a mouthwatering semifinal tie with AC Milan – with the Italian side having seen off Borussia Dortmund.

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Matt Busby’s boys were flying, returning from Belgrade

After a lengthy return trip from Dukla Prague in the round-of-sixteen was thought to contribute to a subpar 3-3 draw with Birmingham City just days later, Manchester United made the decision to charter a British European Airways jet for their quarterfinal tie.

It seemed the logical choice – adverse weather conditions during their trip home from Prague had seen the Red Devils diverted via Amsterdam, the Hook of Holland and finally Harwich before they were able to board a train back to Manchester.

Three times they tried to take off, and twice turned back again

But while their Dukla Prague trip had been impacted by foggy conditions, their return journey from Belgrade would be no easier. With takeoff from Belgrade delayed by an hour after Johnny Berry mislaid his passport, the Manchester United squad landed in Munich at 13:15 to refuel.

64 minutes after touching down in Germany, the control tower at Munich-Riem Airport gave clearance for the British European Airways jet to take off – but after Captain James Thain noticed an abnormal engine sound while accelerating, the attempt was abandoned.

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A second attempt just minutes later also failed after the plane began to accelerate excessively, with the players disembarked and sent to retreat in the airport lounge. By this time, the snowy conditions had worsened – but keen to avoid unnecessary delays, Captain Thain asked his passengers to return to the aircraft 15 minutes later.

There was slush upon that runaway and the aircraft never rose

With Captain Thain seeking to avoid an overnight stay in Munich, he suggested a more gradual acceleration, which would be feasible given the airport’s lengthy runway. At 14:59, takeoff clearance was given for a third time, with the plane beginning to slowly accelerate down the runway four minutes later.

But the snow on the runway had turned to slush – and while Captain Thain called out V1 to signal that it was no longer safe to abort takeoff, the plane’s velocity rapidly decreased and never reached the minimum required to become airborne.

Ultimately, the aircraft crashed through a fence at the end of the runway and skidded across a road before crashing into a family home. Captain Thain, remarkably, remained conscious throughout – overseeing the evacuation of many onboard.

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Eight men will never play again, who met destruction there

Manchester United, under the guidance of Sir Matt Busby, had established themselves as England’s finest football team in the months and years preceding the Munich Air Disaster. That status would be thrown into question though, as seven of the Busby Babes met destruction there at the end of the runway.

Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Billy Whelan all passed away at the scene of the accident, with Duncan Edwards succumbing to his injuries in hospital a little over two weeks later.

They were, unfortunately, not the only casualties. Three members of club staff – Walter Crickmer, Tom Curry and Bert Whalley – also passed away, in addition to two journalists. Frank Swift and Donny Davies both travelled with the club, having hung up their boots to write about football instead.

Captain Kenneth Rayment, who had been serving as Captain Thain’s co-pilot on the flight, died in hospital five weeks after the crash after sustaining serious brain damage.

But in circumstances that would define Manchester United’s future legacy, a number of those onboard did go onto make remarkable recoveries. After spending a lengthy spell in hospital that saw him fall into a deep depression and consider giving up on football, Sir Matt Busby returned to the touchlines to hone his side into one of Europe’s finest.

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While Johnny Berry and Jackie Blanchflower were never able to play again, Sir Bobby Charlton, Bill Foulkes, Harry Gregg, Kenny Morgans, Albert Scanlon, Dennis Viollet and Ray Wood all continued their careers – cementing their status as truly remarkable individuals that formed part of an even greater side.

The flowers of English football, the flowers of Manchester

And so, 66 years on from that fateful day in Munich, Sir Matt Busby and his beloved Busby Babes are still recognised as one of the defining chapters of Manchester United’s history. Testament to the squad’s character, they did in fact go on to play their European Cup semifinal just three months after the Air Disaster – defeating AC Milan at Old Trafford before succumbing to a hefty loss at the San Siro.

Since the last anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster, the footballing community has bid sorrow farewells to Sir Bobby Charlton, who passed away in October 2023 at the age of 86. Together with his former teammates, he continues to be honoured at Old Trafford and across the wider footballing world.

Oh, England’s finest football team – its record truly great

Its proud successes mocked by a cruel turn of fate

Eight men will never play again, who met destruction there

The flowers of English football, the flowers of Manchester