The significance of this date needs no explanation to anyone who is a Manchester United fan. In fact, most British football fans would recognize this date in an instant. On this day, sixty years ago, a thrilling, young, fearless, British team was ripped to shreds, in an event which has few parallels in the sporting world; perhaps only the recent tragedy which befell Chapecoense, the Brazilian team, comes close. Munich will always be poignant for all the right reasons; the youthful promise cruelly cut short, the burden on the survivors, most notably Sir Matt Busby, to carry on, and the real sense of loss felt by the whole of Manchester, and indeed Britain. Footballers were not the preening, endorsement-heavy superstars of today; they were quite literally one of the “lads”, local boys who had the chance to fulfil their dreams, and still be able to mingle with the supporters after a game. It was truly felt as if some of their own had been lost, and that only served to multiply the grief.
While Munich will always be remembered, it is important for the current generation of footballer and supporter to understand why. Manchester United have done their bit, with the Munich tunnel at Old Trafford as well as impeccably-observed ceremonies on the home matchday closest to the anniversary, as well as the day of the disaster itself. However, it does feel as if football’s revolving-door does not allow players enough time to fully appreciate the gravity of what occurred that night. Sir Bobby Charlton, one of only two Munich survivors alive today, makes it a point to try and talk to the squad around this time of the year, to try and help them understand why Munich will always be inextricably linked to Manchester United’s history. Sir Bobby was miraculously left unhurt after the crash, although he has spoken of the enormous burden he has carried for the rest of his life. Goalkeeper Harry Gregg, the other remaining survivor, was the one pulling people from the doomed plane, whether dead or alive he knew not at that time. The modern footballer will (hopefully) never come close to experiencing such a situation; yet it is important for them, especially Manchester United footballers, to understand where their club rose from.
Which brings me to the supporters. While most United fans acknowledge the importance of this date in the club’s history, there are a sizeable minority, who on social media at least, have yet to fully grasp the nuances behind the outpouring of feeling that occurs every year. These are fans who are not from Britain; indeed they will probably never make it to a United game in their lifetime. However, that is no impediment to understanding; I live thousands of miles away from Manchester, and yet my spine tingled during the 50th anniversary of the disaster, ten years ago, when I vividly remember watching both United and City fans pay their respects to the team, before United walked out in kits reminiscent of those the Busby Babes would have worn. It is some of these younger, farther fans who need to understand the significance of this event; that all that they celebrate about this club was founded on its response to that night. United fans celebrate the fact that the club has won three European Cups; the first of them, won in 1968, was cathartic for the club, as well as Sir Matt, who had been wracked with guilt that it was his insistence to play in Europe, despite the possibility of a Football Association penalty, that prompted the club to arrange for a chartered plane so that the team could make it back in time for their league fixture. Sir Bobby was in that team, perhaps fittingly scoring a brace on the night, as was Bill Foulkes, another survivor. It marked the culmination of the rebuilding job that Sir Matt and the club had done in ten years, as a new generation of Busby Babes achieved what their predecessors had set out to do a decade ago, becoming the first English team to win the European Cup.
United’s fans have had it good over the last couple of decades; certainly during Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign. However, it all pales into insignificance when one sees where it all started. This may help explain the almost fanatical zeal for the club’s own players, from its academy, to do well; it was a bunch of kids from the academy whom Sir Matt was moulding into one of the best teams in the country – his Babes, whose lives were cut short. It is the reason why there is a statue of the great man outside Old Trafford, and why a part of the club’s training complex is called the Jimmy Murphy Centre, after United’s assistant manager at the time, who was responsible for a number of the young players coming through, as well as taking charge of the team while Sir Matt fought for his life in hospital.
Football fans have notoriously short memories; however, this needs to be remembered. Supporters of all colours and teams need to recognize that at its heart, these were just people, in some cases kids, going out to play a game that they loved, only for some of them to never return. They will not be forgotten; the flowers of Manchester.