On the 6th of February, 1958, the plane carrying the Manchester United squad back to Manchester after a European Cup tie in Belgrade landed at Munich airport for refuelling.
Prior to their arrival in Munich, United had played out a 3-3 draw with Red Star Belgrade in the second leg of the European Cup quarter finals, enough to secure a place in the semi finals for the second consecutive year. Managed by Matt Busby and affectionately called the “Busby Babes”, this United squad consisted of several young but incredibly gifted players- Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, Liam Whelan, Tommy Taylor, David Pegg, Geoff Bent, Bobby Charlton and the jewel in the crown, Duncan Edwards, all of them having come through the club’s youth system.
Questioned by many about the wisdom of fielding so many young players at the highest level, Busby simply responded, “If they are good enough, they are old enough”. His policy was vindicated as his enthusiastic United side won the league championship in the 1955-56 and 1956-57 seasons, with an average age of just 21 and 22 respectively. The vibrant, attacking football played by the Babes had captured the imagination of the British public, and their displays in the European Cup had won them admirers all over the continent. They had the world at their feet, and were set to dominate the domestic and European scene for years to come, with many believing they could go on to be one of the greatest football sides ever, such was their limitless potential.
Tragically, however, fate was not on their side.
After refuelling had been completed in Munich, take-off was abandoned on two occasions because of boost surging in the plane’s left engine. Snow had begun to fall, causing a layer of slush to develop at the end of the runway. On the third take-off attempt, the aircraft hit the slush and skid off the runway, ploughing through the fence surrounding the airport, before crashing into a house.
The crash was devastating; twenty three people were killed. Amongst them were flight crew members, journalists, members of the coaching staff and eight Manchester United players- club captain Roger Byrne, Geoff Bent, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor, Liam Whelan and Duncan Edwards, who died a fortnight later in hospital from his injuries. Busby’s side had been decimated, the crash prematurely ending the lives of youngsters who’d only just started their careers and yet promised so much; an incredibly cruel twist of fate.
With many wondering whether the club would fold after the events at Munich, assistant manager Jimmy Murphy (who had not travelled with the squad) took charge of United for the FA Cup tie against Sheffield Wednesday just a few days later, as Matt Busby was recovering in hospital from his injuries; he spent over two months in hospital, and was even read his Last Rites twice before pulling through.
Murphy’s threadbare squad consisted mostly of youth and reserve team players, with some additional signings; the match programme showed simply a blank space where the names of the United players should have been displayed. United would go on to win the game 3-0.
Harold Hardman, the United chairman had a simple and poignant message on the programme. Under the title “United will go on” Hardman said:
“Although we mourn our dead and grieve for our wounded, we believe that great days are not done for us… Manchester United will rise again.”
United would miraculously reach the final of the FA Cup that season, and their big day at Wembley coincided with Busby’s return to work. It would prove to be a bridge too far however, as they were defeated 2-0 by Bolton Wanderers. Having slumped to a ninth place finish in the league, Busby began the monumental task of rebuilding his ravaged side, with the memories of the players he’d lost spurring him on.
And he would succeed in the most incredible fashion.
Staying true to his philosophy of integrating youth team players into the first team, Busby would promote of George Best, Nobby Stiles, Brian Kidd and many others into the squad over the next few years, while bringing in the likes of Denis Law to work with Munich survivors Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes. United would go on to win the FA Cup in 1963, as well as winning the league championship in the 1964-65 and 1966-67 seasons, displaying the same vibrant, attacking football that was displayed by the Babes.
The crowning moment came on the 29th of May, 1968. Ten years after Munich, United would go on to win the European Cup, beating Benfica 4-1 in the final with Bobby Charlton scoring twice, and would go on to lift the trophy as captain. The trophy that had become something of an obsession for Busby was finally his; he had completed the task he set out to do, and had honoured the memories of those that had perished on that fateful day.
Victory at Wembley had capped one of the most incredible turnarounds in sports history; United had gone from a team ravaged by disaster that resulted in the death of eight members of their squad, to European champions in just ten years. The Babes’ may have gone but their spirit lives on, and it is this spirit that has provided United with a quality that has gone on to define the club ever since- resilience.
It was resilience that helped United defeat Sheffield Wednesday with a threadbare squad just days after the crash in Munich. It was resilience that helped United overcome Benfica in the 1968 European Cup final. It was resilience that allowed United overturn a thirteen point deficit to topple Newcastle United and claim the Premier League in 1996. It was resilience that helped United score twice in stoppage time to beat Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final.
Manchester United’s history is littered with examples of such instances where the club has been down and out, only to recover in the most emphatic fashion. The countless games that United have won during injury time are down to the fact that United do not know when they are beaten. This resilience, the spirit of the Babes, is engrained within the very fabric of the club; United teams simply do not give up, and the fans never stop believing, no matter what the circumstances, and the results have often been memorable.
It is this quality that separates United from every other team in the world, because Manchester United is more than just a football club- it is the embodiment of a never-say-die philosophy, who’s history shows us that no matter what life throws at us, no matter how far we fall, we can always bounce back. No other football (or for that matter, sports) team has faced so much adversity, yet responded to in such an incredible manner. It is a source of inspiration for us in our daily lives, something a lot of us can relate to during our struggles, which makes our connection to the club we support so much more personal in comparison to other clubs.
There will be several occasions in the near and distant future where the club will go through rough patches; sometimes we may even hit rock bottom, as we did last season. But make no mistake, no matter how grim the situation, you can be sure of one thing; Manchester United will always rise again.