Munich was only ever supposed to be a refuelling point in Manchester United’s triumphant journey home from Belgrade. Six decades on from the tragic events at Munich-Riem Airport, however, the German city has become synonymous with the Reds. Behind the scenes, with no fanfare or self-congratulation, Bayern Munich have also become central to how the 1958 disaster is marked outside Manchester.
The shared grief of United and Red Star Belgrade is well known, as are the various forms of generosity put forward by huge clubs such as Real Madrid and Liverpool. Surreptitiously, Bayern have also proven invaluable allies in the perennial grieving process here at Old Trafford. Far beyond providing the opposition for a series of fundraising friendlies in the years following the crash, Bayern have become increasingly present in the ongoing commemorative process.
Hermann Memmel, a member of Bayern’s advisory board who also worked for the city of Munich, approached his club during the 1990s about the idea of permanently recognising the disaster. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, former Bayern chairman who occupied the role of vice-president at the time, was quick to acquiesce.
“I believe it is an obligation for Bayern to do it,” he says. “The idea was born that we should do something together with United, and we had a very good relationship with the club; at the time Martin Edwards, David Gill, Sir Alex and all these guys, we had a good friendship with them. We talked and discussed creating a monument here in Munich close to the crash location.
“I believe that what happened in 1958 was not given the proper grief for the first 30 years. After that period of 30 years we became much closer to Man United, to the English fans and our fans as well became closer with Manchester United fans. We always had a friendship and a good relationship. I believe the philosophy of both clubs, especially at that time, was very similar. Curiously, in 1999 we had that… let’s call it a shock for Bayern Munich when we lost the Champions League final in two minutes, but the relationship between the two clubs actually became closer than before.”
Events soon manifested in the 2004 unveiling of Manchesterplatz at the crash site in Trudering, with Bayern making a significant financial contribution to the creation of the permanent showcase. In 2015, a special exhibition detailing the crash was unveiled by Sir Bobby Charlton in Bayern’s club museum inside the Allianz Arena as the serial Bundesliga champions continued to step up their recognition.
Each anniversary of the disaster is marked by official representatives from both United and Bayern, plus supporters of both clubs. The Red Docs of Bayern ensure their attendance in numbers, while the Manchester Munich Memorial Foundation, a supporters-run registered UK Charity operating out of Manchester which preserves the legacy of the disaster, also works closely with the Bundesliga giants to coordinate the proceedings. In two days’ time, this year’s 65th anniversary will be marked by a delegation including Bayern President Herbert Hainer, and that level of commitment to respecting the disaster is one which is immensely appreciated in Manchester.
“Bayern Munich absolutely don’t have to do anything,” stresses Pat Burns, chairman of the MMMF. “But they truly are wonderful people. They’ve always shown a massive interest in how we mark the crash. The respect and the welcome that they give our fans and the warmth of the relationship really is fantastic. They send huge figures who take time to chat to our fans, sign autographs and pose for pictures. It’s such an important place for us and we thank them for looking after it for us and, like us, never forgetting the events of that day. The respect and love they show to our club really is second to none. It’s a really special relationship.
“It’s important that they feel the warmth and love coming back to them too, because it really does deserve public recognition. We do give back – we support children’s charities in Munich recommended by the mayor’s office and Bayern are aware of the help we give those children in, which is also a facet to the relationship, and we’ve supported fundraisers for their fans too – but primarily they do it because they are just marvellous people and we really can’t thank them enough.”
Around 1,000 United supporters are expected to attend Manchesterplatz for this year’s anniversary alongside a club delegation from Old Trafford, merging with substantial local numbers including representatives from Bayern, the Mayor of Munich and the Chairman of the board from the Recht der Isar hospital, while the son of Professor George Maurer, who looked after Sir Matt Busby and his players, and a member of the nursing team who worked alongside Maurer, will also be in attendance. A memorial service will follow the unveiling of a new memorial showcase at the site.
“It’s a very special pilgrimage site for us, it really is,” says Burns. “To any United fan, I’d say that if you can go once in your life, you should go, because it’s a really spiritual experience. We don’t want it to be mawkish or dramatic, it has to be respectful. We want to give people memories to cherish. You’re 100 yards away from the original wooden memorial where stood the house that the plane crashed into. We’ve got this wonderful square, the memorial showcase that Bayern have provided and it means so much to us as United supporters.”
Those sentiments are echoed by Rummenigge, who has sampled the unique atmosphere at Manchesterplatz many times since its unveiling. “I remember very well at the opening of the monument,” he says. “When we met many of the supporters of Man United, especially the older ones, it was a very emotional experience for all of us. I made a speech, the lord mayor of Munich made a speech, and you could feel how people are still living today with what happened, not only in Manchester but as well in Munich.
“More than 20 people died, and that was a big disaster for the city of Munich. The tragedy was a big shock for the people of this city, I was told – because I was very young at the time of the crash, just three years old, and I didn’t live in Munich at that time. We had a lot of respect for what happened. At that time, the relationship between the two countries was still strained by the Second World War, but I believe in the course of this tragic accident, Germany and England have come closer again. Many German people, many German doctors worked very hard to help the victims and survivors and that was also recognized by the British people.
“So, you can see at the ceremonies that they are very emotional occasions for everyone, seeing how people are still living with this nightmare. No one will ever forget the Munich Air Disaster.”
Nor will anybody at Manchester United ever forget the contribution made by Bayern Munich, a shining light when we reflect on our darkest hour.