The following article is reproduced with the kind permission of John White, Branch Secretary of the Carryduff Manchester United Supporters Club. You can visit their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/carryduffmusc
Over the past week thousands of Manchester United fans across the globe have paid tribute to the 8 Busby Babes who lost their lives in the Munich Air Disaster, including many of my fellow Irish Reds.
I was not born at the time of the Munich Air Disaster but what happened that day is forever embedded in my memory and in my heart.
When I was growing up as a young boy in East Belfast during the 1960s, my late father, John McDermott White, was the first person to tell me the story of what happened that fateful day at Munich-Reim Airport, Munich, West Germany on 6 February 1958. At the time my Dad was working as a Fitter’s Helper in the world famous Harland & Wolff Shipyard in Belfast, home to the iconic but so tragically doomed RMS Titanic. My Dad told me stories about how grown men, hardened by the intensive labour of their jobs, burst into tears like a young boy standing outside the school gates on his first morning not wanting to leave the side, and comfort, of his mother. Tools were laid down and the thudding sound of rivets being hammered into the hulls of giant ocean liners accompanied by the crackling noise of a welding iron, fell silent for a sort while that fateful afternoon as men held their heads in their hands, some weeping inconsolably, some walking about in a state of disbelief, some frantically searching for a nearby radio to learn more about what had happened, some on their knees deep in prayer. When the whistle in the yard blew at 5.00pm to signal the end of the working day, somehow it did not sound as loud as normal, as if it was caught in the wind and silenced in memory of those on board BEA Flight No.609 Zulu Uniform from Belgrade to Manchester with a stop off in Munich for refuelling.
My Dad was a huge football fan, having played amateur football in his younger years, and as he and many of his co-workers, some 20,000 men from all across the city, streamed out of the gates of the shipyard, they had to pass The Oval, home to Glentoran Football Club, the famous “Cock & Hens” from East Belfast. Some stood on the foot bridge looking at the main stand, caps in hand, paying tribute to those who had perished on the snowy runway in West Germany. Many of the men were anxious to know if were there any survivors with a lot of the conversation focused on the two Northern Ireland internationals who were on the flight, Jackie Blanchflower and Harry Gregg. Thankfully, both players were named among the survivors.
John “Jackie” Blanchflower was born in East Belfast, a short distance away from The Oval. Jackie made his way across the Irish Sea aged just 16-years old in May 1949 to join Matt Busby’s band of talented young players scoured from every corner of the United Kingdom and Ireland. He was the first Irish Busby Babe. Jackie was born in the Bloomfield area of East Belfast on 7 March 1933 and was the younger brother of Danny Blanchflower who was at Aston Villa at the time and who would famously go on to captain Tottenham Hotspur to Double glory in 1960-61. He lived with his family at 7 Elmdale Street just off Bloomfield Avenue and later the family moved home to Grace Avenue just off the Bloomfield Road. The Blanchflower brothers attended Elmgrove Primary School, Beersbridge Road, Belfast. Prior to accepting Manchester United’s invitation to join their youth ranks Jackie played for Orangefield Star, a team managed by his mum, and Pitt Street Mission in the Belfast Boys’ League before moving on to Boyland FC in the city. The young kid from Belfast was spotted by Manchester United scout, Bob Harpur, whilst playing as a schoolboy international for Ireland who immediately recommended him to manager, Matt Busby. Harpur was one of a number of scouts who searched Ireland looking for the next Johnny Carey along with Bob Bishop (United’s Belfast-based scout) and Billy Behan (United’s Dublin-based scout). Jackie signed amateur forms with United upon his arrival in Manchester and a year later he turned professional. The young Irishman was well liked at Old Trafford with team captain and fellow countryman, Johnny Carey, always there to offer the kid from Belfast any advice he needed. After all Carey knew what it was like to be a teenager so far away from home with no family or close friends around you to pick you up when you were down or celebrate moments of happiness with you. Blanchflower made steady progress in United’s youth teams under the watchful eye as always of Messrs Busby & Murphy. Busby liked the fact that Jackie was a very versatile player who was comfortable in most positions on the pitch and although he initially played up front as an inside-forward for the team it was Busby who decided half-back was his strongest position. On 24 November 1951, 18-year old Jackie along with fellow Busby Babe, Roger Byrne (aged 20), was handed his senior debut for the club in a tough First Division away game at Liverpool. The pair followed in the footsteps of the first Busby Babe who broke into the first team, Eddie “Snake Hips” Colman who made his debut for United as a fresh faced 17-year old versus Sheffield Wednesday at home in Division One on 7 October 1950. Jackie played at half-back in place of Thomas Gibson whilst Byrne played at left back deputising for William Redman. Both debutants impressed helping United to a well-earned point from a 0-0 draw. However, it was Byrne who retained his place in the side for the next game and indeed for United’s last 24 League games of the 1951-52 season whilst Jackie lost his place in the team to Johnny Carey who had played at right-back in the Liverpool match but was switched back to half-back for the rest of the campaign. United ended the 1951-52 season as Champions of England, claiming the title by four points over the defending Champions, Tottenham Hotspur.
Jackie suffered horrendous injuries in Munich including a fractured pelvis, broken ribs, severe kidney damages, a severed arm and many other fractures to his battered body. Jackie almost missed the trip to Belgrade and was only declared fit the day before the team set off and travelled as back-up to Mark Jones. Nicknamed “Twiggy” by his fellow Busby Babes, for his versatility, he won English First Division Championship winners’ medals with United in 1955-56 & 1956-57. Post the Munich Air Disaster, Jackie attempted to make a comeback but he failed to make a full recovery. He was advised by doctors never to kick a ball again because of fears that he would damage his kidney and, a year later, he retired from football. He was only 24 years old and had played 117 times for United scoring 27 goals, and was capped 12 times by Northern Ireland, scoring 1 goal. Sadly, Jackie passed away on 2 September 1998.
Harry also survived the plane crash and performed heroics at Munich. Amid the wreckage and pandemonium Harry clambered out of a hole in the fuselage and repeatedly returned to the burning aircraft and on one visit he dragged fellow United players, Bobby Charlton, Dennis Viollet and his close friend and countryman, Jackie Blanchflower, from the plane. He also saved Vera Lukic, the pregnant wife of a Yugoslav diplomat and her daughter, Vesna, as well as his badly-injured manager Matt Busby. Harry risked his life with his rescue heroics as the burning fuselage could have exploded at any time. Bill Foulkes also performed heroics in rescuing passengers from the wreck. Vera later gave birth to a baby boy whom she called Zoran. When I was organising Harry’s Testimonial Match in Belfast on 15 May 2012, I asked Sir Alex Ferguson, who brought his Manchester United side over to Belfast to play an Irish Premier League Select at Windsor Park, Belfast for his memories of Harry to place in the Match Programme. Here is what The Boss said:
Harry Gregg – My Hero
It was with the greatest pleasure that I immediately accepted an invitation to bring Manchester United to Belfast and play in a Testimonial Match for Harry Gregg.
We received the request on 7th January 2012 from The George Best Carryduff Manchester United Supporters Club and 12 days later the Board met and unanimously gave their seal of approval. All too often the word Legend is used in football but more often than not the word is merely used to describe a player who left an indelible mark on the world of football. Harry Gregg’s exploits for Manchester United and Northern Ireland, voted the best goalkeeper in the world at the 1958 World Cup Finals in Sweden, are beyond legendary and his place in the illustrious history of Manchester United football Club is enshrined. And so I am absolutely delighted to bring my Manchester United side to Windsor Park, Belfast this evening to honour Harry the footballer but much more importantly than that, to honour Harry the true gentleman and a true hero to many Manchester United fans in word and deed.
I was a 16-year old schoolboy playing for Drumchapel Amateurs, and training every Thursday night with Benburb Juniors, when news of the Munich Air Disaster became known. I made my way to training at Benburb and when I got there I saw the senior players crying. It was at that moment I realised the seriousness of the disaster. When I got home my Dad was staring into the fire, everyone was numb with the shock. My brother, Martin, and I went to our bedroom and it was quiet place in our house at the time. Over the course of the next two days the full extent of the tragedy unfolded with the local paper listing the names of the people who lost their lives in the disaster including 7 Busby Babes who died instantly: club captain Roger Byrne, Geoff Bent, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Ireland’s own Liam Whelan. Duncan Edwards became the eighth Busby Babe to die when he lost his brave battle for life 15 days later. Harry Gregg was on the flight and after regaining consciousness he felt the blood trickling down his face but was too afraid to put his hand up to his head thinking that part of it may be hanging off. Upon seeing a shaft of light he kicked a hole wide enough to crawl through and make his way on the snowy runway. Most mere mortals would have run for their lives but Harry Gregg does not fall into this category of man. Despite his own injuries, and warnings not to go anywhere near the burning fuselage, Harry made his way into the smoldering aircraft time and time looking for fellow survivors who were in need of help. Harry’s unselfish bravery in putting his own life on the line to save others, including a pregnant Mrs Vera Lukic (the wife of a Yugoslavian diplomat) and her daughter, Vesna, his fellow Northern Ireland international and best friend, Jackie Blanchflower, rightfully earned him the title of “The Hero of Munich.”
I first met Harry when I was the manager of Aberdeen. It was near the end of the 1980-81 season and Harry was a coach at Manchester United under manager Dave Sexton. We had invited United to participate in a 1981-82 pre-season Summer Tournament at Pittodrie which also included Southampton and West Ham United. Harry was asked by Martin Edwards, Chairman of Manchester United at the time, to carry out a sort of reconnaissance trip ahead of the tournament. Harry was, and to this day, remains an absolute gentleman and the consummate professional. We had a long chat about numerous subjects with the exception of The Munich Air Disaster which I would have liked to have asked him about but dared not to given the level of respect I had for him. Nowadays Harry will jokingly tell you that he was sent to Aberdeen to suss me out as a replacement for Dave Sexton who regrettably was sacked at the end of the 1980-81 season. However, I still had so much more I wanted to achieve at Aberdeen and very much doubt if it would have been the right time to move south of the border had the opportunity presented itself. Needless to say when Manchester United did approach me in November 1986 I had no hesitation in accepting the job as the manager of the greatest football club in the world.
Harry Gregg has always been a most reluctant hero and the description does not sit comfortably for him on his big broad Irish shoulders. I will forever remember what Harry said when he went back to Munich on the 50th anniversary of the disaster and met Zoran Lukic (the little boy who was in his Mum’s womb at the time of the plane crash). Zoran looked at Harry and said: “I have always wanted this moment, to look into your face and say to you, ‘thank you’. I was the third passenger you saved, but, at the time, you were not to know that.” Typically Harry replied: “You’ve nothing to thank me for. I did what had to be done without thinking about it. “I’ve lived with being called a hero but I’m not really a hero. Heroes are people who do brave things knowing the consequences of their actions. That day, I had no idea what I was doing.”
Harry once said that the Munich Air Disaster changed Manchester United from a football club into an institution. Few will disagree with Harry’s view and even fewer will disagree with the part a young man from Tobermore, Northern Ireland played in the aura and mystique which resulted in the worldwide following that Manchester United enjoys today. If I was asked to describe Harry I would call upon the words from a beautiful poem by Nicola Burkett:
A hero thinks of others before they think of themselves
A hero will die to protect
A hero can be of any age, any colour
A hero can be man, woman or child
A hero is courageous, loving and brave
A hero will never complain
A hero can be made in one act of compassion
Or years of tender loving care
Some heroes are remembered, whilst many are left forgotten
Heroes are angels in disguise, saving precious innocent lives
Harry for this 16-year old boy from Govan you were and remain my Hero. I wish you and your family a most enjoyable evening and on behalf of Manchester United Football Club, thank you for the part you personally played in making Manchester United the greatest football club in the world.
Sir Alex Ferguson CBE
Manager, Manchester United
When I was researching my book, “Irish Devils: The Official Story of Manchester United and the Irish,” published by Simon & Schuster (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Irish-Devils-Official-Manchester-United/dp/0857206451) I spoke to many fellow Irish Reds, some of whom spoke about the Munich Air Disaster.
John Conran, is the Chairman and a co-founder member of Clonmel Manchester United Supporters’ Club. Clonmel is the county town of South Tipperary in the Republic of Ireland. Football has been a major sport in Clonmel since the turn of the 20th century with various clubs representing Clonmel down through the years. Former Manchester United and Republic of Ireland full-back, Shay Brennan, once managed Clonmel Town Football Club. John remembers as a child, back in the 1950s, long before television, his father, a Manchester United fan, standing in front of the old Pye radio listening to the football results on the BBC’s Sports Report programme every Saturday. John said: “The radio was operated by battery and it was my job to take it to the local Post Office each Friday to have it charged. The radio valves took about five minutes to warm up, and the reception was totally dependent on weather conditions. I can still remember the music played just before the radio announcer’s voice was heard reading out the football results from the four English Leagues at 500pm. That was my introduction to United. My friends supported Liverpool, Leeds United and Nottingham Forest but I was a United man just like my Dad. The Munich Air Disaster caused widespread shock at the time in Clonmel and all across County Tipperary, and got widespread coverage in the papers and on radio. The only other event in my lifetime that caused the same shock and received similar coverage was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas , USA on 22nd November 1963. The day after President Kennedy was assassinated United lost 1-0 to Liverpool at Old Trafford in the First Division, the first and last time United took a back seat in my life in terms of me wanting to know how my team had done.”
Noel Flannery was born in January 1974 and grew up in the Moyard area of West Belfast. “When I was a young boy Glasgow Celtic and Liverpool were the teams everyone in his street supported. I knew after reading up on Manchester United and watching videos of the team playing there was only one team for me. I even managed to turn a friend of mine who was a Liverpool supporter into a devoted United fan. My friend, like me aged 11 years old, came into my house one day and my father had just bought the history of Manchester United on VHS video. After watching the tape, and in particular the section on the Munich Disaster and George Best, my friend immediately changed from being a Scouse Red to a United Red. Can you ever imagine something like this happening today when the rivalry that exists between these two Lancashire clubs is so intense?” said Noel. Without question the Munich Air Disaster impacted immensely on the people of Ireland and here we have a prime example of the outpouring of sympathy for Manchester United post the tragedy when a Belfast kid who is a Liverpool fan in the mid-1980s, a time when the Merseyside club were at the peak of their powers, but is so saddened about what he sees unfold before his eyes on the TV screen that he changes his allegiance from Liverpool to United.
I asked one of the oldest members of The George Best Carryduff Manchester United Supporters’ Club, William John Pollock Angus, what he remembered about the Munich Air Disaster. “I was born in 1938 and attended Groomsport Primary School in County Down before going to Central Secondary School in Bangor, County Down. The majority of people worked in the gas works in Bangor or at the Harland & Wolff Shipyard in Belfast. I was interested in football from an early age and kicked a ball about with my mates on the streets near our homes during the Second World War. When I got older, around my teens, I started to take an active interest in my local football team, Bangor Football Club. According to local folklore Bangor FC was founded in 1914 just after the outbreak of the First World War. When war was declared most of the young men from the Bangor area enlisted in the British Army which resulted in the two leading junior football teams in the town, Bangor Rangers and Clifton Amateurs, folding. However, two local men, Bob Lindsay and Jimmy Savage, were anxious to see football played in the town and it is said that they came up with the idea to form Bangor Football Club whilst out for a row one day in the bay. I can remember an outstanding player called Albert Corry who was what I would call ‘an old school outstanding centre-half.’ In my opinion Albert could have made it across the water. I can still recall to this very day where I was when the news of the Munich Air Disaster reached my young ears. I was in the store room of the gas works when the news of the air disaster came in. I could not believe what I was hearing at first but then the news on the radio and in the newspapers the following day told us all what we did not want to hear; a number of the famous Busby Babes had lost their lives in a plane crash at Munich Airport on their way home from playing Red Star Belgrade the previous evening. I was absolutely devastated and in many ways I was in total disbelief. I still regard Duncan Edwards as one of the greatest players I have ever seen. Duncan was so powerful and he played the game as if he was having a kick-about with his mates in someone’s back garden. Although I have always supported Bangor FC, I was also a very keen follower of Manchester United from an early age. I still remember reading in the local newspaper about Harry Gregg, that famous Northern Ireland international goalkeeper, joining Manchester United from Doncaster Rovers in December 1957. He was a great goalkeeper. And I will never forget the first time I saw Manchester United play. It was 28th October 1972, versus Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford in what used to be the old First Division. United were a struggling team at the time and had only won two of their opening fourteen League games under their Irish manager, Frank O’Farrell. However, we still had ‘The Trinity’ of Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and Geordie Best. I could not believe my luck when the team news was read out across the tannoy system and the stadium announcer called out the names of Charlton, Law and Best. My first game and three of the greatest footballers ever to grace the game of football were playing for United in it. We couldn’t lose I thought; today would be the start of us regaining our form and moving up the table away from the relegation zone. Wrong! Spurs thumped us 4-1 with Bobby scoring our only goal. I have been back to Old Trafford, or should I say ‘The Theatre of Dreams’ many times since and seen many wonderfully gifted players wear the famous red shirt of Manchester United but for me, we will never have another trio like Charlton, Law and Bestie.”
I also spoke to Chris Ryder, a former journalist with The Sunday Times, about his recollection of the Munich Air Disaster and Chris told me: “On the afternoon of 6 February 1958, I recall arriving home from school and soon afterwards hearing on the radio that the United plane had crashed at Munich. As was my habit I was reading that days papers about the match in Belgrade and waiting anxiously for the main news at 6.00pm for more details. There was no rolling news in those days and only periodic bulletins. There were still only sketchy details later and so I recall getting up very early the next morning and cycling to Adair’s news agency in Church Square, Banbridge to get the morning papers which were, of course, filled with detail about the incident. I started a scrapbook and over the succeeding days remember waiting for news of the injured players and about Matt Busby’s fight for life. We did not then have a television but our neighbours did and I also remember Jimmy Murphy’s efforts to rebuild a team and play in the emotion laden matches that followed, which I recall were televised. The fact that Harry Gregg had survived and was being praised for his heroism thrilled and moved me greatly. My support for United was cemented even more by the events that followed.”
Matt Busby once said: “I never wanted Manchester United to be second to anybody. Only the best would be good enough.”
The seven Busby Babes killed instantly in the crash were: Geoff Bent aged 25, Roger Byrne the Manchester United captain aged 29, Eddie Colman aged 21, Mark Jones aged 24, David Pegg aged 22, Tommy Taylor aged 26 and Ireland’s Liam “Billy” Whelan aged 22. Walter Crickmere, the Club Secretary, first team trainer Tom Curry and coach, Bert Whalley lost their lives in the disaster. Eight of the nine journalists on the flight (Alf Clarke, Don Davies, George Follows, Tom Jackson, Archie Ledbrooke, Henry Rose, Frank Swift and Eric Thompson) perished in the crash as did Tommy Cable, a member of the aircrew, Bela Mikos the travel agent who organised the trip, Willie Satinoff a Manchester United fan and a personal friend of Matt Busby and two other passengers.
Two more people died at the hospital from their injuries, Duncan Edwards who lost his brave battle for life 15 days after the plane crash and Captain Raymet who died on 28 February 1958, resulting in a total of 23 fatalities, 8 of them Manchester United players, with 21 survivors.
The subsequent investigation into the plane crash cited the cause of the accident to be a build-up of snow on the runway which had caused the aircraft to lose speed and crash. What happened in Munich was the most tragic day English football had ever witnessed and followed the 1949 Superga Air Disaster in which the entire Torino team died. The world reported the tragedy of Munich, flags were flown at half-mast, a minute’s silence was held before the next round of English League games and players wore black armbands in memory of those who perished in the disaster.
However, whereas the world could mourn the loss of 8 Busby Babes, only Manchester United fans, including its Irish Reds, could celebrate them.
As for the Busby Babes and my Mum & Dad, you will always forever be in my heart.