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
On 21 February 1958, Duncan Edwards lost his brave battle for life.
On 12 September 1956, Manchester United became the first English side to play a competitive game in Europe, a Preliminary First Round Leg versus RSC Anderlecht. United won the tie 2-0 (scorers: Dennis Viollet and Tommy Taylor) at Stade Émile Versé Stadium, Anderlecht, Brussels, Belgium. The team that made history that evening lined-up as follows: Ray Wood, Bill Foulkes, Roger Byrne (captain), Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, Jackie Blanchflower, Johnny Berry, Liam Whelan, David Pegg, Dennis Viollet and Tommy Taylor. Only Wood, Berry, and Taylor had not come off the conveyor belt of talent at Old Trafford under the watchful eye of their mentor, Jimmy Murphy. During the 1956-57 season, several of Busby’s young stars, notably Bobby Charlton and Duncan Edwards, were encouraged by their manager to follow in his footsteps and do their National Service. Two former MUJAC players, Charlton 19 and Edwards 20, like many professional footballers from the Midlands and north-west, were posted to Nesscliffe, Shropshire and played for the Nesscliffe Army Royal Army Ordnance Corps football team.
Prior to the 60th anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster Derek Thorpe, who served with the Kings Shropshire Light Infantry at Copthorne Barracks, Shrewsbury was asked about his memories of the famous United pair when he played against them. “Because they were just up the road from us, we would play each other a lot. They were a cut above the rest. They had a lot of players from different clubs, there was a player from Everton, and another one from Blackpool,” said Derek who himself was a nippy winger. Derek recalled one game in particular between the two army sides when his sergeant-major warned his team that the Nesscliffe lads had a few tasty players in their side. Not long into the game Derek was bearing down on goal when he was dispossessed by a strapping defender. Derek immediately set about paying his opponent back saying: “He tackled me early on, and I thought ‘I’ll get have you next time’. I didn’t half know about, I landed about two yards further up the pitch than I did the first time.” The player was none other than Edwards who was already a leading figure in the United side and had been capped by England three times. Derek said he was in total awe of the power, skill and speed of the Busby Babe. “Him and Bobby Charlton were both in the same team, and they really stood out. I thought Duncan Edwards was better than Bobby Charlton, and I later read that Bobby Charlton also thought he was. They were such great lads. Duncan was from Dudley, and I was from Dawley, so the lingo was pretty similar. After he had knocked me flying with his tackle, he came over to me, and said ‘you all right, kid?'”
Brian Griffiths who played at full back for Shrewsbury Town also played for the Nesscliffe Army Royal Army Ordnance Corps football team. Charlton arrived at the Nesscliffe depot shortly after Brian and the pair were in the same platoon, 3 Platoon, and they shared the same platoon billet. “Duncan was already there. He was a PTI, a physical training instructor. He was a corporal. We had a good old natter and he explained everything to us. I knew him as Dunc. He was a smashing lad. He was big, and so gentle, and yet when he said something, you automatically did it. He was not aggressive, and his football capabilities were just unbelievable,” said Brian. The platoon trained at Shropshire Racecourse, Monkmoor Road, Shrewsbury. “We would do the normal training the soldiers did – marching, ammunition and so on – and then after that the footballers would do the football training. We were all mates and it was a good atmosphere,” said Brian. Charlton played at inside forward or centre forward but Brian recalls that it took Edwards to get the best out of his United teammate. “Bobby does owe Dunc quite a lot. Over the time I knew him he improved to A1. He did not use his body, like a defender does. He was always looking to try and pass people, even if they had the ball. He had no aggression – we used to say to him: ‘Bloody get in!,’” added Brian.
Derek was impressed with how the Busby Babes slotted in very easily to army life, and got on with all the other soldiers during their Shropshire army days. “They were great lads, they really were. You could talk to them easily, it was just normal army chat. At one point I was injured, and I finished up in the medical centre at Nesscliffe, and I remember Duncan and Bobby Charlton coming to visit me. They mucked in with everything and they never thought they were any higher than anybody else,” added Derek. It was during his time a Nesscliffe that Charlton broke into the United first team five days short of his 19th birthday. On 6 October 1956, Busby handed him his debut and Charlton repaid the faith his manager had placed in him by scoring twice in a 4-2 First Division win over Charlton Athletic at Old Trafford. The team that day included 9 players who had all progressed through MUJAC: Bill Foulkes, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, Liam Whelan, David Pegg, Dennis Viollet, Geoff Bent, Wilf McGuinness and Charlton. Goalkeeper Ray Wood and outside-right Johnny Berry also played in the game.
In his autobiography, “My Manchester United Years,” Bobby wrote about how frustrated he was with the way his military service was hindering his progress in the United first team and how he found an ally in his company sergeant-major “Chalky” White. “He was a great football fan, had a car and was eager to make a deal. You get the tickets, Bobby, and I’ll get you the leave passes and drive you up to Manchester whenever United have a home game in the European Cup,” recalled Bobby. Duncan finished his National Service in 1957 and Bobby left Nesscliffe in 1958.
The 1957-58 season witnessed the influx into the first team of the greatest youth talent ever produced by the club and which would not be equaled for another 38 years. This prodigious group of young players were affectionately nicknamed the Busby Babes. On the opening day of the 1957-58 season, United the reigning First Division Champions and Champions in 1955-56, opened the defence of their crown with a 3-0 away win over Leicester City. The team that day lined-up as follows: Ray Wood, Bill Foulkes, Roger Byrne (captain), Eddie Colman, Jackie Blanchflower, Duncan Edwards, Johnny Berry, Liam Whelan, Tommy Taylor, Dennis Viollet and David Pegg. Wood was purchased from Darlington in 1950, Foulkes signed as a trainee in March 1950 aged 18, Byrne signed as a trainee in 1949 aged 19, Colman signed as a trainee in 1952 aged 15, Blanchflower signed as a trainee in May 1949 aged 15, Edwards signed as a trainee in May 1952 aged 15, Johnny Berry was signed from Birmingham City in August 1951, Liam Whelan signed as a trainee in May 1953 aged 18, Tommy Taylor was signed from Barnsley in March 1953, Viollet signed as a trainee in 1949 aged 16 and Pegg signed as a trainee in September 1950 aged 15. With 8 homegrown Busby Babes in the side, United beat Leicester City 3-0 at Old Trafford thanks to a hat-trick from Whelan. Two other famous Busby Babes were part of the United squad in season 1957-58 and had already made the breakthrough into the first team but were injured for the curtain raiser to the season: Bobby Charlton (signed as a trainee in January 1953 aged 15) and Mark Jones (signed as a trainee in June 1948 aged 15).
When Busby promoted Bobby Charlton from the club’s Under-18 side to the Reserve Team he played against first team players and internationals and according to reports of the game, the young Charlton performed well. When a week later Busby put him back in the Under-18 side, Charlton knocked on his manager’s door and asked him why he was not in the Reserve Team as he knew he done well in the game. Busby looked at his young player and said: “You did well, you’re in our plans, but you’re in the B team.” It was Busby’s way of testing the temperament of his young charges.
On 6 February 1958, the Manchester United team were on their way home from Belgrade having drawn 3-3 with the famous Red Star Belgrade, Champions of Yugoslavia the night before in the quarter-finals of the European Cup. Having won the 1st leg 2-1 at Old Trafford Manchester United had progressed to the semi-finals where they would meet the reigning Italian Champions, AC Milan. Their chartered flight had to stop-off at Munich-Riem Airport en route to Manchester for refuelling as a non-stop trip from Belgrade to Manchester was not possible for British European Airways; (BEA) Elizabethan class airplane (called “Lord Burleigh”). The flight from Belgrade to Munich was delayed for an hour when Johnny Berry could not find his passport. When the plane touched down in Munich the weather conditions were extremely poor with a chill factor wind swirling around the airport.
Around 2.00pm the twin-engine airplane was ready for take-off with Captain Kenneth Rayment, second in command at the controls. Captain James Thain had flown the plane from Manchester to Belgrade two days earlier and handed over the controls to Captain Rayment for the flight home. At 2.31pm Captain Rayment radioed the control tower to inform them that the plane was rolling. However, as the plane made its way down the runway Captain Thain noticed the port pressure gauge fluctuating just as full power had been engaged and a strange sound emanating from the engine during acceleration. Within just 40 seconds of starting off Captain Rayment abandoned take-off. It was quickly discovered that the problem had been that of boost surge whereby the engines over-accelerated because of the very rich mixture of fuel. Post the disaster flight experts said that this was quite a common problem with the Elizabethan class but the German investigation claimed that iced wings prevented the aircraft from rising. At 2.34pm air traffic control radioed the plane and gave Captain Rayment permission for BEA Flight No.609 Zulu Uniform to attempt a second take-off but once again the plane came to a halt. After the second aborted attempt to take-off the players and other passengers returned to the airport lounge and the plane was inspected by the airport ground crew. By this time it had started to snow heavily.
Seeing the snow start to fall quite heavy a number of the players thought that they would be stopping off for the night at a nearby hotel thinking conditions were starting to become too bad to fly home. Indeed, Duncan Edwards sent a telegram to his landlady in Manchester which read: “All flights cancelled, flying tomorrow. Duncan.” After a further 15 minutes wait in the airport lounge everyone got back onboard the plane with a number of the passengers including Eddie Colman, Duncan Edwards, Mark Jones, Tommy Taylor and Frank Swift opting to move to the rear of the aircraft where they felt it to be a much safer place to be seated. Following discussions between Captain Thain, Captain Rayment and the airport engineer, William Black, 609 Zulu Uniform was on the move once again at 3.01pm. As the plane sped down the runway the air speed indicator quickly dropped from a reading of 117 knots to 105 knots. The Elizabethan airplane shot off the slush covered runway crashing through a fence before sliding across a road where its port wing struck a nearby house. Upon impact part of the tail and wing were instantly ripped off, the cockpit hit a tree, the starboard side of the fuselage hit a wooden hut housing a truck loaded with fuel and tyres and Lord Burleigh burst into flames. It was 3.03pm.
Twenty of the 44 people onboard the aircraft died instantly in the crash whilst the injured, many of them unconscious, including a seriously injured Matt Busby, were taken to the nearby Rechts de Isar Hospital in Munich. Busby had fractured ribs, a punctured and completely deflated lung and injuries to his legs which led to a member of the hospital’s medical staff informing journalists: “We do not have much hope of saving Mr Busby.” For two days his life hung in the balance whilst Matt, a devout Roman Catholic, was given the Last Rites on two separate occasions in hospital. However, it was not until the morning of 7 February 1958, that the world became aware of the true scale and horror of what happened at Munich airport. Meanwhile, Duncan’s telegram was delivered at approximately 5.00pm, less than two hours after the crash. Matt Busby lay in an oxygen tent, Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet suffered a gashed head, Ray Wood suffered a cut face and concussion, Albert Scanlon fractured his skull, Duncan Edwards’ injuries were very serious whilst Johnny Berry and Kenny Morgans lay motionless in their hospital beds. Berry broke his jaw, elbow, pelvis, leg and cracked his skull and a surgeon had to remove all of his teeth in order to repair his jaw. Remarkably despite his horrendous injuries Berry survived. Meanwhile, Belfast’s Jackie Blanchflower suffered horrendous injuries 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. Eventually Matt Busby’s name was removed from the Danger List whilst the hospital staff under the leadership of Professor George Maurer, the Chief Surgeon, worked tirelessly day and night to save the lives of many of his injured players and passengers in their care.
Three more people died at the hospital from their injuries including Duncan Edwards who lost his brave battle for life 15 days after the plane crash and Captain Rayment (he died on 28 February 1958) resulting in a total of 23 fatalities, 8 of them Manchester United players, with 21 survivors. The 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 Whelan aged 22. Bent, who signed as a trainee in August 1948 aged 15, had not made any appearances during the season having been on the sidelines for several months with a broken foot, and only travelled to Belgrade for United’s European Cup, quarter-final, second leg 3-3 draw with Red Star Belgrade as cover for Roger Byrne who was a doubt for the game as he had an injury at the time but the United captain played through the pain.
Walter Crickmer, 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 one member of the aircrew, the travel agent who organised the trip, a Manchester United fan and two other passengers. Post the disaster Bill Foulkes recalled hearing a bang before being knocked out cold for a few minutes and when he awoke he said he saw a hole in the plane directly in front of him. Foulkes and the United and Northern Ireland international goalkeeper, Harry Gregg, performed heroics helping their team-mates and passengers from the burning fuselage time after time. The tragedy became known as the Munich Air Disaster and is without question one of football’s blackest days. 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 could celebrate them.
The Busby Babes side of 1957-58 would have unquestionably won The Treble of English First Division Championship, FA Cup and European Cup had it not been for the Munich Air Disaster.
Fast forward a decade and the United team which won the European Cup in season 1967-68, had 8 home grown players in the team which defeated SL Benfica 4-1 after extra-time in the final played at Wembley Stadium on 29 May 1968: Shay Brennan (signed as a trainee in December 1953 aged 16), Foulkes, Nobby Stiles (signed as a trainee in September 1957 aged 15), Brian Kidd (signed as a trainee in August 1964 aged 15), Charlton, John Aston Jnr (signed as a trainee in June 1963 aged 16), David Sadler (signed as a trainee in November 1962 aged 16), and for many the greatest ever Busby Babe, George Best who signed for United as a trainee in August 1961 aged 15). The United goalkeeper, Alex Stepney was signed from Chelsea in August 1966 for £55,000, Shay Brennan cost £6,000 from Shelbourne in August 1960 and Paddy Crerand arrived from Glasgow Celtic in February 1963 in a transfer deal costing £56,000.
I can imagine Matt Busby in the Manchester United dressing room at Wembley Stadium addressing his players, the third great side he built, minutes before they would walk out of the famous tunnel before the 1968 European Cup final. It was a decade on from the Munich Air Disaster which ripped the heart out of Manchester United, claiming the lives of 8 of his Babes, and almost cost him his own life (Jimmy Murphy took charge of first team affairs from 7 February 1958 until the end of the 1957-58 season during Busby’s recuperation period from his injuries). But Busby carried on and like a phoenix he raised the club from the ashes. That balmy evening at Wembley, I think Busby would have echoed Al Pacino’s character in the movie “Any Given Sunday,” who made his famous “Inch By Inch” speech.
I don’t know what to say really.
Three minutes to the biggest battle of our professional lives all comes down to today.
Either we heal as a team
or we are going to crumble.
Inch by inch
play by play
till we’re finished.
We are in hell right now, gentlemen
and we can stay here
and get the shit kicked out of us
we can fight our way
back into the light.
We can climb out of hell.
One inch, at a time.
Now I can’t do it for you.
I’m too old.
I look around and I see these young faces
and I think
I made every wrong choice a middle age man could make.
I pissed away all my money
believe it or not.
I chased off
anyone who has ever loved me.
I can’t even stand the face I see in the mirror.
You know when you get old in life
things get taken from you.
That’s, that’s part of life.
you only learn that when you start losing stuff.
You find out that life is just a game of inches.
So is football.
Because in either game
life or football
the margin for error is so small.
one half step too late or to early
you don’t quite make it.
One half second too slow or too fast
and you don’t quite catch it.
The inches we need are everywhere around us.
They are in ever break of the game
every minute, every second.
On this team, we fight for that inch
On this team, we tear ourselves, and everyone around us
to pieces for that inch.
We CLAW with our finger nails for that inch.
Cause we know
when we add up all those inches
that’s going to make the fucking difference
between WINNING and LOSING
between LIVING and DYING.
I’ll tell you this
in any fight
it is the guy who is willing to die
who is going to win that inch.
And I know
if I am going to have any life anymore
it is because, I am still willing to fight, and die for that inch
because that is what LIVING is.
The six inches in front of your face.
Now I can’t make you do it.
You gotta look at the guy next to you.
Look into his eyes.
Now I think you are going to see a guy who will go that inch with you.
You are going to see a guy
who will sacrifice himself for this team
because he knows when it comes down to it,
you are gonna do the same thing for him.
That’s a team, gentlemen
and either we heal now, as a team,
or we will die as individuals.
That’s football guys.
That’s all it is.
Now, whattaya gonna do?
Well, if he did do something similar then it worked. United won the game 4-1 after extra-time thanks to goals from three of his Busby Babes, two goals from Bobby Charlton, a superb individual goal from George Best when he rounded goalkeeper Jose Henrique in the Portuguese goals and dribbled the ball into the empty net and a header from Brian Kidd who was celebrating his 19th birthday. Busby had a tear in his eye as he watched his captain, Bobby Charlton, who had been at the club since he was a 15-year old boy, and who along with Bill Foulkes who played in the game, had survived the Munich Air Disaster, hold aloft the most coveted trophy in European club football. At last the great man could put behind him one of the darkest days in the club’s history when his second great team, his famous Busby Babes, were so tragically cut down in their prime on a snowy runway at Munich-Riem Airport on that fateful afternoon of 6 February 1958. Busby’s methods and his investment in youth produced 13 trophies: 5 First Division Championships (1951-52, 1955-56, 1956-57, 1964-65, 1966-67), 2 FA Cups (1948, 1963), 1 European Cup (1968) and 5 Charity Shields (1952, 1956, 1957, 1965 shared, 1967 shared).