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Sunday, February 06, 2005 


Apologies, Damian. You'll never walk alone, but Jerome is born to be United.

Belfast Irish News
Feb 6, 1998

Death of a team, birth of a legend
Munich memories on anniversary of crash

THEY were on the point of ruling Europe. They possessed the talent to conquer the world.

Nothing seemed beyond the beguiling skills of the 'Busby Babes' as they pushed back the frontiers of British football and captured the hearts of a soccer-loving nation.

Two league championships were already safely gathered in, a European Cup semi-final was eagerly anticipated and their youth promised even greater achievements.

Then 40 years ago today, Matt Busby's wonderful Manchester United side perished in the freezing sleet and choking flames of the Munich air disaster.

It was the day a team died and a legend was born.

The names, for many, still conjure up memories of boyhood dreams - Roger Byrne and Geoff Bent, Eddie Colman and David Pegg, Mark Jones, Liam 'Billy' Whelan, Tommy Taylor and Duncan Edwards.

It is a remarkable tribute that, in many experts' eyes and despite their youth, they remain the best club team Britain has ever produced.

And looking around today's football scene, it is no surprise either that they have also taken on the glow of soccer sainthood.

For 'Busby's Babes' were untouched by the greed and avarice which sees stars not fit to lace Edwards' boots today demanding weekly pay packets which in 1958 would have bought the top player in the land.

They were unsullied by talk of drugs, agents and hooligans running onto the field to punch a linesman senseless.

It was an age when a bung was used by a brewer, a spice girl worked in a factory and satellite television was the stuff of science fiction.

Football was still a game rather than an industry, an adventure more than merely a way of amassing a lottery-sized fortune by hopping from club to club.

And yet its stars were the working-class heroes of millions - and none more so than the 'family' assembled at Old Trafford under Busby's paternal Scottish eye.

Many had grown up together in Manchester digs as apprentices, often supplementing their meagre earnings with second jobs or learning a trade.

Bobby Charlton worked at an engineering firm, Pegg was a draughtsman and Bent was a joiner.

They rode bicycles to the training ground, caught the bus or walked in long coat and trilby hat, often with a pipe fixed between their teeth.

One such man was strapping centre-half Jones, a bricklayer by trade, a Yorkshireman by birth and whose hobby was keeping budgerigars.

His passion for the birds, of which he had more than 50, was such that he once provoked Busby's wrath by turning up an hour late for the team coach, saying: "One of my budgies was ill and I'll not leave them for anything."

There was United captain Byrne, who crashed his Morris Minor by chance one night into the garden at Busby's home but who, by nature, was a careful and studious character.

At 28, he had already passed a series of examinations in physiotherapy as he prepared for the end of his career.

And there was Taylor, the best centre-forward in England, who had scored 112 goals in 168 matches for United.

A wonderful athlete, he was one of the most glamorous sportsmen in Britain.

Yet the day Busby signed him for a record #29,999 - he did not want to saddle him with the added pressure of the extra pound - Taylor arrived in Manchester carrying his boots under his arm wrapped in a brown paper bag.

His sister-in-law later found two books hidden away in his Manchester digs.

One was Teach Yourself Public Speaking, the other Teach Yourself Maths.

Both were testimony to the vulnerability, yet ambition, of one of soccer's greats.

But perhaps the most accurate barometer of the 'ordinary' lives of the 'Busby Babes' comes in the sturdy shape of big Bill Foulkes, the full back-central defender who for three seasons juggled life down a St Helens pit with training sessions for United.

He made #15 a week as a miner, only #11 playing football yet earned his sole England cap just hours after surfacing from a shift down the pit.

There is one quite remarkable story during Foulkes' National Service.

Confined to his Aldershot barracks for the weekend, it seemed Foulkes was out of United's important cup match at Birmingham - until the spirited 20-year-old, consumed by his footballing passion, went AWOL.

He packed his boots in a rucksack, clambered over a fence, yomped over three miles of muddy fields and thumbed a lift to Birmingham.

He arrived in full Army combat gear just as United's team coach was pulling into the car park, and describes the look on Busby's face as "staggered and bewildered".

"But he took me to one side immediately, and although he had already picked the team he said 'you're in'," says Foulkes.

Anyone who showed that commitment, he said, deserved a place in his side.

Imagine limousine-chauffered David Beckham or glamorous Ryan Giggs contemplating such a journey these days and you have a picture of what it meant to be a 'Busby Babe'.

It was amid an atmosphere of such dedication and camaraderie that 17 players from Manchester United boarded British European Airways Flight 609.

Their Elizabethan aircraft had landed in Munich amid plumes of spray for refuelling after leaving Belgrade, where United had drawn 3-3 with Red Star to secure their European Cup semi-final place.

Twice it attempted to take off, reaching full power before slewing to a halt on the slush-covered runway.

Captain James Thain returned to the terminal, where everyone disembarked and journalists on board telephoned their offices to relay the delay and prepare for a night in Munich.

Ten minutes later, and with passengers bewildered at how the fault could have been rectified so soon, everyone was summoned back to the aircraft.

Reporter Alf Clarke of the Evening Chronicle kept the plane waiting as he phoned some last-minute copy, and the air of apprehension grew as players nervously continued their card game in the middle of the plane.

Pegg got up and went to the back where Frank Swift, former Manchester City and England goalkeeper and then News of the World journalist, was cracking jokes to try and break the tension.

As the ill-fated plane careered down the runway for the third time, Johnny Berry trembled as he voiced the fear that they were all about to die and Whelan said: "If this is the end, I'm ready for it."

Meanwhile, Foulkes slipped down in his seat with his back to the cockpit and prayed.

"I was scared, we all were," recalls Foulkes. "Billy said he'd made his act of contrition, and then after a couple of big shudders everything was spinning."

Seconds later, the blossoming talent which Busby had nursed and nurtured into British soccer's brightest flower was cut down in its prime.

There was a scream from the cockpit as the plane shot over the end of the runway, crossed a road and hit a house.

The tail was torn off. The spinning fuselage hit a tree and rammed a petrol lorry which exploded, scattering burning debris over the desolate Bavarian field.

Then there was silence, a "quite eerie, penetrating silence" according to Foulkes, before Captain Thain ran down the side of the fuselage shouting for anyone conscious to run for their lives.

Foulkes - miraculously his only injury being a bump from a gin bottle which had fallen from the overhead rack - did, only to turn and sprint back 50 yards in his stockinged feet to join the heroes of that fateful afternoon.

Irish goalkeeper Harry Gregg risked his life to clamber back into the burning wreckage to rescue a baby.

He went back again for her mother and countless fellow passengers.

Peter Howard, a Daily Mail photographer, also repeatedly returned to pull out survivors.

The news reached Manchester and thousands crouched round their radios and queued for newspapers, tears in their eyes, heads shaking with disbelief at the enormity of the tragedy.

When dawn broke the next morning, the grim toll was almost too much to bear for a city numb with grief and quiet despair.

Colman and his best pal Pegg were dead. So were Taylor, Bent, Jones, Whelan and captain Byrne.

Three members of the United backroom staff were also killed along with eight British journalists, two crew and two passengers.

Busby was critical, remaining in the German hospital for 11 weeks.

And the whole of Britain, it seemed, willed him and incomparable Edwards to live.

For 15 desperate days, Edwards, only 21 and who had played for England at 18, clung to life.

Then he was gone because, it was written at the time, "the Gods loved him too much".

Johnny Berry and Northern Ireland international Jackie Blanchflower never played again because of their injuries, while Charlton went on to become English football's most famous ambassador.

Busby, consumed with guilt for defying the Football League and taking his young stars into Europe, apologised profusely to the victims' dependents.

Ten years later, with a team which included survivors Charlton and Foulkes, he went on to realise his European dream.

But perhaps the most poignant memory of this week, which sees a service at Manchester Cathedral today and a Premiership match against Bolton tomorrow kicking off at the same time, 3.15pm, as the crash, were the tender words of Edwards' 89-year-old mother Ann.

"I never told him I loved him," said Ann. "But I did. He was a lovely lad and now I wish I had."

Ann Edwards can take solace in the fact her remarkable son, along with the rest of the tragic 'Busby Babes', will be loved and remembered forever.



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