Originally published by Pick Our Team on February 8 2013.
It was 55 years ago on Wednesday that the passenger plane carrying Manchester United’s Busby Babes back from their Belgrade crashed after failing to take off from a treacherous, slushy runway at Munich-Rien airport.
The Munich air disaster would eventually claim the lives of 23 people, including eight of the fabled Busby Babes and eleven of the team’s travelling party made up of Manchester United club staff and football journalists. It remains one of the bleakest periods in United’s history, and a terrible tragedy that stretched well beyond the confines of football.
Next week Manchester United will play Real Madrid at the Bernabeu in the first leg of their Champions League Round of 16 tie; a fixture that could just as easily have been an intentional tribute to those who never returned to Manchester in 1958, coming as it does so soon after the anniversary of Munich and the shared European heritage of the two clubs.
Long before the idea of winning anything with kids was dismissed by an unfortunate sound-bite, United were placing their faith in an extraordinary crop of home-grown youngsters: The Busby Babes.
The Babes had qualified for the 1956-57 European Cup as champions of England, becoming the country’s first representatives in UEFA’s new continental competition. Chelsea, the previous year’s champions, had been blocked from entering the inaugural European Cup in 1955 by an isolationist English Football League suspicious of the new European competition and the potential threat it posed to the health of the game.
In their debut season in Europe, Sir Matt Busby’s young stars reached the semi-final, only to be denied by Real Madrid, the eventual winners: their second of five consecutive wins between 1955 and 1960. United’s heroics in reaching the semi’s on their first attempt, defeated only by a team who were, at the time, the ultimate reference point for greatness, undermined the Football League’s fears and brought the public onside, although the Busby Babe’s sparkling, attacking play and youthful enthusiasm certainly helped too.
The Football League’s position, in the long-term at least, was unsustainable, and with Manchester United retaining their First Division crown, Sir Matt and his team again entered themselves into the European Cup, this time billed as promising contenders for the prize itself.
And it was later that season, returning from Belgrade after having secured a thrilling 3-3 draw with Red Star to win 5-4 on aggregate to advance into the latter stages of the Cup, that the Busby Babes met disaster of the Munich runway; catastrophe denying them the chance to realise their potential both as footballers and men. At 28, Roger Byrne was oldest of the players to lose their lives that day, while Duncan Edwards and Eddie Colman were just 21 years of age.
In the aftermath Real offered United the services of their two biggest stars (the Galacticos of their era) Ferenc Puskas and Alfredo di Stefano as well as petitioning, alongside Red Star Belgrade, for the 1958 Cup to awarded to Manchester United. While neither of these two initiatives came off, they were well received as generous and moving gestures of tribute to the fallen players and their club.
While relationships have hardened through competition and transfer struggles of late, the history of Manchester United in Europe wouldn’t be complete with Real Madrid and the titanic, storied and honourable battles both clubs have fought over the years.
From those initial campaigns into Europe lead by Sir Matt, to the gesture of solidarity during United’s darkest hour, up to the semi-final win over Madrid in 1968 and their clashes beyond, when Manchester United and Real Madrid clash, you can be assured of a stately affair between two bona fide powerhouses of the football establishment. As far as Manchester United and English football are concerned, none of this would have been possible without the pioneering talent of the Busby Babes.