On February 6, 1958 Manchester United were returning from another successful foray into Europe, having reached the semi-finals of the European Cup following a hard fought two leg victory over Red Star Belgrade.
After securing a 2-1 win at Old Trafford, United held the Yugoslavian team to a 3-3 draw in the away leg, with a goal by Dennis Viollet and two from a young Bobby Charlton, going through 5-4 on aggregate.
The club had chartered an aeroplane to fly them home. Their departure from Belgrade was delayed by an hour as the United player Johnny Berry had lost his passport then, on the journey, the plane made a scheduled stop in Munich to refuel.
In treacherous blizzard conditions the pilot attempted to take off three times from the German airport before the British European Airways plane crashed after skidding off the snowy runway and caught fire when it hit buildings.
Twenty-three of the 44 passengers on board were killed including seven of Manchester United team known as the ‘Busby Babes’ – Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Liam “Billy” Whelan, while star player Duncan Edwards died from his injuries two weeks later.
Walter Crickmer, the club secretary, and Bert Whalley, chief coach, also died along with a number of British sport journalists. Notable survivors included Matt Busby, the legendary United manager, Viollet, Charlton, Ray Wood, Bill Foulkes, Harry Gregg, Kenny Morgans and Albert Scanlon but Johnny Berry and Jackie Blanchflower were so badly injured they never played again.
Worldwide messages of sympathy were sent to United while two minutes silence was held at every English football match the following Saturday to commemorate the dead.
There was speculation that Manchester United would fold, but the stricken club vowed to carry on. Busby himself was so severely injured he had to stay in hospital for two months after the crash, and was read his last rites twice before he was taken off the danger list.
The health of Edwards, one of the finest players of his generation, gripped the nation but although he was initally thought to bemaking a recovery he succumbed to his injuries on February 21, aged just 21.
An inquiry was launched into the cause of the crash, which initially blamed pilot error but Captain James Thain was cleared of any responsibility, with the accident thought to be due to deceleration due to slush on the runway.
A team largely made up of reserve and youth team players beat Sheffield Wednesday 3–0 in the FA Cup on February 19, the first match after the disaster – in front of an emotional crowd of 60,000. A monumental achievement under the circumstance – the programme for the match showed simply a blank space where the United team sheet should have been.
United, who were leading the league at the time of the crash won just one league game in the remainder of the 1957-58 season, with coach Jimmy Murphy standing in for Busby as manager, commanding a threadbare side. The club eventually finished ninth but managed to reach the FA Cup final that year, losing 2-0 to Bolton Wanderers.
United are due to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the disaster by wearing the 1958 replica kit in the derby against Manchester City on February 10, 2008.
Munich Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Munich_air_disaster_(1958)