The flowers of Manchester
© AFP

Fifty-five years ago to this Wednesday, playing in European competition was a new adventure for the clubs involved, and Manchester United had a young team stirring excitement across the continent.

The Red Devils' blend of youthful exuberance and attacking football was reaping rewards. These were young men with the world at their feet and the potential to bring both domestic and European glory to Old Trafford.

Nicknamed the 'Busby Babes' by Manchester Evening News journalist Tom Jackson, who also died in the tragedy that was to befall the club, this United team were admired and respected throughout Britain and in Europe. But just how good were they?

In 1956, they went through the season unbeaten at home and won the league championship by 11 points, this at a time when the English system was based on two points for a win. A year later, they were crowned champions again, by eight points, scoring 103 goals in the process.

On 6 February 1958, United sat fourth in the table, but a run of one defeat in 13 games hinted that a hat-trick of titles was not beyond them. However, it was on that day that the club experienced the darkest hour in its illustrious history.

A 3-3 draw with Crvena Zvezda had seen United progress to the semi-final of the European Cup for the second season running, and it was a high-spirited group boarded the flight for the return trip to Manchester.

I'm convinced we would have won the European Cup in 1958 because the players were so good.
Sir Bobby Charlton on the Busby Babes

"The crash came just when the team was going into its best, most exciting stage," said Sir Bobby Charlton, who was 20 years old at the time. "I remember watching our first home game in the European Cup, against Anderlecht, and we beat them 10-0. It was sensational.

"We pioneered English football in Europe. Players and fans were excited because we were up against players we'd never seen. There was none of the TV coverage you have now. And you had to be champions to be in the European Cup. We had only one team in the competition, not four like now. It was a marvellous adventure.

"We'd played Real Madrid, the champions, the year before and learned a lot and I'm convinced we would have won the European Cup in 1958 because the players were so good. In fact, with players like Duncan Edwards and Roger Byrne, it's quite possible England could have won the World Cup in Sweden that year."

After stopping to refuel at a snowy Munich Airport, United's plane was due to begin the final leg of the trip. The passengers, including journalists, supporters and staff, boarded the plane three times, as twice attempted take-offs failed.

On the third occasion there would be no turning back, but the aircraft - hampered by the build up of slush on the runway - failed to get off the ground in time. As the BEA airliner crashed through the airport's perimeter fence and into a nearby house at 3.04pm, the United dream, and several of Matt Busby's Babes, died with it.

Those who perished became known as 'the Flowers of Manchester', a phrase coined in the folk song recorded by the band The Spinners in 1962. The final verse of the song is perhaps the most poignant:

'Oh, England's finest football team, its record truly great,
Its proud successes mocked by a cruel turn of fate.
Eight men will never play again, who met destruction there,
The flowers of English football, the flowers of Manchester'


The world at their feet
A total of 23 lives would eventually be lost, including eight members of the first team squad, among them the captain of the side, Roger Byrne, an England international; Tommy Taylor, a prolific centre forward; Eddie Colman, the youngest victim of the disaster; David Pegg, a left-winger who had just made his England debut; Liam 'Billy' Whelan, a Republic of Ireland international; Mark Jones, a former England schoolboy international; and Geoff Bent, a fullback who made the trip as cover.

All seven died almost instantly, but 15 days later, the star of the side, Duncan Edwards, also passed away as a result of his injuries. According to those who played alongside and against Edwards, he was the complete footballer without a single weakness in his game. At the age of 18 years and 183 days, he had become England's youngest post-war debutant when he represented his country against Scotland, and he went on to win 18 caps, scoring five goals.

Charlton believes that, had he not died in Munich, it would have been Edwards who would have gone on to captain England to FIFA World Cup™ glory in 1966. That honour went to Bobby Moore, who once said of Edwards: "There will never be another player like him."

Despite holding obviously painful memories, an emotional Charlton believes that talking about Munich is the right thing to do. He said: "If people come to me and want to hear about Duncan Edwards, Roger Byrne and Tommy Taylor, I'm happy to do it. It's right that the players of that great team - and that's not understating the case - should be recognised 50 years later. I don't have to make things up. I know exactly how good they were.

There will never be another player like him.
Former England captain Bobby Moore on Duncan Edwards

"Duncan Edwards has always been in my mind as the best player I ever played with or against. I knew him more than any of the others because we did National Service at the same time. For a year we lived together and travelled together.

"Physically, he was enormous. He was strong and had a fantastic football brain. His ability was complete - right foot, left foot, long passing, short passing. Today he would be priceless. There would have been all hell let loose if he'd been allowed to leave Manchester United. He was just sensational."

As well as the loss of the life of eight players, not including Johnny Berry and Jackie Blanchflower, who would never play again as a result of their injuries, United's manager Busby was severely injured in the crash and barely survived. He was in hospital for two months and was twice read the last rites.

The Scot returned to the dressing room to give a team talk to United's patched-up side before their 1958 FA Cup final against Bolton, which included Munich survivors Bill Foulkes, Harry Gregg, Dennis Viollet and Charlton. United lost 2-0 that day, but ten years later they returned to Wembley and, by virtue of a 4-1 success over Benfica, became the first English club to be crowned champions of Europe.

"When we eventually won the European Cup in 1968 people were so pleased for Matt because he considered the players we lost as his family," said Charlton. "He felt responsible because he had cajoled the parents into allowing their sons to come and play for him. He was hurt by what happened at Munich more than anyone, so that night at Wembley was great for him.

"In short, the Matt Busby philosophy was to go forward, never be afraid to express yourself and it's always been like that at United. Alex Ferguson's team embodies the same spirit and his players are well aware of the responsibility they've got in upholding the history of the club. They would all like to win the European Cup again this year."

Fifty-five years may have passed, but the legend of the 'Busby Babes' will never be forgotten.

The victims of the Munich disaster

Players
Roger Byrne (captain), Mark Jones, Eddie Colman, Tommy Taylor, Liam 'Billy' Whelan, Duncan Edwards, David Pegg and Geoff Bent.

Journalists
Alf Clarke, Don Davies, George Follows, Tom Jackson, Archie Ledbrooke, Henry Rose, Eric Thompson, Frank Swift.

Club officials, supporters and crew
Walter Crickmer (club secretary); Bert Whalley (chief coach); Tom Curry (club trainer); Captain Kenneth Rayment (co-pilot); Bela Miklos (travel agent); Willie Satinoff (fan); Tom Cable (air steward)