This Week in Football History: The Munich air disaster

The Busby Babes line up to face Red Star Belgrade
The Busby Babes line up to face Red Star Belgrade

Adrian North recounts the tragic events that took place at Munich-Riem airport 57 years ago today, and reflects on both what could have been for that wonderful team, but also the effect the disaster had on defining the identity and legacy of the Manchester United we know today...

"From a historical narrative the Munich air disaster leads one to the most clichéd, but nonetheless most intriguing of questions... What if?"

February 6, 1958 - Munich-Riem Airport, West Germany: Manchester United's most tragic hour

It's a general policy of mine with these footy history pieces to focus on the good, the funny, or the outlandish events that have graced the beautiful game.

Today's piece, obviously, is none of the above. Because football, as with any walk of life, is not free from tragedy.

On February 6, 1958, Manchester United, returning from a victory against Red Star Belgrade in the quarter-final of the European Cup stopped over at the Munich-Riem Airport for refuelling amidst an atrocious blizzard. The plane, carrying supporters, journalists, six crew members, and Matt Busby's Manchester United squad, hit a patch of slush, careered off the runway and had its left wing torn off after a collision with a nearby house.

Twenty of the passengers died instantly, and three more, including United's star youngster Duncan Edwards, succumbed to their injuries in hospital.

But we all know this. We all know that February 6, 1958, is the darkest day in the history of Manchester United. We all know of the heroics of Harry Gregg and that Busby was read his last rites in hospital. We all recognise the significance of the piece of footballing history was lost that day.

Fifty-seven years on, a retelling of the story becomes largely pointless. Wikipedia is more than ample for that. But from a historical narrative the Munich air disaster leads one to the most clichéd, but nonetheless most intriguing of questions:

What if?

What if the plane had gotten off the ground? What if United had gone on to beat AC Milan in the semi's that year? What if Busby's Babes had retained the English league title for a third year in a row? What if Edwards had survived?

Would United have been able to compete with Di Stefano's Real Madrid, or a young Eusebio and Bela Guttman's Benfica? Would Giggs have been left in the wind chasing Edwards' record appearances total? If everything else were to remain constant, would the Queen give the Jules Rimet trophy to Edwards and not Bobby Moore in 66'.

And what would the future of Manchester United look like?

Any history book that covers the disaster will have a variation of "what could have been", as an epilogue to the tragedy. And when the tale of Manchester United's renewed glory is picked up ten years later, the storyline is simply adorned with any thesaurus recommendation for the word 'unbelievable'. And rightly so too. To go from the horror of death to bringing glory to thousands of fans in a decade is truly unbelievable.

But from the ashes of Munich could it not be argued that the platform was built for Busby's new babes - particularly those of Law, Best and Charlton, the latter of whom quite literally escaped from the ashes of the disaster.

Could it not be argued that Munich gave George Best his stage to shine as the heir to Edwards?

Is it not the fateful and fatal tale of Munich, and the almost Hollywood-esque story of United's resurrection, culminating in the 1968 European Cup final, that has led to United becoming one of the world's most famous clubs?

United Euro cup.JPG

United, by most estimates, are the world's most supported sports team. And it is the tragic mystique of the events of February 6, 1958, and the revival that followed over the next decade, that are front and centre of the very identity of Manchester United.

Had that plane taken off, the character arc of Manchester United would be entirely different. What this character would have been like will be forever unknown, but the character that was salvaged from the Munich Air Disaster has gone on to live quite the life.

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