Cape Town - There is a light that never goes out at Old Trafford. To enter the stadium, you walk through darkness and light. You walk next to the horrors of death, collective grief and pain, as well as glory, unity and love. You walk by the history of Manchester United Football Club and everything you need to know about it.
You’ll see the statue of the man who was there during United’s darkest moment and the most beautiful 10 years later, Sir Matt Busby. Opposite him stand the statues of the holy trinity, George Best, Denis Law and Sir Bobby Charlton, arm in arm.
Walking towards the Sir Bobby Charlton Stand, you see a memory plaque and a clock that’s been frozen at four minutes past three. When you’re walking through the Munich Tunnel, there’s a light in the darkness. A forever-burning candle that represents those who lost their lives after what happened at 3.04pm on a cold and bitter day 60 years ago. Manchester United will always be about what happened on the runway in Munich on February 6 1958. It’s the path to their history and the key to their future.
In a post-war era, the youthful team of Manchester United – hailed as the Busby Babes – represented pride and hope for the future. Sir Matt Busby and Jimmy Murphy had built a “bunch of bouncing Busby Babes that deserved to be knighted”, as the popular chant says. The Babes had won the league two years in a row with their attacking-minded, free-flowing football, and were starting to make a mark in Europe as the English pioneers in the European Cup.
After the quarter-final in Belgrade 1958, when United eliminated Red Star, the mood was euphoric. A brilliant Real Madrid side had beaten United the previous year and the feeling was that Matt Busby’s aces still had work to do to beat the very best. The next season the feeling was different: United were good enough.
What happened next is one of the darkest chapters in football history. On their way back home to Manchester, the plane stopped in a cold and snowy Munich to refuel. After two failed attempts to start due to engine issues in the difficult conditions, it was decided to make a third attempt. The plane accelerated slowly, then went out of control on the slushy runway and crashed through a fence, continued out on the road and into a house.
Some died instantly, others later at the hospital. In total, 23 people lost their lives – among them footballers, sports journalists and staff of Manchester United, plane crew, a travel agent and a supporter.
Among the 21 survivors was the famed Manchester United manager Busby, and three journalists and photographers. One was News Chronicle reporter Frank Taylor, who would go on to become the fifth president of the International Sports Press Association.
This past week, the city of Manchester and the rest of the world remembered once again. Following the accident, United started to become a phenomenon of global interest. The heartbreak of United and Manchester became one for the world.
In the Munich Tunnel, next to the candle, there’s a quote stating: “Before the tragedy at Munich, the club belonged to Manchester. But afterwards, Manchester United captured the imagination of the entire world.”
So how did the world remember?
Duncan Edwards, an astonishing talent, was born 82 years ago in Dudley, the heart of the Black Country in the UK. The 21-year-old England international and Manchester United star was one of the passengers and he died 15 days after the accident. Since January last year, there has been an exhibition with pictures and words about him in Dudley, and there will be a tribute dinner on February 21.
Jim Cadman, who is organising the tributes, said: “We wrote a book about him and last year we started talking about the 60th anniversary of his passing. To someone who was such an iconic figure in the area, there wasn’t much to be found about him.”
After a book was published in 2001, Edwards’ mother Sarah Ann Edwards, during a gala dinner, begged Cadman to “make sure that folks in the Black Country never forget my Duncan”.
“It’s important that his heritage is recognised. We made a promise to his mother to keep his memory alive. So we started collecting memorabilia, photos and match reports. We can’t let the cultural and sporting heritage that he created be allowed to fade. That’s why we worked so closely with the primary school that he went to. Children are studying Duncan in their social history lessons now,” Cadman said.
Supporters hosted an event inside Old Trafford on Tuesday and then flew to Munich to install an inscribed bench at the Manchesterplatz Memorial and a 60th memorial flag. The money collected will be donated to the Libero and Buntkicktgut youth football project in Munich and the Duncan Edwards’ Foundation.
The accident in Munich might belong to the past, but the memory lives on forever in Manchester and around the world.
New generations are entering Old Trafford to watch a team that has turned from a local to a worldwide phenomenon; a club that’s been through hell and also given millions of supporters all over the world many of their most beautiful memories. None of the glory days would have been possible without the Busby Babes. Let us never forget the flowers of English football. Let us never forget the Flowers of Manchester.
Sundstrom is a Sweden-based AIPS young reporter. This article appeared in the AIPS newsletter