55 years after Manchester United, football and the world were shocked by the air disaster in Munich, the Red Devils face one of their toughest test in Europe. This two leg fixture with Real Madrid is more than a current day glamour tie.
By Rob Boulton
Wednesday 6th February marked the 55th anniversary of the terrible tragedy at Munich, the day eight magnificent young footballers and 23 equally magnificent people in total lost their lives among the scattered wreckage of that Elizabethan aircraft on a snow-covered runway.
Travelling back from Belgrade after a thrilling 3-3 draw in the European Cup Quarter Final against Red Star, the plane stopped at Munich to re-fuel and the tragic events which then unfolded are ingrained in the history and DNA of Manchester United Football Club. The fact they were playing in Europe at all was down to the visionary mind of one man, Sir Matt Busby. To truly test yourself as a player and a football club, the man who had revolutionised conventional coaching by donning a track suit and joining his players on the training ground had now realised that competing and beating Europe’s best was the ultimate test if you wanted to be talked about as a truly great team.
Just one week on from the 55th anniversary, it seems fitting that the current players of Manchester United should walk out into such a wonderful footballing arena as the Santiago Bernabeau to face the legendary Real Madrid in a last 16 tie in the European Cup. Two of the greatest club sides in the world going head-to-head over two legs for the right to progress in this most prestigious of club competitions is exactly what Busby dreamed of all those years ago, and he’d have surely been immensely proud of a fellow granite Scot in Sir Alex Ferguson leading the side into this footballing pantheon.
The news coverage which surrounded those awful events in Munich are the main reason the club is so well-known and respected around the world, for in the immediate aftermath with Busby himself fighting for his life in a German hospital and the legendary Duncan Edwards battling to the end but bravely losing his fight – the club tried it’s best to rebuild and re-group and showed great dignity in doing so. The exceptional skills and expertise shown by the German doctors and surgeons in the Rechts der Isar Hospital were the main reason the number of fatalities wasn’t higher, and when you think that was only 13 years after the second world war had ended it’s incredible how German excellence helped so much in one of Britain’s most devastating sporting disasters.
As Busby regained health and fitness and rebuilt his new side around the magical trio of Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and George Best – their triumph at Wembley against Benfica in 1968 was the end of an emotional love affair for the manager which had taken huge human sacrifice, and just ten years on from Munich was a fitting tribute to all who had lost their lives in pursuit of this dream. Because of this, European football has always held an extra special place in the heart of everybody connected to Manchester United, and with Bobby Charlton now a club ambassador after surviving Munich, and serving the club so majestically as a player, he offers the human element to the story which is covered in great detail in the club museum and now in the recently created Munich Tunnel in the South Stand tunnel at Old Trafford.
Every player who joins United is talked through the history, and Munich is always a focal point as the memorial clock and plaque outside the ground serve as constant reminders that the club will never forget the events of that fateful day – but even amongst the tears of remembrance is a fierce joy that from Busby’s great teams of the 50’s and 60’s to Ferguson’s current dynasty Manchester United have embraced the true spirit of European football competition and have played with a verve and swagger that only the very best sides can attain.
Three European cups is nowhere near enough for a club like Manchester United, but it should be remembered that at the time of the Munich disaster the Busby babes were widely tipped to go on and dominate European football much like Madrid had throughout the 1950’s. The two clubs European cup record may have looked very different had the accident not happened. The team who perished were made up of young players, and Busby’s philosophy of trusting youth to play in his teams on the biggest stages drew admiration from all around the world, so as the two teams stride out side by side for the latest installments in a historical battle, it’s worth remembering the sacrifices and pain that has been suffered to make this competition such a highly cherished prize – and to be crowned champions of Europe truly is one of football’s finest achievements.
There is no doubting that Manchester United were and are still a European super power. If it was not for that tragic day 55 years ago would Manchester United have the strongest history in Europe of any club? Tweet us your thoughts @talkingbaws or comment below.