By Jason Grant Shela MBE FRSA MA
The Busby Babes
February 6th 1958 is a day that is forever etched with sadness and sorrow in the hearts and minds of football fans everywhere. On that fateful afternoon, an airplane carrying some of the finest players of all time crashed on take-off from Munich, leaving an aftermath of death and destruction. In the many years since that day, the memory of these men has never wavered and their legend is every bit as strong even to the generations of football followers who never saw them play.
Manchester United were the first club to lead the English charge into the newly designated European Cup. Under the watchful eye of Sir Matt Busby, United’s youth policy had reaped rich rewards by the early 1950s. Arriving on the scene at one time were some rare, gifted players, who easily made the tough transition to senior level football. They won the English Championship in 1956 and 1957, narrowly missing the double with a cup final defeat to Aston Villa.
However, by the 1957/58 season, Busby felt confident that European honors were attainable and his team more than capable of toppling the might of Real Madrid. They easily dealt with Shamrock Rovers and Dukla Prague in the early rounds, reaching the quarter final against an uncompromising Red Star Belgrade team. The home leg was a fairly uneventful game, United edging out their opponents in a 2-1 victory.
On the first Saturday in February 1958, the reds traveled to play Arsenal in what turned out to be the last domestic match many of them would play. The rivalry between these northern and southern power houses always made this particular fixture one to watch, and for the 65,000 packed into Highbury Stadium that afternoon, it proved to be one of the greatest matches ever played.
United struck first with a magnificent effort by the mighty Duncan Edwards from 20 yards. Bobby Charlton added a second and Tommy Taylor notched a third before the interval. To their credit, Arsenal emerged a different team in the second half and clawed their way back into the match, scoring three goals themselves. Then in the final quarter, United stepped up the pace and finished off the Gunners with two superb goals from Dennis Viollet and a second from Taylor. The teams left the field to rapturous applause from everyone inside the ground. Everyone present knew they had witnessed something special that day.
Naturally, spirits were high coming off such a magnificent victory and the team made the arduous journey behind the iron curtain to Belgrade. In freezing conditions, Bobby Charlton excelled and his goals earned United a 3-3 draw, enough to see them safely through to the semi-final against AC Milan.
The plane stopped to refuel on the return journey to Manchester in Munich. The weather had been especially bad all over Europe and the runway was a mass of snow and icy slush. The captain decided conditions were nonetheless good enough for departure and 43 people boarded the plane just after 3pm. The first two attempts to take off were aborted. On the third, the plane actually left the ground, but caught part of the perimeter fence which brought it crashing down and smashed into some buildings which tore off the wing and part of the main aircraft.
An inferno of flames engulfed the plane, as survivors moved quickly to free themselves and help others get away. Out of 43 passengers, 23 perished, including eight of the ‘Busby Babes’. Matt Busby and Duncan Edwards survived the crash and along with the other survivors were taken to the nearest hospital.
United’s Captain and England International, Roger Byrne was the leader of the team and at just 28 was the oldest player in the team. An inspirational figure, he was an outstanding full back who had won 33 caps for his country. Liam ‘Billy’ Whelan, at just 22 was an old fashioned forward with unique dribbling ability who had won 4 caps for Eire. Eddie Colman, ‘ the Sultan of Swivel’, had captained the youth team and was one of the most talented half-backs in the game – he was just 21. Geoff Bent had made his debut in 1954, but found it hard to retain a regular place in the first team. He travelled to Belgrade as cover for Roger Byrne and was just 25. David Pegg was an exciting left sided forward with real pace who had made his debut at 17. He scored 28 goals in 150 appearances before Munich claimed his life at 22. Tommy Taylor was a Barnsley lad who United signed for the then record-breaking fee of £29,999 in 1953. He was a ubiquitous, hard working centre forward who scored an amazing 131 goals in just 190 appearances. The 25-year-old Taylor was establishing himself as England’s leading marksman, scoring 16 goals in 19 games for his country before Munich. Mark Jones was a swash-buckling half back who played a total of 121 games for the club – he was 24.
Duncan Edwards signs for a fan
Probably more words have been written and spoken about Duncan Edwards than any other English footballer and are ever likely to be. He personified the most noble attributes both on and off the field. Edwards was discovered by United’s Midlands scout, Reg Priest, as a young boy playing in the local Dudley youth league. He signed for the club as an amateur in 1952 and in April 1953 made his first team debut against Cardiff at 17. The following year, his commanding performances prompted England manager, Walter Winterbottom to make him the youngest player to represent his country this century at that time. He stood 5 feet 10 inches tall and was built like a tank. He played as a left half back, but was equally adept at any position on the field. In a senior career of just under five years, Duncan Edwards became the all-round footballer. He had vision, speed, could hit 60 yard passes on a sixpence and was a fierce tackler and astute scorer of some outstanding goals, 21 for club and five for country in just 18 caps. He survived the crash itself and clung to life for 2 weeks before finally passing away peacefully in his sleep at just 21. Just before he died, he spoke of being ready for United’s next match, such was his commitment to the game.
The Busby Babes were at the beginning of their journey and yet life dealt them a cruel blow that day. They were ordinary lads who shared a love and passion for the great game of football and felt privileged to be playing for a great club. Their memories will endure forever and serve as a guiding light for all those young lads who lace up a pair of football boots and dream.
Professor Jason Grant Shela MBE FRSA MA is a football historian, award winning coach, writer and musician. He is the founder of the British Soccer Academy, one of the top youth schools’ programs in the USA. He lectures in communications at Baruch College, City University of New York. Jason received the MBE for services to youth football education and youth with disabilities in the 2018 New Year’s Honours List. In 2022 he was elected a Fellow at the Royal Society for the Arts for his work in Arts & Music Education. His mission is to bring the beautiful game to underserved communities throughout the world.