February 6, 2023 marks the 65th anniversary of Manchester United’s greatest tragedy: the Munich plane crash marked the beginning of a ten-year journey from hell to heaven.
This article first appeared in May 2018.
Manchester United had just beaten Benfica 4-1 after extra time in the final of the European Cup and Bobby Charlton couldn’t wait any longer. So he ran up the stairs of Wembley Stadium with all his colleagues after him. Finally, the handle pot was waiting at the top. The fulfillment of the dream awaited at the top. The dream that ended in hell for Charlton ten years earlier and nearly cost him his life.
Manchester United were the first English club to compete in the European Cup and aimed to be the first to win it. In the premiere participation in 1957, United failed in the semifinals and in the second as well. The price was human lives.
On February 6, 1958, the team traveled from Belgrade to Manchester, thanks to a 3-3 in the quarter-final second leg at Red Star, they had entered the semi-finals. The way home was interrupted by a scheduled refueling stop at Munich-Riem Airport, but the engine caused problems. The pilot had already aborted two take-off attempts, a snowstorm was raging outside. He pulled through the third. The plane failed to speed up, grazed an apartment building, crashed into a garage and broke apart. First the silence, then the explosion. And the flames.
Keeper Harry Gregg escaped from the plane quickly enough. And before that found Charlton lying motionless in the snow. Thought his colleague was dead, Gregg pulled him to safety anyway, as did trainer Matt Busby shortly after. They were lucky and survived, seven players and several other passengers, supervisors, journalists and flight attendants did not. They died in the flames of snowy Munich.
Duncan Edwards and the Busby Babes
The greatest talent of all succumbed to internal bleeding two weeks later: Duncan Edwards. After Busby regained consciousness in the hospital, the first thing he reportedly asked was, “How is Duncan Edwards?” And they answered him, “Duncan Edwards is dead.” With him died a team, the Busby Babes.
In 1945 Busby took over as coach at Manchester United and seven years later won his first league title with an experienced team. As the formative players gradually retired, Busby avoided expensive new signings and instead brought young talent from their own youth department to the professionals. Edwards was the most talented, no Englishman had made his junior debut in the English Premier League.
In 1956 and 1957 the Busby Babes became champions – and then mostly died out in the Munich flames. There’s a clock in front of Old Trafford today, it’s always 3:04 p.m. In eternal memory of the moment of the plane crash.
Archrival’s help and wife’s persuasion
Busby then went to Switzerland for regeneration, and his assistant Jimmy Murphy took over as coach on an interim basis. He had not flown to Belgrade because of his part-time job as coach of the Welsh national team. In the first game after the tragedy, a team made up of reserves and youth players defeated Sheffield Wednesday 3-0 in the FA Cup Round of 16.
United strengthened the squad with a number of short-term signings, with help from their closest rivals Liverpool FC, who made five players available on loan. Charlton played again for the first time in the FA Cup quarter-finals against West Bromwich Albion, and Foulkes was also there. They won the replay and even made it to the final. However, United lost out to AC Milan in the semi-finals of the European Cup.
Busby was watching the remainder of the season from afar, wanting to wrap up with football. “Matt,” his wife Jean said repeatedly, “the boys would have expected you to continue.” And of course what his boys wanted, Busby wanted too. He allowed himself to be persuaded, traveled back to England and attended a United game for the first time since the accident: the FA Cup final. United lost 2-0 to Bolton Wanderers at Wembley Stadium.
Charlton, Best and Law: The Holy Trinity
In the summer, Busby took over as coach again. “I hardly dared to go to Old Trafford,” he said, “because I knew the spirits of the babes are still there and always will be.” Foulkes and Charlton were present in person. The pillars of a team that no longer existed. Busby had to build up work, United slipped into mid-table in the following seasons.
Then, in 1961, Busby received exciting news from his scout, Bob Bishop, in the Northern Irish capital of Belfast: “I think I’ve found a genius.” Bubsy trusted him and brought this alleged genius into the youth department: George Best. A year later, Busby signed not a Northern Irish talent but a Scottish star. Denis Law, who returned to England after a season as a legionnaire with Serie A club Torino. The following year Best made his senior debut, and another later, in 1964, Best, Law and the eternal Charlton made their debut together.
It may have been just an ordinary league game against West Brom, but it was actually much more than that. It was the birth of the Holy Trinity. Best, Law and Charlton each scored and pretty much always did from then on. “The good chemistry between them was palpable from the start,” said team-mate Pat Crerand later. “Either Bobby just pulled from somewhere. Or Dennis appeared in the penalty area out of nowhere. Or George did something magical.”
Best developed into the formative player of the team. “The tactical briefings were very simple,” said Busby. “I just had to say, ‘Give George the ball.'” Best was the center of attention. This resulted in brilliant dribbles and numerous goals on the pitch, and a life of stardom off the pitch. “I spent a lot of money on alcohol, women and fast cars,” Best said, “and just wasted the rest.”
Charlton, Best and Law performance data at Manchester United
Manchester United’s victory in the 1968 European Cup
Throughout the 1960s, all three members of the Holy Trinity won the Ballon d’Or. 1964 Law, 1966 Charlton, 1968 Best. They later had a statue built for them in front of Old Trafford, but first together they took United back to the national top. In 1965, the first championship title was achieved since the plane crash, and there were winners’ medals and the right to make dreams come true. United took part in the European Champion Clubs’ Cup again, again in Belgrade. This time the team came back safely from the semi-final away game at Partizan – but beaten athletically.
The following year United became champions again. And then they went to Europe and triumphed. Wins against FK Sarajevo, Gornik Zabrze and Real Madrid, then the final at Wembley Stadium against Benfica. Charlton made it 1-0, Benfica equalized. Renewal! Best, Brian Kidd and Charlton again scored. 4:1 Final whistle! United became the first English club to win the European Cup.
“It’s the greatest night of my life, the fulfillment of my biggest dream,” said Busby. “I’m proud of the team and especially proud of Charlton and Foulkes who have been through this journey with me.” They were the sole survivors of the Munich plane crash, becoming European Cup winners at Wembley Stadium.
They had seen hell and made it to heaven exactly ten years later.