The daily lives of every citizen of Manchester and England came to a screeching halt on February 6, 1958 when news of the Munich Air Disaster came across the wire. In that tragedy eight players from Manchester United’s Busby Babes’ team lost their lives while returning from a European Cup match in Belgrade.
“For my generation of footballers, who knew them all really well, the crash was our Kennedy assassination moment,” BBC Sport commentator Jimmy Armfield told BBC Sport. “It captured the nation.”
The eight United players who died in the crash were Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Duncan Edwards, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Liam Whelan. There were 15 other passengers, some of them media covering the match, who also lost their lives.
“We were stunned. The whole Manchester area couldn’t talk about anything else, but it spread far beyond Manchester and captured the nation,” Armfield went on to say. “It was front page news, every day they were giving us progress reports on the people in hospital, giving us news on whether they were dying or had a chance of surviving. It was horrible.”
After playing a European Cup tie against Red Star Belgrade, the Manchester United plane stopped over in Munich to refuel. Despite having already aborted two takeoff attempts, the crew decided to try a third attempt which according to goalkeeper Harry Gregg and had many passengers nervous due to the less than ideal conditions with a heavy snowfall.
“I wouldn’t say I was terrified but I looked across diagonally at Roger Byrne and Roger was afraid,” Gregg told The Canadian Press. “Someone had a nervous cough and a laugh and little John Berry said, ‘I don’t know what you’re laughing at we’re all going to get killed here.”
The plane failed to get off the runway before crashing.
“The next thing I know you’re getting hit from everywhere and you don’t know where you are,” he went on to say. “There were no cries, no human noise at all, only terrible sparks, tearing of metal, darkness one second, daylight the next which you can’t comprehend.”
Gregg was one of the many heroes from the day. After getting out of the wreckage, the goalkeeper for Northern Ireland as well as Manchester United, did his part to help save the lives of other passengers despite warnings that the plane was ‘going to explode’ from the captain.
Before the crash the core of Busby’s team was the future of the Red Devils and England. Manchester United won the 1956 and 1957, scoring 103 goals on the way to the title in ‘57. Despite sitting 4th on the table, there was still hope to add a third consecutive title to the list after suffering only 1 defeat in their previous 13 matches.
The day was a great loss for the England national team as well. In addition to Byrne, Taylor, Edwards and Pegg who had all been capped by England, Armfield is confident that several other players killed that day would have been key to an improved England team in the 1958 and 1962 World Cups as well as helping make the 1966 World Cup winning squad that much stronger.
While Gregg is glad there are tributes planned his biggest hope is that fans can look back and focus on the good times rather than the events of February 6.
“I want the minute’s silence to be over and then I want to remember the happy times, that’s what I want the world to remember, that’s what I want the families to remember,” Gregg told the BBC.
“I want to remember fighting for the best tracksuits on the training ground, fighting for the best pair of socks. I want to remember the Arsenal game (united beat Arsenal 5-4 at Highbury in their last game in England before the crash).
“And I want to remember the happy, free spirits after the final game (against Red Star Belgrade) and the banquet that night.”
February 6 Soccer Birthdays
1924 – Billy Wright, English footballer (d. 1994)
1951 – Marco Antônio, Brazilian footballer
1952 – Ricardo Lavolpe, Argentine football coach
1968 – Adolfo Valencia, Colombian footballer
1970 – Per Frandsen, Danish footballer
1977 – Jason Euell, English-born footballer
1984 – Darren Bent, English footballer
1989 – Craig Cathcart, Irish footballer
February 6 Soccer Deaths
Munich Air Disaster
1958 – David Pegg, English footballer (b. 1935)
1958 – Tommy Taylor, English footballer (b. 1932)
1958 – Geoff Bent, English footballer (b. 1932)
1958 – Roger Byrne, English footballer (b. 1929)
1958 – Eddie Colman, English footballer (b. 1936)
1958 – Mark Jones, English footballer (b. 1933)
1958 – Frank Swift, English footballer and journalist (b. 1913)
1958 – Walter Crickmer, English football club secretary and manager