Manchester United supporters will undoubtedly know that this chapter in the club's history includes one of the greatest tragedies in football, but also one of the most triumphant, dramatic and emotional comebacks in the history of all sports. This article will hopefully do that story justice and honor those involved.
Having been eliminated in the semifinals with their first taste of European competition, Matt Busby and his Busby Babes were determined to bring the European Cup home to Manchester. Having won the First Division title in 1956-57, United qualified for the 1957-58 European Cup and would get another chance to be victorious in this new frontier.
United entered their second season of European football with a vengeance after coming so close to glory the prior season. Shamrock Rovers were quickly dismissed 9-2 on aggregate in the preliminary round. Next up, United knocked out Dukla Prague in the first round, this time 3-1 on aggregate.
Red Star Belgrade was then all that stood in the way of another semifinal appearance. United took advantage in the first leg at Old Trafford with goals from Bobby Charlton and Eddie Colman, securing a 2-1 victory.
The second leg took United to Yugoslavia, where they booked passage to the semifinals for the second consecutive season. Charlton scored twice and Dennis Viollet provided the third in a 3-3 draw, with United advancing 5-4 on aggregate.
Victory in Belgrade would be the final match for the Busby Babes.
Disaster struck on February 6, 1958, on the way home from their triumph in Belgrade. The plane carrying United home landed in Munich, Germany to refuel before completing the journey home. The Football Association were unwilling to reschedule the domestic matches for European competition, meaning the club needed to get back to Manchester in time to fulfill their next fixture.
Two attempts at takeoff were aborted due to mechanical issues, and adverse weather conditions threatened to delay the team further. The snow had become so bad that Duncan Edwards had even sent his landlady a telegram to let her know the flight would be cancelled and they'd travel tomorrow.
However, Captain James Thain hoped to stay on schedule and believed the flight could commence safely. On his third attempt, the plane failed to take off and skidded off the slush-covered runway, smashing through the airport fence. One wing was torn off when it clipped a house, and the plane struck a tree.
Seven United players died at the site of the crash. Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Billy Whelan all lost their lives. Club secretary Walter Crickmer was among three members of the staff who died in the disaster. 10 passengers also died, including journalist and former Manchester City goalkeeper Frank Swift.
United goalkeeper Harry Gregg regained consciousness after the crash and became a hero that day, pulling his teammates Charlton, Viollet and Jackie Blanchflower from the wreckage. Despite concerns that the plane would soon explode, Gregg went back in to save passenger Vera Lukić and her daughter, along with dragging Busby to safety.
Busby sustained critical injuries and was taken to the hospital, where he would remain for nine weeks before returning home. During this period, he was read his Last Rites on two occasions. He would recover and return to the club the following season.
Duncan Edwards sustained several serious injuries, including kidney damage, broken ribs and broken legs. Doctors believed he would never play again, but were impressed with his fight for survival and thought he could recover.
In everything written about the tragedy, Edwards never gave up. Despite suffering catastrophic injuries, he famously asked assistant manager Jimmy Murphy, "What time is the kickoff against Wolves, Jimmy? I mustn't miss that match." Sadly, Edwards would succumb to his injuries 15 days after the tragedy, dying from kidney failure at the age of 21.
Blanchflower and Johnny Berry would never play again due to injuries suffered in the disaster. Gregg and Bill Foulkes both escaped without injury and would return home to take part in the rebuilding. Charlton spent some time in the hospital with injuries, but would return later that season.
Much is made of the success Busby brought to Old Trafford, but his assistant manager Murphy rarely receives the credit he deserves. Murphy was also the manager of Wales and away with the national team at the time of the disaster. With Busby in the hospital fight for his life, Murphy filled in as manager and was tasked with keeping the club going in those dark days after Munich.
With most of the team lost in the Munich air disaster, Murphy needed to rebuild the team. Many thought the club would collapse in the wake of such a catastrophic event, but Murphy fought to keep the club alive when all seemed bleak. If not for his efforts, it is possible that the United of today would never have been.
In the first game after Munich, Murphy coached a team comprised predominantly of reserve and academy players to a 3-0 victory over Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup fifth round.
Prior to the crash, United were second, six points behind Wolverhamption Wanderers. They would ultimately slip to a ninth-place finish. There was also the European Cup semifinal to compete in. United won the first leg against AC Milan 2-1 at Old Trafford before getting eliminated with a 4-0 loss in Italy.
United would, however, show resilience in the FA Cup. Having knocked out Sheffield Wednesday in the first game after the disaster, United would go on to defeat West Bromwich Albion and Fulham to book a place at Wembley for the FA Cup final against Bolton.
Busby was present for the final after being released from the hospital, but the fairytale story was not to be, as Bolton won 2-0.
Nevertheless, for United to reach the FA Cup final in spite of losing more than half of their team was an incredible accomplishment and a testament to the spirit of Murphy and the players that remained. This determination to fight in the face of adversity and never surrender remains closely intertwined in the character of the club today.
Busby would make his full return in the 1958-59 season to start the daunting task of rebuilding the club. When many expected United to fade away following such a tragedy, Busby instead led his rebuilt United side to a second-place finish in the First Division.
United would then slip to back-to-back seventh-place finishes in 1959-60 and 1960-61. It was in 1961 that scout Bob Bishop famously told Busby, "I think I've found you a genius." Bishop was referring to a young man from Belfast who went by the name George Best. He was given a trial with the club and consequently signed, although his first-team debut would be years later.
The club slipped even further down the First Division to 15th place in 1961-62. Busby made one of his most important signings in 1962, securing the services of former Manchester City forward Denis Law for a British record £115,000.
Law remains one of the highly-regarded legends at Old Trafford, and he remains one of only two players to be granted the honorary title "King of the Stretford End."
United finished 19th in the First Division in Law's first season, which was above relegation in that era, but he was pivotal as United collected their first piece of silverware since the disaster. United beat Leicester City 3-1 in the FA Cup final with two goals from David Herd and one from Law.
Just five years after eight players lost their lives in Munich, United lifted the FA Cup.
The following season, Best would make his first-team debut in September against West Bromwich Albion, although he would not fully establish himself that season, making just 17 appearances and scoring four goals.
United lost in the Charity Shield 4-0 to Everton in the 1963-64 season, and would finish runners-up in the First Division behind Liverpool. The club also made it to the semifinals of the FA Cup and quarterfinals of the European Cup Winners' Cup.
In 1964-65, United would finally reclaim their First Division title and qualify for another opportunity to compete in the European Cup. Best fully established himself in the first team that season with 59 appearances and 14 goals. Law was also named European Footballer of the Year in 1964.
The "holy trinity" of Best, Law and Charlton was born.
United and Liverpool then shared the Charity Shield in 1965 after the game ended in a draw, before the competition was decided by penalty kicks. Back in the European Cup again, United made yet another semifinal run, only to be knocked out by Partizan 2-1 on aggregate. A fourth-place finish in the league for the 1965-66 season meant Europe would have to wait yet again.
Charlton won the World Cup with England in the summer after that season and was eventually named European Player of the Year in 1966. He would once again prove an important player for United as they won the league once again in 1966-67, qualifying for the European Cup.
10 years after the tragedy in Munich, United made a fourth appearance in the European Cup semifinals. Faced with the daunting challenge of five-time European champions Real Madrid, United took a marginal advantage in the first leg at Old Trafford, Best scoring the only goal in a 1-0 victory.
It was the second leg in Madrid that would prove pivotal, and United showed their character superbly. Busby's team was trailing 3-1 at halftime and had only been helped by an own goal from Madrid's Zoco. Down 4-2 on aggregate at half, United's hope was fading.
The team responded in exhilarating fashion with their backs against the ropes, just as they have many times since, and goals from Foulkes and David Sadler brought United back to 3-3, and they advanced to the final for the first time, 4-3 on aggregate.
United finished second to Manchester City in that 1967-68 season, but it was all about the European Cup for those who called Old Trafford home.
All that stood between United and that European Cup which Busby had set out to capture over a decade earlier was the excellent Benfica and the world-class Eusebio. The final was to be played at Wembley, and just 10 years after the horror of Munich, it seemed Busby may finally get his prize.
Law was sidelined for the final due to injury, but United were a formidable force nevertheless. Charlton opened the scoring early in the second half, but Benfica struck back on the 75-minute mark. Benfica looked to take the lead in the dying moments of the match, with their star Eusebio one-on-one with goalkeeper Alex Stepney, but the United keeper made the crucial save.
When the whistle blew for full-time, the game was delicately poised at 1-1, and extra time would have to be played. Charlton said in his autobiography that the Benfica team seemed exhausted after 90 minutes, which would explain the events of extra time.
Best fired United into the lead just three minutes into extra time, and Brian Kidd added a third just one minute later. Charlton scored his second of the match in the 99th minutes.
United would surely win the European Cup, and indeed they did. The final score was 4-1 as United secured glory.
10 years after a tragedy that threatened to destroy the club, the European dream was finally realized. Charlton and Foulkes, who both survived the tragedy of Munich, were the only survivors that played in the final. There is something truly moving and poetic about the way Busby, Charlton and Foulkes won the European Cup after having suffered such loss 10 years earlier while chasing the same trophy.
The club had come full circle. From the most tragic of disasters to the pinnacle of European football in just one decade. Busby had finally won the European Cup, and United were the first English club to claim the honor. This remains one of the great stories in all of sport.
Best scored 32 goals in all competitions during that memorable season and became the final member of the holy trinity to claim European Footballer of the Year. United finished 11th in the First Division in 1968-69 and made another run to the European Cup semifinals, only to be defeated by AC Milan.
On June 4, 1969, Busby stepped down from his position as manager. In 24 years at the club, he won the First Division five times, the FA Cup twice, the Community Shield five times and the European Cup once. The end of the decade signaled the end of an era at Old Trafford.
First Division: 1964–65, 1966–67
FA Charity Shield: 1965, 1967
*Manchester United will play a testimonial match for Harry Gregg on May 15, 2012.