By Rupayan Bhattacharjee
February 6, 2020, marked 62 years since the Munich air disaster, which robbed Manchester United of eight players and therefore the football world of an exciting young team that would have challenged Real Madrid's global domination back then. Under their inspiring Scottish manager, Matt Busby after the War, Manchester United became one of the most brilliant and exciting football teams in England. United had won three league titles in six years from 1952 to 1957 and defied FA desires by competing in the newly-established European Cup. 'Busby Babes', as the team was nicknamed after their manager Matt Busby, was returning after securing a place into the European Cup semi-finals for the second year running. Busby and his players and staff boarded a BEA aircraft at Belgrade in a driving snowstorm. Notably, the club opted to use scheduled airline services so that the players do not experience the fatigue of long journeys by road, rail or sea, when they play their first two away fixtures in European Cup. The flight from Belgrade to Munich was delayed for an hour when Johnny Berry couldn't find his passport. When the plane touched down in Munich the weather conditions were extremely poor with a chill factor wind swirling around the airport. On its way back to Manchester from Yugoslavia, the flight stopped in Munich to refuel and had two take-off failures before a third fatal attempt. Between the plane's aborted second and disastrous third take-off attempts, heavy snow had begun to fall. After two failed take-off attempts, the players were already nervous when they re-boarded the plane. The pilot had rejected an overnight stay and went for a 3rd effort despite the snow falling. The sports fraternity was rocked on February 6, 1958, when Manchester United lost eight players among 23 fatalities and 21 survivors as British European Airways Flight 609 crashed on take-off at Munich-Riem Airport. Of 44 on board, 21 were killed. Matt Busby, who was badly hurt, and Bobby Charlton, a future England international, were among those taken to hospital. Charlton had come around to find himself outside the plane but still strapped into his seat. Geoff Bent, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Liam "Billy" Whelan, star striker Tommy Taylor and captain Roger Byrne died at the scene - while the great Duncan Edwards gave up the ghost in hospital 15 days later. Bobby Charlton, who was severely injured in the crash, said: "I was just lucky and sitting in the right place."
"We never got off the floor and ran into a house and a few other obstacles. It was just a nightmare."
"The medical people came around and gave me an injection in the back of my neck and I just collapsed. I didn't wake up until the following morning. "This German lad was there and he had paper. He had a list of all the players and he read them out and if they were alive he would say 'yes' and if they were dead he said 'no'."
United completed the season with a rebuilt side under assistant manager Jimmy Murphy, as Busby recuperated. Remarkably they reached the FA Cup Final, but a team featuring just four crash survivors was beaten 2-0 by Bolton Wanderers at Wembley. An investigation by West German airport authorities originally blamed Thain, one of the two commanding pilots, saying he did not de-ice the aircraft's wings, despite eyewitness statements indicating de-icing was not necessary. It was later established that the crash was caused by the slush on the runway, which slowed the plane too much to take off. Thain was cleared in 1968, ten years after the incident. Manchester United was trying to become the third club to win three successive English league titles; they were six points behind League leaders Wolverhampton Wanderers with 14 games to go. They also held the Charity Shield and had just advanced into their second successive European Cup semi-finals. The team had not been beaten for 11 matches. The crash not only derailed their title ambitions that year but also destroyed the nucleus of what promised to be one amongst the best generations of players in English football history. It took 10 years for the club to recover, with Busby rebuilding the team and winning the European Cup in 1968 with a new generation of "Babes".