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Munich, 50 Years On

Many superlatives have been used to describe Duncan Edwards, but seeing him slice his shot in the 1957 FA Cup Final (at 3 mins 18 secs of the clip linked here) reminds us that he was only human.

His death, together with those of fellow England internationals Roger Byrne, Tommy Taylor and David Pegg following the Munich air crash of 6 February 1958 not only devastated Manchester United, but deprived England of some of its most talented players before the 1958 World Cup.

England had suffered two humiliating defeats at the hands of Hungary in the 1953/54 season, 3-6 at Wembley, and 1-7 in Budapest (which remains England’s record defeat).

Tommy Taylor made his debut for England against Belgium in the 1954 World Cup Finals, where they ultimately lost to Uruguay in the Quarterfinals. Until his death, Taylor played 19 times for England, scoring 16 goals.

Edwards made his international debut against Scotland on 2 April 1955 at the age of 18 days and 183 days, the youngest player to play for England until 11 February 1998, when Michael Owen made his debut for England. (Currently, the youngest player to play for England is Theo Walcott). By the time of the Munich air crash, Edwards had played 18 times for England.

England’s results from the start of the 1955-56 season had been impressive, with Byrne, Taylor and Edwards regulars in the England first 11. England’s record from the start of that season until the Munich air crash was as follows:

  • Played 21, won 15, drew 4, lost 2, 60 goals for, and 20 against.

All three played in England’s 4-2 win over eventual World Champions Brazil on 9 May 1956, with Taylor scoring two goals.

Byrne, Taylor and Edwards were also central to Manchester United winning successive league titles in 1956 and 1957, and they would surely have gone on to become the first club to do the league and cup double in the 20th century had it not been for the serious injury to goalkeeper Ray Woods early in the 1957 Cup Final (in the era before substitutions!) As a result, Manchester United played all but the first 7 minutes of the game with only 10 men.

One reason that has been postulated as to why the flight went ahead despite the atrocious weather conditions was that the late Sir Matt Busby was anxious to return to England in order not to miss their Saturday fixture.

The Football Association and the Football League had been opposed to English clubs taking part in the European Cup, as they felt it was an unnecessary distraction from their domestic commitments. For that reason, Chelsea, English champions in 1954-55, did not take part in the first European Cup competition in 1955-56.

Busby had defied the authorities in taking Manchester United into the European Cup in 1956-57, losing to Real Madrid in the semifinals.

Manchester United and Busby were warned that points would be deducted if they missed the domestic league fixture on the Saturday following the away leg of the European ties, which were played on the Wednesday.

For the want of a nail ….

Without Byrne, Taylor and Edwards, England failed to get beyond the group stages of the 1958 World Cup in Sweden (unlike Northern Ireland and Wales).  The 1958 World Cup remains the only occasion a non-European country (Brazil) has won the World Cup on European soil (Sweden).

Manchester United went on to be owned by the Edwards, and then the Glazers.

Despite reaching the semifinals of the European Cup or the Champions League 9 times, Manchester United have only reached the finals twice, winning the competition on both occasions. Only Real Madrid have lost more semifinals – 9 out of 21 (but have won the competition a record 9 times).

The Munich air crash changed the future of Manchester United, and of English football, forever.

(Article first published in two parts on BBC 606 – Part 1 & Part 2)


10 thoughts on “Munich, 50 Years On

  1. I was born 2 yrs after the disaster, but my dad had seen these guys play, and he never held back in his praise for the team that Busby had built from these young players.
    All true United fans will feel a little sad on the day, but the best way to honour these bastions of the club is to pass down our own memories and recollections either witnessed or told to us onto the next generation of United fans.
    May they forever be in our hearts and memories, and thanks for a nice little piece you put up there fella

    (First posted on BBC 606)

  2. Those were the days when United were the flagship of Uk and everyone loved them in addition to your own club. I remember people crying in the streets of london when the news broke and people followed Matbusby’s progress as he laid in an oxygen tent. Danny Blanchflower’s brother jacky was also injured and Danny, of course, was captain of the Spurs double winning team. Many people feel it had the potential of being the greatest team ever.

    (First posted on BBC 606)

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  4. There are two versions of the opposition from the football authorities to Manchester United taking part in the European Cup in 1956:

    Manchester United led the way for English clubs in Europe in 1956 when they defied the FA and took part in the European Cup. In the previous season Chelsea were denied taking part, however the isolationist approach of English football was on the wane with England’s 6-3 Wembley hammering to the Hungarians in 1953. England was no longer the world’s best and needed to prove itself.

    From manutdzone.com


    “They also became the first English team to compete in the European Cup, at the behest of the FA, who had denied Chelsea the same opportunity the previous season, and reached the semi-final, only to be knocked out by Real Madrid.”

    From Wikipedia.

    Elsewhere on Wikipedia, it is stated that “Against the Football League’s wishes, they became England’s first representatives in the European Cup”.

    According to Red Season:

    Commentators have at different times, and in varying degrees of intensity, have apportioned blame on the Football League. It was they who insisted that United return well in time to fulfil their Saturday fixture. Threatened with points deduction, Busby’s hands were tied, and instead of an overnight stay in Munich, that third, fatal, take-off was attempted. See, for example, Jeff Conor’s The Lost Babes: Manchester United and the Forgotten Victims of Munich.

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