On 6 February 1958, in Munich, an airplane carrying the Manchester United football team crashed on take-off. Twenty-three people died, including eight players.
The team was returning from a European Cup match. The recently created European Cup invited winners of the domestic leagues to compete against each other. Having won the English League in 1955-1956 and 1956-1957, Manchester United received successive invitations. Despite discouragement from the English League, the club accepted both. In its first season, the team reached the semi-finals. In its second, the team had to travel to what was then Yugoslavia to play a quarter-final away leg against Red Star Belgrade. Having won the first leg 2-1 at Old Trafford, a 3-3 draw in Belgrade was sufficient to reach a second successive European semi-final.
For the trip to Belgrade, the club chartered a British European Airways, Airspeed AS-57 Ambassador. Forty-four passengers and crew were on board for the return journey. After re-fuelling at Munich’s Riem Airport, and as the snow fell, the airplane made two abortive attempts to take-off. On the third attempt, at four minutes past three, the airplane left the runway, hit a nearby house and burst into flames. Twenty-three died, including players Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Duncan Edwards, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Liam Whelan. Club officials and journalists also perished. The manager, Matt Busby, was seriously injured and remained in hospital in Germany for several weeks. Despite an initial suggestion of pilot error, it was eventually concluded that the accident was caused by slush on the runway.
The football world was shocked. Manchester became a city in mourning. Manchester United’s assistant manager, Jimmy Murphy, who had missed the trip, took charge. A patched-up team completed the 1957-1958 season, even reaching the FA Cup Final. For the 1958-1959 season, Matt Busby was well enough to return.
The Munich air disaster is a tragic part of the Manchester United story. Lives were lost and ruined. Careers were abruptly ended. An immensely talented young side, ‘Busby's babes’, was never able to realise its full potential. Sadness and sympathy drew many to Manchester United’s cause. Ten years later, Busby’s side, including Munich survivors Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes, finally won the European Cup. The first English team to enter it, eventually became the first English team to win it.
At Old Trafford are a number of memorials to those who died, including one unveiled on 6 February 2008 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the disaster. This is located beneath the South Stand in what has been re-named the ’Munich Tunnel’. The fiftieth anniversary was also marked by silences, services and events.