Friday, 6 February 2009

Munich + 51

For some Munich means 1938, but for a Mancunian like me, it will always be associated with 1958. Fifty-one years ago today, an aircraft carrying the Manchester United team home from a European Cup tie in Belgrade crashed at Munich, killing 23 people including 8 Manchester United players. (Above is the memorial at the old Munich airport which was beautifully maintained when I saw it last year, and a great credit to local people.) In addition to the eight killed, two others – Jackie Blanchflower and Johnny Berry – would never play again, and two more – Kenny Morgans and Albert Scanlon – would never be the same again.

It truly was – in the title of a famous book by crash survivor Frank Taylor – The Day a Team Died. One of the most striking things about the players who perished was how young they were – Eddie Colman – 21, David Pegg – 22, Mark Jones – 24, Billy Whelan – 22. Then there was the England triumvirate – the captain Roger Byrne – formidably experienced, but still only 28; Tommy Taylor, 26 – scorer of 16 goals in 19 internationals, and Duncan Edwards – just 21. Duncan was as brave as George Best, he could read a game like Bobby Moore, tackle like Tommy Smith, shoot like Bobby Charlton and was almost certainly destined to be one of the greatest players of all time.

Young though they were – they were already being challenged for their places by the next generation of talent – notably Bobby Charlton, who was to become perhaps the finest footballer England has ever produced, but also Morgans and Scanlon. You could expect the team to go on improving for at least the next five years, and yet they had already won the League Championship (the equivalent of today’s Premiership) for the past two seasons, and had just reached the semi-final of the European Cup (the equivalent of today’s Champions’ League) for the second time. I rarely watch a football match without pondering the unanswerable question of how good they might have become.

So a great team died, but the club didn’t, and today Manchester United stand top of the Premiership.


  1. I'm not a football fan but what a moving account. The tragic death of such talented young men in their early twenties brought a lump to my throat.

  2. 7th February 1964, Flight 101 lands in NY

    Some anniversaries are unforgettable, indeed the 6th of February to a Manchester United supporter of a certain age would always be a date as memorable as one’s own birthday, but fused with those dismal images of the stricken Elizabethan airliner and the accompanying pictorial roll call of the victims. The 9/11 disaster, without the Americanised mnemonic would be probably be recalled as another iconic image, rather than a particular day, that signified abysmal loss.

    An anniversary whose date won’t mean much, but whose picture certainly will, involves another aircraft. This time it’s a Boeing 707 that, as far as we know, goes on to fly many more trouble-free miles as a transatlantic clipper. Forty-five years ago today Flight 101 lands at New York and on board are a British rock and roll band. They are photographed descending those Pan-Am steps whose blue confident logo was irretrievably and fatally stamped on the hellish images from Lockerbie in 1988.

    To a wage-earning musician in America in those days, from lounge jazz trios, doo-wop groups to bourbon-laced crooners, it was a day that would profoundly affect their collective futures.

    America, the home of jazz and rock and roll, had managed, by its sheer wealth of material, talent and entrepreneurial chutzpah, turned entertainment into an industry. Literally owning the copyright on post-war popular culture, they had successfully exported the experience of a rich, limitless, American life. A style of living that had such potency for the young inhabitants of drab, bombed-out Britain.

    America had spawned Rock and Roll; they had given us Elvis, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. We had, er, Lonnie ‘Putting On The Agony’ Donegan, Joe Brown, Adam Faith and, of course dear Cliff…

    How secure those American performers must have felt. Singing their real American Rock and Roll in their real American voices. Would anyone have bought a Marty (Kim’s Dad) Wilde record in Manhattan? It’s doubtful that his face was ever shown on American television or his music ever played. Why would it be? Those Brits; how sweet, they must have thought.

    How sweet indeed, until this day in 1964, when 3,000 fans greet the American Clipper Flight 101 from London delivering The Beatles to America.

    To anybody who was a young teenager the image is unforgettable – John in his leather cap, the band bemused, embarrassed, even – but the date is a statistic that means little compared to the incredible figures that chart their fortunes after Passport clearance.

    They had broken the gates of the citadel, and within a week had changed Rock and Roll for all time.


  3. Thanks for a beautifully written evocation of a memorable day of iconic images - just seen them again on BBC 4's "Folk America".

    I remember, before the Beatles, how short was the list of British records that had penetrated the US top ten. One was Lonnie Donegan's "Rock Island Line" - released I think, as the Chris Barber band with Lonnie allegedly paid a £2.50 session fee. Though the purists would probably go for Leadbelly's version, I still think Lonnie's is wonderful - once he's got through the naff talky bit, and starts to, well, rock.
    Saw him on a tribute show to John Lennon, with cast studded by stars such as Chuck Berry, and LD in his yellow blazer stole the show with "Lost John". Of course, he was also quite an influence on Lennon's early band "The Quarrymen". Don't think Cliff or Adam were.