Manchester United FC have a calendar full of dates which mark important occasions in the club's illustrious history. On 29 May 1968, for example, they became the first English club to win the European Champion Clubs' Cup when they beat SL Benfica – Eusébio and all – 4-1 after extra-time at Wembley. And who can forget 26 May 1999? In one of the most dramatic UEFA Champions League finals of recent years United scored twice in injury time to overturn FC Bayern München's 1-0 lead and take the trophy back to Manchester.
But the date which looms largest in the minds of everyone closely connected with United is 6 February 1958 – the day a team died. Then, as now, United were bidding to win Europe's premier club tournament and were making their way home from Yugoslavia where they had drawn 3-3 with FK Crvena Zvezda in a quarter-final return leg. In fact, at half-time manager Matt Busby's players had led 3-0 and with a 2-1 lead from the first leg, they seemed set for a comfortable second 45 minutes and a simple passage into the semi-finals. Some complacency may have set in as a consequence, but Crvena Zvezda must also be credited for having fought back tenaciously to level the score on the night. Just the same, the United side was so talented – their crop of youngsters, known as the Busby Babes, were much admired – that they looked very good bets to win the competition outright.
United in harmony
After the match there was a banquet for both sides in Belgrade's Majestic Hotel and as the lights were dimmed and the waiters brought in desserts garnished with flaming candles, the entire United team rose – led by their captain, Roger Byrne – and sang "We'll Meet Again". Busby then stood and said: "Come to us. The doors of Old Trafford will always be open to you," but cruelly, the events of the following day meant that many of the United party would never see their home ground again.
Their aircraft, a modest, propeller-driven BEA Elizabethan airliner G-ALZU, did not have the fuel capacity to fly from Yugoslavia to England in one hop, so it landed in Munich to refuel. As must be expected at this time of year, the weather across Europe was wintry and bleak, and while there had been light snow on the ground in Belgrade, conditions in Munich were considerably more severe. In fact, on landing many of the passengers noted the huge waves of slush thrown up by the aeroplane wheels.
Once the United party had enjoyed coffee in the airport lounge they made their way back on to the plane but the first attempt at take-off was aborted when the cockpit instruments signalled an engine malfunction. A second effort was made and also abandoned half-way down the runway. At 15.04CET the plane seemed set for a successful take-off – and was past the point of no return – when the engines suddenly lost power and the aircraft skidded off the end of the runway, through the airport's perimeter fence and ploughed into a house and then several trees.
Rescuers arrived within seconds but were too late to save Byrne, Geoff Bent, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, Duncan Edwards, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Liam Whelan. United coaches Bert Whalley and Tom Curry and club secretary Walter Crickmer also died, along with two crew members, eight journalists and two other passengers. Miraculously, 16 survived, including the gravely injured Busby and a youthful Bobby Charlton, but a team of immense promise – including the incomparable Edwards – had been destroyed.
With astounding strength, both of body and character, Busby and United recovered by slow degrees. In 1968, two goals from Charlton contributed to a European Champion Clubs' Cup triumph many felt was eleven years overdue. With another Scottish manager in charge and with similarly indomitable spirit, United won the trophy again in Barcelona 31 years later. Unforgettable dates indeed – but never more significant for Manchester United than that fateful February day in 1958.
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