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Cherishing the memory of Manchester United's 'Busby Babes'

Exactly 63 years have passed since the tragic plane crash in Munich in which eight Manchester United footballers and three club officials were among the 23 victims – and the Manchester Munich Memorial Foundation is firmly committed to preserving the memory and legacy of those who lost their lives.

The Old Trafford mural:  Manchester United's team lining up before the match in Belgrade on 5 February 1958. Bottom right: The statue of Sir Matt Busby.
The Old Trafford mural: Manchester United's team lining up before the match in Belgrade on 5 February 1958. Bottom right: The statue of Sir Matt Busby. Getty Images

On the afternoon of Thursday 6 February 1958, the Elizabethan charter airliner carrying Manchester United’s party home from their successful European Champion Clubs’ Cup quarter-final second leg against FK Crvena zvezda in Yugoslavia crashed on take-off in wintery conditions at Munich-Riem Airport in Germany after a refuelling stopover on the journey back to England.

Twenty-three people died, including eleven members of the United party – club secretary Walter Crickmer, trainer Tom Curry, chief coach Bert Whalley, and eight players: Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Duncan Edwards, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Liam Whelan.

Flowers and mementos at Old Trafford
Flowers and mementos at Old TraffordAFP/Getty Images

The United team, a vibrant young unit renowned for their swashbuckling attacking prowess, had been christened the ‘Busby Babes’, on account of their youthful zest, and in homage to their manager, the shrewd Scottish visionary Matt Busby, later to be Sir Matt, who had skilfully assembled an outfit that stood on the brink of genuine greatness.

The ‘Babes’ had battled to a hard-earned 3-3 draw in Belgrade on 5 February to reach the European Champion Clubs’ Cup semi-finals on a 5-4 aggregate scoreline. They were the current kings of English football, capturing successive domestic titles in 1956 and 1957 – remarkably, the average age of the team was a mere 22 – and were threatening Spanish giants Real Madrid and their early domination of the nascent European competition. The world was their oyster when tragedy struck on the snowy Munich runway.

Making future generations aware

The accident has continued to resonate with people worldwide over the past six decades – and a group of long-standing United supporters has resolved that the memory and legacy of the ‘Busby Babes’ must never be forgotten, in particular by future generations.

The Manchester Munich Memorial Foundation (MMMF) is dedicated to ensuring that this legacy remains relevant and intact. The foundation, launched in 2018, is now an officially recognised British charitable organisation. Its mission is to “endeavour, through raising charitable donations and through supporting charitable works in Manchester, Munich and Belgrade, to keep the memory of the ‘Busby Babes’ preserved and enhanced”.

Munich survivor Bobby Charlton holds aloft the European Champion Clubs'  Cup after United's victory in the 1968 final. Another survivor of the accident, Bill Foulkes, raises his arms in triumph.
Munich survivor Bobby Charlton holds aloft the European Champion Clubs' Cup after United's victory in the 1968 final. Another survivor of the accident, Bill Foulkes, raises his arms in triumph.Popperfoto via Getty Images

The foundation’s chairman, Patrick Burns, Manchester-born and bred, began to understand the meaning of the Munich tragedy as a United-mad youngster eagerly awaiting the club’s appearance in the Champion Clubs’ Cup final in 1968, in which three survivors of the Munich crash – manager Busby, who had overcome serious injuries suffered in the accident, captain Bobby Charlton and defender Bill Foulkes – were to help drive the now reborn United to a memorable 4-1 win over Portuguese opponents Benfica on a night of unrestrained emotion at London’s Wembley Stadium.

Learning about Munich

“I was first taken to United’s Old Trafford ground by my brother when I was nine,” Burns recalls. “It was the mid-1960s, when a new great United team with players like Bobby Charlton, George Best and Denis Law was starting to be successful.

“In the run-up to the 1968 European Cup final at Wembley, much of the talk was about United rising from the depths of despair in the wake of the Munich disaster. Hearing the full story, I started to realise how the accident had affected not just United supporters or other football fans, but also millions of people in England and across the world. Those impressions stayed with me from that moment.”

The foundation’s journey began in 2017. “Supporters raised the idea of doing something for the 60th anniversary of the Munich disaster the following year,” Burns remembers. “And a group of people were proactive in making it happen. We reached out to the Bayern Munich club and the Munich city authorities, and were able to hold an inaugural ceremony on 6 February 2018 in a square in the city suburb of Trudering, which lies very close to the site of the disaster. This square had already been renamed Manchesterplatz in 2004, in memory of the accident and the victims.”

Representatives of Bayern München, the city of Munich and Manchester United attend the 60th anniversary memorial service at the Manchesterplatz square in Trudering in 2018.
Representatives of Bayern München, the city of Munich and Manchester United attend the 60th anniversary memorial service at the Manchesterplatz square in Trudering in 2018.Bongarts/Getty Images

“It was a wonderful occasion attended by a great number of people – United officials and over 2,000 supporters, as well as senior representatives of Bayern Munich and the city of Munich – and we invited doctors and nurses from the Munich Rechts der Isar Hospital that had treated and cared for those who were brought there after the accident. We felt certain that we could create a legacy for future generations – so we set up our foundation.”

‘United’ with Munich and Belgrade

The outcome has been a close-knit bond with Munich, the Bayern club, the city and the hospital. Further annual anniversary ceremonies have been held in Trudering, and a new memorial showcase in the square tells the story of the 'Busby Babes' and their exploits. The ‘Red Docs’, a group of doctors who work at the Rechts der Isar Hospital, have acted as the caretakers of the memorial site at Trudering, keeping it clean and spruce and making sure that any memorabilia left by fans is safely stored and flowers distributed.

The warm hand of friendship has also been extended to Belgrade. Foundation representatives have visited the city and its Majestic Hotel where the ‘Babes’ spent their last night together, presenting a memorial plaque at one of the commemorative events that regularly take place in the Serbian capital.

The plaque presented to the Majestic Hotel in Belgrade, where the  'Busby Babes' spent their last night together.
The plaque presented to the Majestic Hotel in Belgrade, where the 'Busby Babes' spent their last night together.Manchester Munich Memorial Foundation

Harry Gregg, the United goalkeeper who survived the Munich crash and earned a hero’s reputation for returning to the burning wreckage of the aircraft to look for survivors, was a catalyst for the bond with Belgrade. “The people of Belgrade never forgot United or the accident – and Harry asked us if we could build a relationship with the city. We discovered that the Majestic Hotel still has the piano that one of the United players who died, Mark Jones, played on the night before the accident, as well as a considerable number of other mementos. The plaque ceremony actually took place around that piano.”

“Munich and Belgrade have been magnificent friends – we are proud of our relationships with them, and grateful for the bonds created.”

MMMF charity donations

The MMMF’s charitable work in raising funds from events and initiatives has seen United fans give targeted financial and material help to children’s and sports-related charity partners in Manchester, Munich and Belgrade.

Left to right:  MMMF foundation chairman Patrick Burns, Old Trafford museum curator Mark Wylie and MMMF foundation vice-chairman Tony Crook. Behind them are photos of Manchester United players and officials who died in the accident.
Left to right: MMMF foundation chairman Patrick Burns, Old Trafford museum curator Mark Wylie and MMMF foundation vice-chairman Tony Crook. Behind them are photos of Manchester United players and officials who died in the accident.Manchester Munich Memorial Foundation

In Manchester, donations have helped the Depaul charity fund a scheme to help set up independent homes for homeless youngsters; in Munich, two charities are beneficiaries of the MMMF’s support: Buntkicktgut, an intercultural street football organisation, and Pikassio Libero, a body helping disaffected young people find their way in life through football. In Belgrade, the foundation supports FK Studentski Grad, a youth football club associated with the University of Belgrade. Sports goods and equipment are donated to all of these organisations to aid their socially important football activities.

The foundation has also fostered ties with those closely or directly involved in the Munich disaster. The ribbons from the wreaths laid by United fans at the Munich anniversary ceremonies have been presented to Harry Gregg [who passed away last year], the family of Jimmy Murphy – Matt Busby’s assistant manager from Wales, who was instrumental in keeping United’s affairs running in the dark aftermath of the disaster – and the family of Duncan Edwards, the powerful, versatile United and England starlet who would surely have become a world football icon, but who would lose his battle for life in the Rechts der Isar Hospital two weeks after the accident at the age of just 21.

Leaving a legacy

There is a fierce determination among the foundation’s leaders that the memory and legacy of those who died in Munich must be handed down to coming generations. “Harry Gregg’s daughter and Jimmy Murphy’s son are patrons of the foundation,” says Burns. “We have a podcast with large subscriber support. We strive constantly to make people aware that being a Manchester United supporter also means having a sense of the club’s history and knowing about the ‘Busby Babes’ and their story.

“Our work is respectful and dignified. We work closely with Manchester United, and have earned recognition and a good reputation. The reason for our existence is to make absolutely certain that the memory of all those who were so cruelly taken from us can never ever be neglected.”

Sadly, the COVID pandemic means that no large anniversary ceremony can take place in Trudering this year. However, the foundation’s friends in Munich are set to lay a wreath in a socially distanced, carefully organised event in the Manchesterplatz square on 6 February at 15:04 – the time when the accident happened.

‘They loved football – and life’

What does Patrick Burns think when he sees film of the 'Busby Babes' in action? “To be honest, I feel heartbreak about their unfulfilled potential,” he admits. “They were a brilliant team that were cut off in the prime of life.

Matt Busby with the European Champion Clubs' Cup in 1968
Matt Busby with the European Champion Clubs' Cup in 1968Popperfoto via Getty Images

“They embodied Matt Busby’s football philosophy – he recruited and fostered outstanding young talent, building a team that many are sure would have conquered European football. What’s more, a good few of the ‘Babes’ were already England internationals, and it’s conceivable that, had they not lost their lives, players like Roger Byrne, Duncan Edwards and Tommy Taylor could have been World Cup winners in Sweden the summer which followed the crash.

“Matt didn’t give long tactical talks to those players – he just preached attacking football and the joy of the game. ‘There are people who’ve worked hard all week who’ve come to this match to be entertained,’ he’d say to the team in the dressing room. ‘Now go out and entertain them – and enjoy yourselves’.

The ‘Busby Babes’ were young men who loved football and loved life, they were approachable and down to earth, and they never forgot their roots. They deserve to be remembered eternally.”

RELATED LINKS

Manchester Munich Memorial Foundation website

Munich forever in Sir Bobby Charlton's thoughts

United mark 50 years in style

UEFA pays Munich respects