World of Sport

On this day in 1958: The Munich air disaster

Manchester United players and staff and journalists prepare to board the doomed BEA Elizabethan plane on the snowy …

Seven of Manchester United’s famous Busby Babes team were killed in a plane crash in Munich while returning from a European Cup tie in Belgrade on this day in 1958.

Three club officials and 13 others also died instantly when their aircraft overshot the icy runway and smashed into a house on its third take-off attempt after refuelling.

The footballers killed on impact were, Eddie Colman, 21, Billy Whelan, 22, David Pegg, 22, and Geoff Bent, 25, Tommy Taylor, 26, Roger Byrne, 28.

Duncan Edwards, 21, died two weeks later, while Jackie Blanchflower, 24, and Johnny Berry, 31, were injured to such an extent that they never played again.

Manager Matt Busby, after whom his young team were nicknamed, was so hurt that he twice received the last rites - but he recovered after nine weeks in hospital.

Also among the injured was midfield ace Bobby Charlton, 21, who was pulled from the wreckage by goalkeeper Harry Gregg, 25, before the plane burst into flames.

Bobby Charlton rests in a hospital bed in Munich as he recovers from his injuries (AFP)

A British Pathé newsreel shows the smouldering Airspeed Ambassador, owned by British European Airways, as the snow continued to fall at Munich’s Riem Airport.

It also showed clips of the now devastated, three-times league-winning team, who were so good that Busby only made two signings in four seasons.

Eight journalists were also killed in the crash after travelling with the team to watch their victory over Yugoslavian champions Red Star Belgrade.

Investigators found that the disaster was caused by too much slush on the runway that made taking off with a heavy fuel load impossible.

Initially, it was thought that pilot James Thain had failed to de-ice the aircraft, but these fears were later dismissed after eye-witness accounts revealed he had.

Charlton, who may have only survived because he sat in a rear-facing seat rather than a forward-facing one, only opened up about the tragedy years afterwards.

Recalling the night he cheated death in a 2006 TV interview with Michael Parkinson, he said: “I thought, 'Why me? Why am I here with nothing happened to me other than a little gash on the head' and all these other friends had been killed?

“It was such a momentous event, for so many young people to die just on the verge of the great success that was ahead of them, and I couldn't understand why.”

Even with a severely depleted team, Busby’s assistant Jimmy Murphy got United as far as the European Cup semi-finals when they lost to AC Milan.

The United team which replaced that decimated by the Munich plane crash (AFP)

Charlton was determined to help United become the first English club to win the competition when Busby resumed management the following season.

But they would have to wait until 1968 – a year after Scottish champions Celtic became the first British winners – to make his dream come true.

Busby, who was knighted after United’s 4-1 victory against Benfica, had fostered new homegrown talent, including George Best and bought stars like Denis Law.

Charlton, who was also made a Sir in 1994, and Bill Foulkes were the only two survivors of the Munich air disaster who lined up in that team at Wembley.

Sir Matt, a Scotsman who was born just 12 miles from United’s second European Cup-wining manager Sir Alex Ferguson, retired at the end of the following season.

The former right half, who also played for Manchester City and Liverpool, had managed United for 24 years and was seen as one of the game’s greatest pioneers.

Yet, despite his success, Sir Matt, who died aged 84 in 1994, always regretted failing to win the league, FA Cup and European Cup in a single season.

That feat was later achieved by Sir Alex, who emulated the great maestro with a young homegrown side nicknamed Fergie’s Fledglings that won the Triple in 1999.

But, like Sir Alex’s 2013 exit, Sir Matt’s departure was also followed by sour times for the club – with Manchester United even being relegated in 1974.

The Munich air disaster continues to be mourned by the club’s fans each year and a there is a memorial outside Old Trafford to the players who died.