Football fans, players and the families of victims of the Munich air disaster have held a minute’s silence at Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium 60 years after the tragedy.
Standing in the stadium’s east stand in gently falling snow, a 4,500-strong crowd sang hymns in remembrance of the 23 people killed when a plane carrying the United team crashed during takeoff from Munich-Riem airport on 6 February 1958.
The players – nicknamed the “Busby Babes” after the team’s manager, Matt Busby – had been returning from a European Cup match in Yugoslavia in which they had drawn with Red Star Belgrade, taking them to the quarter-finals of the competition. After stopping to refuel, the plane skidded in slush on the runway during takeoff, crashed through a fence and hit a cottage.
Eight players were killed along with three members of the team’s staff, eight journalists, two members of the cabin crew, a travel agent and a United supporter.
Opening the ceremony on Tuesday, the club’s chaplain, the Rev John Boyers, said: “Some of us will have very vivid memories 60 years ago this afternoon, when news began to filter through via teleprinter, the BBC newsflash, the local papers, of that dreadful accident in Munich. Family, friends, colleagues, teammates and heroes were dead or injured near to that smashed BEA aircraft that should have flown to Manchester.”
He later added: “When Munich happened a wave of grief and anguish swept this nation and in Manchester it impacted all. Here grief and anguish hit both United and City supporters alike. It mattered not whether you were red or blue; both sets of supporters stood together, wept together, mourned together. They all knew, together, that a remarkable team was no more.”
Among the survivors were Bobby Charlton, who would win the World Cup eight years later, and Harry Gregg, who went on to become Northern Ireland manager, both of whom attended the ceremony. The current Manchester United manager, José Mourinho, and the club captain, Michael Carrick, laid wreaths on behalf of the club and players.
Michael Edelson, a non-executive director at the club, read from Ecclesiastes 9 and 12: “No man knows when their hour will come: as fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare.” The club’s former manager Sir Alex Ferguson read from Psalm 103: “The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone.”
The crowd sang the Flowers of Manchester, a song written in tribute to those who died in the crash, containing the lines: “Oh, England’s finest football team its record truly great, its proud successes mocked by a cruel turn of fate. Eight men will never play again, who met destruction there, the flowers of English football, the flowers of Manchester.”
Parallel ceremonies marking the tragedy were held in both Belgrade and Munich. United’s under-19 academy side, who were in Serbia for a match, visited Partizan stadium where the 1958 team played before the crash.
Among those who died was Donny Davies, a football correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. His nephew Prof Norman Davies, a historian, said “Uncle Don” was a “a real Lancastrian character and an all-rounder if ever there was one”. As well as working as a headmaster, he played cricket for Lancashire for a decade, was a Scout commissioner, a lay preacher, a journalist and a broadcaster.
He said his uncle had an infectious laugh: “He was brimming with good humour from morning till night, and the chuckles would grow into guffaws with the slightest provocation, till tears ran down his face. It was quite extraordinary.”
Davies was 65 and was survived by his wife, Gertrude, and two daughters. “He only went on the Belgrade trip at the last moment,” his nephew said. “What we heard was that a young reporter rang him up on the Thursday saying that his wife was ill or having a baby – I can’t remember which. So Uncle Don volunteered to take his place and never came back.”