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Manchester United & Munich ’58 – Forgetting the Past?

Conor Heffernan discusses the ill-treatment of Manchester United towards survivors of the Munich Air Disaster in the years that followed the tragedy.

On February 7th 1958 the footballing world was in a state of shock. The previous evening, a charter plane carrying 44 people crashed after refuelling at Munich Airport. Any accident is a tragedy but this one proved particularly poignant for fans of the beautiful game.

The terrible incident claimed 23 lives, including eight Manchester United players and three club officials. The team had been returning home having secured their route to the semi-finals of the European Cup following match in Yugoslavia against Red Star Belgrade. It was supposed to be a time of celebrations.

En route, the flight stopped in Munich to refuel. It was standard practice and nothing out of the ordinary, but as snow fell down in Munich, matters soon became serious. Pilots James Thain and Kenneth Rayment twice aborted take-offs due to the hazardous conditions. Snow continued to fall.

Thain and Rayment took the fateful decision to attempt to take-off for a third time. The plane hit slush on the runway and a terrible tragedy quickly unfolded.

Stories looking back on the Munich Air Disaster focus on the might of the ‘Busby Babes’, with authors often pondering what would have happened had the team survived. Matt Busby’s team appeared to be on the verge of something glorious in 1958. At that time, United were attempting to become the third club to win three successive English league titles. They were six points behind league leaders Wolves with 14 games to go. It was all so promising.

They had won that year’s Charity Shield and had just progressed to the semi-finals of the European Cup. Although United heroically managed to make that year’s FA Cup Final following the disaster, the club ended the 1950s in disarray. Morale in Manchester was low in the late 1950s and it took years for the Busby revival to emerge.

As time went on United eventually returned to old fortunes and memorials were erected for her fallen players. The first memorial came soon after the crash in 1960. Tributes have been continually paid since to those United players who lost their lives in Munich. United fans constantly pay homage to their memory.

There is however one aspect of the crash that is often airbrushed out of memory, namely United’s treatment of those players seriously injured in the crash. In 2002, Harry Greggs, United’s goalkeeper at the time of the crash published his autobiography entitled ‘Harry’s Game’. Harry had played hero the night of the crash, saving many lives when he bravely decided to risk his own life in pulling survivors from the wreckage.

One of the lucky survivors, Harry returned playing after Munich and was part of the Busby revival in the 1960s. Greggs was a United man through and through. He even acted as a coach and scout for the Red Devils in his retirement. Despite his allegiances to the club, Greggs revealed some uncomfortable truths about the aftermath of Munich.

Jackie Blanchflower, the Northern Ireland defender, was the first to suffer from United’s ill treatment. When it became clear to the club that Blanchflower would never play football again, the club soon cut ties with the man from Belfast. First they withdrew his taxi rights, a crippling blow for a man who struggled to walk after Munich.

Next, Blanchflower was evicted from his club accommodation despite his wife being heavily pregnant at the time. The Reds were quick to cut away those players who were no longer of use. Blanchflower wasn’t the only victim of such ill-treatment either. The Reds withdrew rented accommodation for all the survivors who couldn’t play football again.

Johnny Berry was evicted from his club house and was later fired by United through a letter. Albert Scanlon, another survivor badly affected by the disaster played with United for a short time in the aftermath of Munich before being transferred to Newcastle. Busby allegedly told Scanlon that if he ever fell on hard times Busby would help him out. When Scanlon did turn to Busby, his pleas seemingly fell on deaf ears. Anger at Scanlon’s treatment still affects Albert’s family.

Often ex-players were left to depend upon the kindness of United fans and not the club. In a sign of good will many taxi drivers in Manchester offered the men free transportation. Such respect was not given by United. Greggs isn’t the only one to make such accusations either.

Jeff Connor and Gary James have both recently published works backing up the shocking claims made by Harry Greggs. United’s memorialization of the Munich Air Disaster has often airbrushed out these uncomfortable actions and the Club’s recent history with the survivors hasn’t been much better.

In 1998, on the fortieth anniversary of the disaster United held a testimonial game for the survivors. A £90,000 appearance fee was paid to ex-United legend Eric Cantona to take part in the testimonial. A sum almost twice that given to each of the families of the survivors. The families of the survivors were vocal in their displeasure and it is little surprise that United kept quiet on such matters.

In spite of such abhorrent behaviour, one is left to ask if United are to blame for the way they treated the survivors? The 1950s were an austere time in football, when players’ wages were capped and contracts were dictated by the clubs. United were not alone in ill-treating their former legends, lest one forget West Ham’s allegedly poor relations with Sir Bobby Moore near the end of his life.

Furthermore at the time of the crash, nothing resembling a compensation culture existed in Britain. After two world wars, the British public wanted to see resilience from victims, and not perhaps entitlements (no matter how deserved the survivor’s claims were). United’s treatment of the survivors of Munich was not unique and it is unfair to apply modern day standards to the past.

What is deplorable however is the Club’s recent interactions with the survivor’s families and the continual attempts to air brush from history the Red Devils’ behaviour.

In a football world now awash with money, Manchester United as a club seem content to memorialise the victims, but not compensate the survivors. United as a club have forgotten their past, or are at least are trying to.

Conor Heffernan, Pundit Arena.

About Conor Heffernan

Conor is a recent graduate History and Political Science graduate with an interest in health and football. He has been a long-suffering Leeds United fan since the late 1990s but as always remains optimistic for next season!