It’s not a tragedy that was exclusive to my team or my hometown.
I was speaking to an older Scottish man in Spain who said, back when it happened, when people realized you were from Britain, they were gutted for you.
There was no animosity back then like there was today. In a world of social media, anonymity and keyboard warriors I shudder to think what would the reaction be. But I’d like to think that on February 7th 1958 when people woke up it was a different time. Of sympathy and disbelief.
Because they were just lads. It was only 13 years after the war, yet they were just lads, again, who wouldn’t be coming home from Germany.
There has been much written and documented, but they were a good team. I cannot sit here and say they’d have gone on and won the European Cup in 1958. However if it wasn’t to be delivered in that particular year, it was certainly in the mail. The plane crash in Munich took it all away.
There were three Mancunians on the team that lost their battle for life in the crash.
Roger Byrne was from the Gorton district of Manchester (very close to the modern day Etihad stadium.) Just as working class then as it is now.
Geoff Bent and Eddie Coleman were from Salford. The red headed sibling city next to Manchester. The mean streets eulogized by The Smiths and the plays of Shelagh Delaney… Most notably the soap opera Coronation Street is set there, a working class drama for working class people in the terraced houses that looked just like their own. If you’ve ever read George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier, that was these young mens lives growing up. School of hard knocks, where football was the only escape for a life of menial factory labor and Friday nights in the pub.
There is a rivalry, between the Red Rose county of Lancashire and the White Rose county of Yorkshire. Rivalry may be a bit soft actually as for a while it became an actual war, with pikestaffs, spears and battles. But Yorkshire and Lancashire have more in common than not. The houses are the same, the food is the same, the grim bleak industrial prospects were the same, and back in the 1950’s the escape once more was in the parks and stadiums for football. Manchester United had 3 proud Yorkshiremen whom perished. Mark Jones and Tommy Taylor were both from Barnsley. A smaller satellite town between Leeds and Sheffield, Barnsley mined the coal that fueled the steel foundries of Sheffield. That was the stark choice for Jones and Taylor, the football field or the mines.
David Pegg was from Doncaster. Another coal town to the east of Sheffield and Barnsley. He’d just been called upto the England squad the year prior.
“Well, if this is the time, then I’m ready.” were the last words of Billy Whelan, It wouldn’t be Manchester United without Irishmen. and Liam “Billy” Whelan along with survivors Harry Gregg and Jackie Blanchflower were United Irishmen. It’s always been that way, the past and future. Those lads paved the way for George Best, Norman Whiteside and Roy Keane to follow. Jackie Blanchflower alongside Johnny Berry were so injured they never kicked a ball in anger again.
Then there was Duncan. See, I don’t have to utter anymore and most will already know whom I am referring too. He was the youngest player to represent England since the second world war. My peers still wax lyrical about him, he is spoke of in reverence to other greats in that era like Stanley Matthews and Nat Lofthouse. He would have played an instrumental role in the 1962 world cup, alas we only got the slightest of glimpses of his talents.
There were others whom died, journalists including former Manchester City and England’s Frank Swift. Cabin Crew and coaches. They all deserve a mention here.
I try not to be a grief monger. No sporting tragedy is worse than any other. I am ashamed I don’t know more about the plane crashes of Marshall University or the Zambian football teams. Ibrox, Hillsborough, Hysel and the fire at Bradford all took the lives of people whom loved the games they played or watched.
But what happened at Munich airport on 6th February 1958 was simply tragic, and needs remembered for the good people the game lost that day.
Rest in Peace
Liam “Billy” Whelan