They might have become the greatest club side English football has ever known. One might have become the mainspring of an England team that won multiple World Cups. Another man might have died, twice, but instead he survived to achieve glory for the spirits of those who did die, including the big fella from Dudley, who lived on for three weeks after sustaining injuries that would have killed anyone else instantly.
They were the Babes, the Busby Babes, and it’s fifty seven years today since their plane crashed in the snow, and the greatest hope of English football was destroyed. We who are Manchester United, from the oldest among us who remembers the news of that day, to the newest of fans with the haziest idea of history, one word unites us all on this day in every year: Munich.
I’m not going to retell what happened. The stories are all too familiar, they need no explanation. Duncan Edwards. Matt Busby. Bobby Charlton. Harry Gregg. Jimmy Murphy, back at Old Trafford, with the bottle of whiskey on a day when nothing could take you out of stone cold sobriety as you thought about the stars, the dazzling players, the young men you would never see again.
This day is a part of all of us who follow the Red Devils. When it happened, I was barely fifteen months old: far too young to see or hear or understand, or care about anything outside my house and my parents. When it was that I learned, I cannot remember. Somebody told me, but the memories within feel like they’ve always been there.
Some fans accuse us of wallowing in our Disaster: our nearest, bitterest rivals call us ‘Munichs’, just as we call them ‘Bitters’, and truth be told our club and those who have run it have not always been the best, or most sensitive guardians of the legacy we have been forced to bear. But the young men who died, the would-have-been-legends who wore the colours, are a part of our history, a shared loss that all of us feel.
Do you seriously think that, given the chance to go back in time, to do the one thing that would have that final attempt to climb off the ground aborted, that there is a single one of us that would not do so, in a heartbeat? That if it were possible to reverse what happened, that any of us, of the all of us there have been this past fifty seven years, would choose instead to preserve the legend? Don’t be so stupid. We would all of us want nothing better than for Munich to mean nothing more to Manchester United than a city in Germany.
But that’s not the way it played out. What they could have done, and could have been is only a matter of conjecture. They’d just won the League twice, and been denied the first Twentieth Century Double by a challenge that put our goalkeeper out of the Cup Final with a fractured cheekbone: ten men and a defender in nets. Duncan Edwards was the youngest man to play for England, in a time when young men didn’t even play for first teams: would Bobby Moore have had an England career if Big Dunc stood in his way?
Matt Busby survived, and so did Wor Bobby, to become legends of the game, to honour the memory and the loss of their team-mates and friends at Wembley in 1968.
It was fifty seven years ago today, and every year we remember them, even those of us who have no memories of them. And we still sing, and always will sing, the song that honours them.
We’ll never die, we’ll never die
We’ll never die, we’ll never die
We’ll keep the red flag flying high
Cos Man United will never die.