It was one of the first professional football matches I ever saw. It may even have been the very first.
The awesome magic of Manchester United was at its height back then, not just in the way they played but in the sense of expectation, admiration and sheer wonder that they inspired in spectators. My Dad took me to Ninian Park that day, 27th April, 1957, to watch United take on the team that had already infused my bloodstream with deep, irreversible loyalty and passion, the ‘Bluebirds’, Cardiff City. The teams were in the First Division, the highest tier at the time, way before the inception of the Premier League. Nine months later, two of the United players I watched would be killed in the Munich air crash. Three others were rescued by Harry Gregg.
I was reminded of that day earlier this week by the announcement of the passing away of the legendary Irish goalkeeper. Reputations were harder to earn in the days before headline writers assumed control of the national psyche. Harry Gregg wasn’t in goal that day, his place taken by Ray Wood. Quite honestly, I remember very little about the match, which is a pity, as it was obviously a bit of a nail-biter. (As a very young lad, I think I found the spectacle of the near-deafening noise of so many supporters, the vastness of the stadium and the atmosphere of seriousness and passion even more interesting than the game. My Dad kept encouraging me to watch what was going on on the pitch!).
I haven’t found any full match report, but I have discovered the timings of the United goals. They scored in the 43rd, 86th and 90th minutes. So it looks as though my beloved Bluebirds were probably 2-1 up with four minutes left on the clock. Irish international Liam Whelan, who was one of those who tragically died in Munich, scored in the 43rd minute. That would be a good time (maybe) to bring the scores level at 1-1 (I don’t know). Another guess: Cardiff went ahead again in the second half. But Scottish international Alex Dawson scored in the 86th minute, that much is sure. And Liam Whelan finished us off by scoring from the penalty spot on 90 minutes.
Liam Whelan died at the age of 22. Eddie Colman, who also played in the game I watched, was another who perished in the disaster. An England international, he was just 21. The only Welshman to play that day, Colin Webster, would certainly have gone on the Munich trip if he’d been fit, but he had ‘flu and couldn’t go.
It’s difficult to describe the depth of national mourning – across the whole of Britain – that surrounded that disaster. There wasn’t quite as much of the mind-numbing, media-fed tribalism back then. There had been twenty-three deaths in total, including players, crew members, club staff and journalists. Manager Matt Busby survived, but the list of famous players who died also included David Pegg, 22, Mark Jones, 24, Geoff Bent, 25, Tommy Taylor, 26, and team captain Roger Byrne, 28.
So when it was revealed that Duncan Edwards seemed to have survived, a collective sigh of relief went around grieving football fans. He was a true “Busby Babe”, only 21 on the date of the crash. He was without doubt one of the most admired players in the United squad, arguably in the whole of England, despite having had a couple of ‘dodgy’ games just prior to the crash. I can’t improve on the Wikipedia section on him headed Style of Play. He was highly talented all around the park and played 177 games for the club.
Although Match of the Day didn’t launch until 1964, I’d often see Manchester United featured on sports reports on TV. Now millions tuned into news broadcasts on the BBC Home Service (precursor of BBC Radio 4) to hear the latest updates. Initially it appeared that Duncan Edwards would recover from his injuries. As the situation with the other survivors – and most notably that of Matt Busby himself – became clearer, the whole focus of news reports about the crash eventually switched to the condition of Duncan Edwards (see right – photo of the statue of Edwards in the centre of his home town of Dudley). Every morning, I’d wait for the 8.00 am news broadcast. Invariably it included an update on Edwards’ condition, such was the level of public interest. At first things looked good and after the first week he seemed to be making a recovery. But then reporters became less optimistic. His condition took a turn for the worse. On the morning of 21st February the lead story told of his death, which had happened overnight. That was a highly emotional moment for me and millions of others. I don’t want to overstate the extent of national mourning, but looking back it does have just a tinge of the kind of feelings engendered by the deaths of John Lennon and Princess Diana. That’s the way I remember it, anyway. I think emotions were heightened by the two weeks he spent fighting to survive.
Although tributes to Harry Gregg were fulsome, for me they didn’t entirely do him justice. “He went back into the ‘plane and saved a number of people” doesn’t really describe his courage. And he was a very courageous player, by the way. Those were the days when ‘keepers were far less protected by the rules of play. It was perfectly legitimate to barge into a goalkeeper and bundle him over the line. Nowadays I sometimes wonder if giving a goalkeeper a dirty look can result in a red card.
Trapped in the wreckage at first, Gregg managed to prise himself out of the twisted metal. He ignored shouted orders to get away from the plane for fear of explosion. In fact, he clambered back into the shattered shell of the blazing aircraft to undertake a series of rescues. Amongst those he pulled to safety were Vera Lukić, pregnant wife of a Yugoslav diplomat, and her daughter, Vesna, together with the three other players that I’d seen play – Albert Scanlon, Ray Wood and Dennis Viollet – as well as Jackie Blanchflower and the now-legendary Bobby Charlton. According to reports, Charlton and Viollet were unconscious, Gregg dragging them from the plane by the waist-bands of their trousers.
Sport, in general, and football, in particular, has a way of creating lasting memories, whether for the onlooker or the participant. My memory of the match I attended has all but faded; but what happened nine months or so later, and the aftermath, will stay with me as long as I live.
Busby Babes last match – public domain – see https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Busby_babes_last_match.jpg
Munich crash –
Deutsch: Crash des BEA Fluges 609 am Flughafen Riem, MünchenFotofuzzy1 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)
ChrisTheDude / CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)