Bobby Charlton's tales rekindle Babes passion
By Tim Rich
Last Updated: 1:57am GMT 02/02/2008
"Dennis, it's dreadful." They were the first words Bobby Charlton spoke as he came round on the slush-covered runway at Munich Airport, grateful that he had kept his overcoat on as the plane made its third, fatal attempt to take off.
He had been sitting next to Dennis Viollet who, with Tommy Taylor, provided the deep cutting-edge to the Busby Babes. As the propeller-driven Airspeed Elizabethan, call-sign Zulu Uniform, ploughed through the airport's perimeter fence, Viollet, who at 24 already had a reputation as one of the more sophisticated members of this young, wondrously talented Manchester United side, turned to Charlton and told him, contrary to all the evidence splintering around them, to relax.
The next time they spoke they were still in their seats, some 70 yards away from the wrecked plane, Viollet with a deep gash to his head, Charlton outwardly uninjured except for bruising. As the rear section of the aircraft sheared away they had been thrown from the seats onto the runway, and been found by Manchester United's reserve goalkeeper, Harry Gregg, who proved one of the heroes of the disaster. Gregg initially thought them dead, before dragging them "like rag dolls" back into their seats, where they regained consciousness in the damp, bitter February air.
"Have we crashed Bob?" Viollet said, and Charlton gave the answer he always regretted before getting up and walking away through the snow, past dead bodies he did not recognise, though he did have the presence of mind to place his overcoat over his manager, Matt Busby, who, dreadfully injured, was thought unlikely to live.
Charlton was taken into a coal truck along with Gregg and Bill Foulkes and driven through the blizzard, skidding across the runway at breakneck speed to the Rechts der Isar hospital. When he woke up, he found himself next to a young German reading about the disaster in a newspaper. He asked for the names of the dead, and they came over. 'Roger Byrne, David Pegg, Eddie Colman, Tommy Taylor, Billy Whelan, Mark Jones, Geoff Bent. Dead.'
"It was like someone reading out the names of pals you go to the dance with at the weekend," he remembered. "Friends who would invite you to come to their Christmas dinner, because I was living in digs. It is really, really upsetting, even today.
"But it is better for me to tell people how good they were; that's the most important thing. I would hate to think people might forget it, but people don't believe me sometimes when I tell them how good Duncan Edwards, Tommy Taylor, David Pegg, Eddie Colman and Billy Whelan were. They had unbelievable talent."
He is always asked about Edwards, who died in the early hours of Feb 21 after a fight for life that the doctors in Munich could not quite believe. There is a passage in Charlton's autobiography, My Manchester United Years, in which he describes Edwards scoring against the RAF in a move in which he passed to and received the ball from every member of the team, shooting so hard that the goalkeeper ducked from its path.
Charlton was asked if Edwards could be compared to Wayne Rooney, and delivered a dismissive reply. "It is not even worth mentioning, we can talk about Wayne Rooney when he is retired.
"Edwards was just a massive, massive talent. That is the only way I can describe him. There's a picture on the wall of the old youth team, and he looks twice the size of anybody else. In stature, he was enormous.
"He was strong, he was tough and to add to that talent he could use his right foot, his left foot. He was a great long passer, he was a great short passer, he had great stamina and he could play in any position. He loved playing the game; all he wanted to do was to play football."
There was an enormous camaraderie in this Manchester United side, which had won successive League Championships and come achingly close to the Treble, 42 years before Alex Ferguson's side achieved it in Barcelona.
When Charlton joined United, one of his great thrills was staying in a hotel, and the quest for the European Cup appeared magical at a time when few, especially from working-class Manchester, took foreign holidays.
"Playing in Europe was a great adventure. We kept hearing about how good these teams were, but we had no idea who played for them," Charlton said. "We learned a lesson with each game. I was doing my National Service and one of the non-commissioned officers was a Manchester United supporter and took me to the first European Cup fixture the club played. It was at Maine Road [because Old Trafford, wrecked by German bombs during the War, then had no floodlights]. They beat Anderlecht 10-0, and everyone in the city was so excited."
The way Charlton, now 70, can instantly recall the remainder of that 1956-57 season demonstrates how deep and how unreal that thrill must have been. "The next match they lost 4-3 at Bilbao, but came back and won 3-0; we then played Borussia Dortmund, won 3-2 at home and drew 0-0 away. Then, in the semi-finals, we received the biggest lesson you could ever get in football from Real Madrid at a time when they had Di Stefano and Gento. We thought we were good enough to beat them, but it was a harsh lesson to learn."
Half a century before Kevin Keegan argued that football's primary duty was to entertain, it was a philosophy that Busby drilled into his young footballers. "Matt Busby always said to me, 'All those lads you see going to the factories in Trafford Park, they come to watch you on a Saturday. They have boring jobs, so you have to give them something a bit special, something they will enjoy.'
"He was always saying, 'Don't be afraid to express yourselves'. You look at old films of the players and you think everything is slow and ponderous. But I tell you in those days you had to earn your wage. The pitches were unbelievably bad, the ball was heavy, the weather was bad. The best way to describe it is that today everything in football is better."
A year later they reached another European Cup semi-final after beating Red Star Belgrade's Vladimir Beara, then considered the best goalkeeper on the continent, three times before the interval. Viollet and Charlton, the men who sat together as the Elizabethan attempted to clear the runway, scored the goals that cleared the path to Milan.
"Everyone was so happy, there was so much laughter because we had qualified," Charlton said. "There was a first attempt to take off, but they said they had a technical problem and would have to go back. We did that for a second time, and again the message came through, 'We can't take off'. And then, the third time, the plane just went straight along the runway.
"When you fly, you have a general idea how long it takes to take off and I was sitting there thinking, 'There's something not quite right here'. Then, we went through a perimeter fence and I don't remember anything until afterwards. The accident simply happened because they didn't realise the speed of the aircraft, how much slush was on the runway and how much snow was coming down. These days, they wouldn't have taken off. I think about it quite often.
"I think about Captain Thain [the commander of BEA flight 609, who survived the crash and was afterwards made something of a scapegoat for the disaster]. I wonder what his thoughts were, and why we took off, but I suppose it will never be proved.
"For the people who survived, all you can say is that we were lucky. It was Matt Busby's family, and he probably felt the loss more than anyone because he had brought these players together, he had cajoled everyone's parents to make them sign for Manchester United and then took them into Europe against the FA's wishes."
Charlton's view is that the Football Association and the Football League indirectly played a part in the Munich Disaster. They were never keen on the European Cup, and had successfully put pressure on Chelsea not to compete in the inaugural 1955-56 tournament.
When Busby did enter Manchester United, it was on the understanding that they return to England at least 24 hours before their next league fixture, which was then against the eventual champions, Wolverhampton Wanderers.
These days, United return from Europe immediately after the game, landing at what used to be known as Ringway Airport in the small hours. In 1958, United spent the Wednesday night at an official banquet at which their three Yorkshire players, Tommy Taylor, David Pegg and Mark Jones delivered a public rendition of On Ilkley Moor Baht'at, took off from Zemun Airport in mid-morning and landed at Munich at 1.15pm on the Thursday. If they had aborted the flight, they would have to make it back to Ringway by 3pm the following day or incur FA sanctions.
"Alan Hardaker (the then secretary of the Football League) argued that he was protecting the 'integrity' of the League, preventing important matches being squeezed into the programme in the shadow of European action," Charlton wrote in his autobiography. "Another interpretation was that he was making it as difficult as possible for the man who had defied him with his insistence that United would fight on this new frontier of football."
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