How the Academy teaches the Munich Air Disaster

Saturday 05 February 2022 15:00

Manchester United Under-23s marked the 64th anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster by welcoming members of the club’s Under-13s side to lay wreaths at Saturday’s fixture against West Ham United.

On Sunday afternoon, two members of the Under-13s will read poems at the fan-led ceremony held at Old Trafford, which begins at 14:40 GMT.

Here is the story, as told in our matchday programme United Review, of how the Academy works to educate its young players on the tragedy of 1958 and its significance to the history of Manchester United.

The story of the Munich Air Disaster is, in many ways, also the story of Manchester United’s Academy. First, of its success in producing the players for one of English football’s finest-ever teams. Then, of how it provided the steady foundations for the club by producing another set of players that allowed United, in the words of club chairman Harold Hardman, to “go on”. Finally, of its success again, producing eight of the starting XI in the 1968 European Cup final.

“It’s what the club is about. It’s the DNA of the club,” Jimmy Murphy Jnr, son of United’s legendary assistant manager, says when asked why teaching current Academy players about Munich is so important. And he’s right.

That education process is far from straightforward. The disaster was 64 years ago and the ‘characters’ in the story who can talk to the boys are found few and far between. The subject of death is central and must be broached within an already full-on football schedule, which itself moulds around a full-on education schedule. But despite those potential difficulties, Academy education manager Ian Smithson says it’s “amazing how kids of that age are able to be so poignant in their poems and projects”.

At the end of an hour-long session discussing the Munich Air Disaster at Ashton-on-Mersey School, Academy player liaison officer Dave Bushell – who has served the club for 25 years – reads out a poem. It’s been written in the last few minutes by one of United’s Under-13s players.

February 6th 1958, disaster struck.
From happiness to sadness,
Munich took the lives of many,
And many severely injured,
But we must not give up.
‘The Flowers of Manchester’
The heart, the desire,
As 10 years later, they did the
1968 European Cup winners.
The dedication of Jimmy Murphy,
The talent of Bobby Charlton,
The braveness of Harry Gregg.
We shall never forget,
The Busby Babes.

It’s clear that these boys really get it.

The session begins with an introduction from Bushell, as he walks around the room collecting posters produced by the boys on individual figures such as Duncan Edwards, Bobby Charlton and Jimmy Murphy himself. The U13s have come with good knowledge of United in the 1950s, both from researching for their posters at home and from a visit to the Old Trafford Museum earlier in the year with Bushell. That means that, while some have forgotten Jimmy Murphy’s name, one jaw does drop when his son is introduced to the group, showing the importance of that physical link to the past.

Academy player liason officer Dave Bushell reads out a poem written by one of the pupils.

Highlights of United’s game against Red Star Belgrade on 5 February 1958 are shown. The colossal figure of Duncan Edwards, chest out, head up, stands out. His team-mates twirl around in black and white. Bushell points out the state of the pitch and the kids notice the ball bobbling about. “It’s a bit different to ours at Carrington, isn’t it?” their coach jokes.

A couple of laughs are directed the way of the Red Star goalkeeper as he’s beaten first by Dennis Viollet and then Bobby Charlton, the pair scoring the three all-important first-half goals that secure United a 3-3 draw and a place in the 1958 European Cup semi-finals.

Bushell continues the story and describes how United’s players headed to Belgrade’s Majestic Hotel post-match to share a meal and an evening with the Red Star players, chatting as friends despite the intensity and significance of the match. “Remember that,” he says.

“They flew out the next morning,” Dave continues. “In those days, planes couldn’t do long journeys all the way back to Manchester, so they stopped in Munich to refuel. History tells us that on the third attempt to take off, the plane crashed.”

It’s explained that the pilot has been exonerated and that the slush on the runway caused the crash, and then a video of the aftermath is shown. The famous Pathe news clip comes on, with the names of the survivors and those who have died read out. It’s a clip that seems to suck the air out of any room and never fails to leave a lump in your throat.

United's Under-13s watch a poignant news clip from 6 February 1958.

Jimmy Murphy Jnr explains his father’s absence from the flight. Murphy was managing the Welsh national team in Cardiff as they qualified for that year’s World Cup by beating Israel. He describes how Murphy returned to Manchester, took a taxi to Old Trafford, and arrived at the ground none the wiser to the horrific events that had just unfolded in Germany. He went to his office and was stopped by club secretary Alma George, who relayed the news. “My father didn’t believe it,” Jim says. He had to be told three times.

After sharing the story of how his father told the Manchester United board that the club must go on, Jimmy Jnr takes questions from the youngsters. His responses shed light on how the Academy was run in the 1950s – with Bert Whalley training the youngest players, passing them on to Murphy, who then passed the best on to Matt Busby – and how it was then devastated by Munich. “We won the FA Youth Cup five times on the run. It was like a machine; then the machine was broken.”

Academy player liaison officer Bushell then asks: “What qualities did Jimmy look for in a player?”

Talent, but also guts, is the answer.

“When I go down to Carrington now,” Jim says, “people shout at me, ‘get stuck in, Jimmy!’ because that’s what my dad used to shout to his players.”

They then go through the rise-from-the-ashes story at speed: 1958 FA Cup final; 1963 FA Cup winners; 1965 league champions; 1967 league champions; 1968 European Cup winners. Another video follows, beginning with Murphy leading out the team at Wembley in 1958 and ending with another game there, 10 years on. The kids are particularly enthralled by the colour film of ’68, smiling as Bobby Charlton finishes past Benfica goalkeeper Jose Henrique.

The point is stated clearly as Busby is embraced by Foulkes, Charlton and Best on the Wembley turf: “It’s not just the fact that United got back to the pinnacle; it’s the way they did it – with the youth,” says Bushell, before Jimmy Jnr adds: “Ever since we’ve gone down and come back up again, we’ve always made sure it’s with the youngsters.”

Jimmy Murphy Jr chats with the team's coach and Head of Academy Nick Cox.

“As well as supporting players’ education when they’re at school, one of the things we run is an informal education programme where we have the opportunity to add value to what they’re doing,” Academy education manager Smithson explains.

Educating United players about the Munich Air Disaster is paramount in preserving the club’s values. When Jimmy Murphy rang Billy Whelan’s family in Ireland in February 1958, he told them that Manchester United would go on, but that Billy’s name would never be forgotten. It has not and cannot. But in addition to that, the story of Munich, as Smithson says, is “the foundation of the modern club."

Priceless lessons

Education on the Munich Air Disaster is one part of a wider education initiative inside the Academy. While the U13s learn about Munich, the U12s engage in a project on the First World War and the Christmas Truce, with the U14s focusing on the Holocaust and the Second World War. “Our connections within football mean they can speak to a survivor,” Academy education manager Ian Smithson explains in reference to certain historical events. “The boys realise how amazing that is. It’s just so powerful to hear their testimony, and now we invite the parents to listen as well.”

Older age groups, the U15s and U16s, come together to look at trailblazers in United history. Last year’s project focused on Dennis Walker, the first player of mixed heritage to play for the club’s first team. As Smithson explains: “Three or four times a season we put some time aside and host ‘enrichment days’. Each group spends some time on their projects as part of this day, with sessions led by us and talks from people who can add value to it. We can use our connections, and the power of football, if you like, to teach them interesting things they might not get in school.”


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