The story of our powerful UTD Podcast on Munich

Monday 05 February 2024 17:00

“There’s a lot of memories. But they’re all bad ones… I remember the time, but I hide behind this facade of humour now. Sometimes it… sometimes it helps me forget.”

So said Jackie Blanchflower in 1998, as he reminisced before the 40th anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster. This is the tone struck in the latest episode of the UTD Podcast, Unheard: Memories of Munich, which is out now.

Blanchflower, alongside fellow Munich survivors Bill Foulkes and Albert Scanlon, features in this intimate and emotional account of the darkest day in the club’s history. Whilst many people are familiar with what happened, and many details of it, this podcast scratches beyond the surface as this trio of legendary names take us through the events of the 1950s. 

Memories of the players who made up the team are recalled vibrantly and the club’s maiden forays into European competition are remembered fondly. Then, of course, comes the intensely personal and grievous accounts of what happened in Munich and in the Rechts des Isar Hospital in the following days. Jackie, Bill and Albert share how the tragedy affected their lives and finish discussing comparisons with the team they played in to the contemporary side who were, themselves, aiming for European glory under Alex Ferguson.

The interviews were discovered as part of an archive passed down to me by the family of Tom Tyrrell, the legendary Manchester United author and journalist; I, like many other United fans, received my early education on the club from the books he penned with David Meek. 

To say I was honoured to be asked by the family to look after them, and use them to create content for a new generation, was an understatement. The archive contained hundreds of cassette tapes and hundreds of minidiscs. The task of converting them has been arduous but so rewarding; never more so when discovering this series of interviews recorded by Tom in early 1998.

Unheard: Memories of Munich


As we commemorate the 66th anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster, we have delved into the archives to present a special episode of our UTD Podcast series. In 1998, 40 years after the tragedy, journalist and author Tom Tyrrell spent time with Jackie Blanchflower, Bill Foulkes and Albert Scanlon, Busby Babes and survivors from that fateful day. They spoke about the wonderful and ground-breaking team they played in, the events of 6 February 1958, the aftermath and how it made them feel to watch the United team of 1998 - on the edge of glory themselves. Narrated by the legendary football writer Paddy Barclay, this is of course an incredibly emotional account of the darkest day in our club’s history, and the accounts of Jackie, Bill and Albert are presented as they were told in order to educate listeners.

Those interviews have never been heard since 1998 and in many cases never at all; as was the case for Jackie’s son Andy. “To be honest it took me back a bit,” he admits. “It’s just over 25 years since Dad passed… I think that’s the first time I’ve heard his voice in well over 20 years and it was very surreal and quite emotional.”

It was a similar case for Stephen Foulkes, albeit with a key difference. Bill suffered with dementia in his later years, and for a man who often spoke with such affection about his memories, it was a particularly poignant listen. 

“It was strange to hear his voice again after all this time,” Stephen says. “And it did take me straight back to the days when he was younger, before his memory was impacted by dementia.”

It is precisely this weight of emotion which made it important for the families of Jackie, Bill and Albert to hear their respective interviews in full; the podcast is an important listen for anyone who wishes to understand one of the club’s most significant days on an even deeper level.
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Albert Scanlon’s Hulme drawl places you directly on the streets of Manchester and the tone of idolatry in his voice would make it easy for you to mistake him for merely a devoted supporter of the time if you were not to know of his pedigree that had him seemingly destined for a lifelong association with the club from birth; his uncle was Charlie Mitten, star winger of Matt Busby’s first great United side. 

Scanlon joined United in 1950 as part of Busby’s widespread recruitment of the best young footballers in the country, and at the time of Munich, he was competing with David Pegg for the outside-left position.

“David and me, we went on for years,” Albert recalled. “(We were) Two entirely different players. David was a big lad, always a big lad at school. He was a brilliant player, he had a footballer’s brain. He played for the team. He was a team player, but he had skill.”

Pegg is not the only team-mate to receive plaudits from Scanlon. In fact almost every single player of the squad, never mind team, is given the hero-worship treatment in an emotional fashion which commands your attention.

Albert’s similarly detailed description of the moments before the crash and his memories of being in hospital came as a surprise to his son, Greg.

“I only ever heard my dad talk about Munich twice,” he says, “and both times were for the 50th anniversary in 2008. He never spoke about it. He did an interview for the radio and to a newspaper. For the newspaper interview, the reporter came to his house. I stayed to listen because it was the first time I ever heard him speak about it.”

Every great Manchester United squad contains a healthy number of home-grown players. Within that number are players just like Albert; boyhood United supporters devoted to the club who have given them the chance to live their dreams. That commitment and dedication has often been the difference.
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Matt Busby liked a gamble. That much was evidenced by his breaking up a successful team to give teenage lads a chance of playing First Division football en masse, with a strong and accurate intuition about the long-term benefits. Jackie Blanchflower may have represented his biggest gamble yet. 

Not in terms of quality - Blanchflower was so good that he was one of those Busby players who could play in a number of positions expertly - but when it came to the manager’s tactical revolution, which is still widely unheralded today. 

English football was still reeling from the humiliation doled out by Hungary as the Mighty Magyars destroyed the Three Lions in games in both countries. The secret to the Hungarian success was in the nuance of their tactical smarts; some positional switching to outfox their opponents. 

Most in England were affronted by this, thinking it was against the spirit of the game; Busby had been ahead of the curve in this regard, firstly through making sure players were trained to cover multiple positions but also in how he bucked the trend to subtly change those roles. In the First Division at the time, the left-half (a holding midfielder in today’s vernacular) would be asked to sit and the right-half would attack. 

Well, United had Duncan Edwards at left-half, who could do everything. Eddie Colman, his usual sidekick, mopped up things at right-half, disturbing the rhythm of an opponent’s midfield. 

Tommy Taylor, the centre-forward, would often drop deep and even run the wings to join in the play, making his phenomenal goal contribution even more staggering.

It was in Blanchflower, though, where Busby was plotting his most daring move. In the old 3-2-5 formation, there was just one centre-half. In Manchester United’s team, that was usually Mark Jones. “Big Mark was a typical, no nonsense centre-half,” explained Scanlon. “If the ball dropped, Mark kicked it. Mark also had a lot of skill, he could control the ball, he could pass the ball.”

Opponents had become so defensive against Busby’s marauding babes that Jones was often left with little to do. 

The United boss had the brainwave of picking Blanchflower, who had usually played at inside-forward and half-back, at centre half, with the idea that his added comfort and composure on the ball - and not insignificant goal threat - would give rival managers the headache of knowing that every single player on the United team could punish them if they gave them too much time on the ball, thereby encouraging them to come out and play; creating more space, just as Busby had wanted. 

Now, he had a centre half for any eventuality, and whoever was planning to face United would not be able to predict how they would shape up.

This was one long-term switch which would surely have reaped significant benefits, if not for Munich; Blanchflower suffered injuries to his arms, legs and pelvis which ultimately caused him to retire prematurely well before his prime.

Belfast-born Blanchflower - brother of Tottenham Hotspur legend Danny - was a real character in his own right. He had different jobs, but his captivating personality made him a must-see on the after-dinner circuit.

“Dad used to have a saying, ‘Humour is made all the more realistic when it’s tinged with pathos, and the two are never far apart’,” recalls Andy. “He was a naturally funny man and his after-dinner career was born out of introducing my mum Jean when she sung at the local working men’s clubs. He even did 25 minutes at my wedding after the meal, I almost felt like paying him! More importantly, though, he was a warm man.”

On the podcast, you can feel every facet of that personality as described; Jackie’s comic touch draws a laugh; his evident grief makes the empathetic sorrow all the more powerful.

Andy says Jackie was as reluctant to speak about the disaster - as comes across. “He never spoke to me at length about the crash,” he admits. “The memory of the crash from the late 60s, early 70s, when I can start to remember from, was there all the time and moreso around the anniversary every year. He became depressed, solemn and sometimes I heard him say he wished he was with his mates. I can’t even imagine what it was like for him. 

“He spoke about it more as the years went on, and it altered his outlook on life as he believed in fate after Munich due to the fact that Roger Byrne who was sat next to him sadly passed away.”
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Bill Foulkes was a quiet, pensive speaker; a contrast to the image he established for himself as the robust centre half who stepped into the void following the death of Mark Jones and Jackie Blanchflower’s retirement and went on to become the club’s leading appearance maker for a short while. 

So, was the real Bill that on-pitch fighter, or was he closer to the mild-mannered voice he possessed (which, incidentally, is clearly a family trait shared by his son)?

“He was both,” Stephen says. “He was competitive in everything, that was just his nature. One example. When I was three or four, Harry Gregg was round at our house and we were playing football in the back garden. Harry was jumping about, I’m shooting the ball and Harry was jumping out of the way. Dad told him off for letting me score. ‘He’s got to learn,’ Dad said. ‘I’m a bloody international goalkeeper,’ Harry had replied, ‘He’s three years old!’ If you beat Dad at anything - and I never managed to beat him at golf, although I managed to at table tennis - you had to earn it.”

It is Foulkes’ matter-of-fact delivery of the events of the crash which stands out against Scanlon’s unconsciousness and Blanchflower’s refusal. The stories of Harry Gregg’s heroism are rightly lauded, but whilst difficult to listen to, it is nonetheless extremely important to listen to Bill explain what happened. 

“There were elements within his interview where he talked about things that I didn’t know,” Stephen admits, “because he never talked about the actual crash at home. He would talk about the players, but not the day itself.”

Foulkes had played as a right-back before the crash and even though he had been subjected to the Busby and Jimmy Murphy school of repositioning, he didn’t fancy his chances. “There was no chance I’d get into the side with people like Jackie Blanchflower and Mark Jones in,” Bill said, “but the opportunity came after Munich.”

On the podcast, Bill explains the difficulty of leading out a scratch side for United’s first game after the disaster, against Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup. 

“It was such a traumatic time for me, personally,” he confessed. “Jimmy made me Captain and (told me to) take the team out. My health wasn't so good. I was suffering from colds and flu. It was just a reaction, I think, from from the accident. Physically, I wasn't feeling too good. And then when we walked out onto the pitch, the atmosphere was incredible. Can't imagine what it was like, you know, and I felt sorry for really for the Sheffield, Sheffield team, because they didn't have a chance, you know… they hadn't got to win that game. There's no way that we were going to lose that game. But after Munich wasn't a good time for me. It was a very traumatic time for me.”

Foulkes explained that time was a healer. “From 1963 onwards, when I'd recovered from it, they were my best years,” he said. He would go on to win the FA Cup, two more league championships to make it four in total, and of course the European Cup, in 1968. 

In fact, it was Foulkes’ heroic dash and strike towards goal near the end of the epic semi-final second leg against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu which secured the passage to the final. A survivor of Munich scoring a goal against the Babes’ great foe of the 50s to secure the European Cup final place they had wanted so badly; it remains one of the most romantic goals in Manchester United. Did Bill recognise the power of it in that context?

“Not in those terms,” Stephen admits. “For him, it was something that needed to be done. That was Dad’s attitude with everything. If you look at the goal, George actually looks twice, because he looks for the pass and then does a second take as if to say ‘What the hell’s he doing there?’ When everyone was jumping around celebrating, Dad’s attitude was - we haven’t won yet. 

“You see sporting films where everything comes good at the end, but if you wrote this, it wouldn’t seem real. It would seem contrived. But it isn’t. It actually happened. Sport does throw these things up and because it’s not scripted, it’s all the more powerful for it. It’s fate. He got that closure. He wasn’t going to play on for much longer. That was the time to do it.”

Foulkes’ goal made it 3-3 on the night, and 4-3 to United on aggregate. They went on to win the European Cup a few weeks later, defeating Benfica 4-1 at Wembley. 

For Foulkes and Bobby Charlton, and manager Sir Matt Busby, it was the culmination of remarkable human journeys.

Stories about Sir Bobby Charlton


Welcome to a special episode of the Manchester United Podcast. Today we commemorate one of our most beloved sons, Sir Bobby Charlton, who passed away on 21 October at the age of 86. There are no superlatives worthy of describing just how much Sir Bobby’s contribution to the club is valued and similarly, there are no words to articulate just how profound and sad this loss is to everyone associated with Manchester United. In this episode, Sam, Helen and Maysie present a selection of their favourite Sir Bobby Charlton stories, told by previous guests of the United Podcast. One thing is obvious and shines through these stories… the respect, admiration and affection that everybody holds for Sir Bobby Charlton. The greatest: he will never be forgotten.

Jackie passed away in September 1998, just months after the interview with Tom Tyrrell. Like Bill and Albert, he spoke warmly about the potential of Alex Ferguson’s team at the time, but he was tragically unable to see their success at the end of that season.

His last game at Old Trafford was to attend the 40th anniversary game against an Eric Cantona XI in August 1998; Jackie was a keen supporter of the Association of the Former Manchester United players and attended events. 

“He was proud of being a Busby Babe, especially in the pre-Munich era, as it will never be known how good this group of players would become as they were mostly three to five years from reaching their peaks,” Andy says. “It was extra hard for Dad as he watched his brother Danny go on to have a glittering career with Spurs and Northern Ireland, but he was also a philosophical man and didn’t dwell publicly about his misfortune. Bear in mind he was a non-playing reserve on the trip and not meant to go, so he must’ve thought how different it could’ve been… Dad actually says it on the podcast - they were all like brothers, it must’ve been so exciting for all these young men to be part of this, and Dad was no exception.”

Albert and Bill passed away in 2009 and 2013 respectively. They had presented the Premier League trophy to the United players in 2007. 

“It meant a lot to him,” Stephen Foulkes says of his dad. “He only ever played for one club. United were his team. They were doing so well, and there was an excitement with the young players coming through. He loved all that. He felt that it was the spirit living on. 

“His love for the club spoke for itself and that was demonstrated by his loyalty and commitment. He loved everything about it. The fact that it was a family club and I know that from my own experience. He loved going to the games and talking to the fans. We went to a Cup final at Wembley. A guy came up to him with a baby and asked for a picture of Dad with the baby. He was happy to oblige and he just felt so happy to see that enthusiasm.”

Albert, meanwhile, even made it to Moscow the following year, to see United win the European Cup for the third time.

All three, like their team-mates, contributed something significant to United to leave a unique, indelible mark on the club’s history.

We will always remember them: