Munich plaque in Manchesterplatz

Willie Satinoff: One of us

Flick through the index section of any of the countless number of books about the tragedy of the Munich Air Disaster, or the Busby Babes, and you’ll find the name Willie Satinoff.

Alongside it, you’ll most likely see a solitary page reference to turn to. Leaf back through the book and, typically, you’ll come to rest at a paragraph or two bearing a set of names that you’ve heard before. Names that you know, somewhere deep inside, even if at only the hinterlands of your memory.
 
Of the 23 people that lost their lives following the crash at the end of a snowbound runway in Bavaria on 6 February 1958, they are the ones who were not championship-winning footballers. Or prominent sports journalists. After their name is usually a word or two to explain who they were.
 
Tom Cable – a Welsh cabin steward, who knew the players well and was reported to be a fan who’d swapped shifts to go on the trip. Bela Miklos – a travel agent, whose wife, Eleanor Miklos, survived the crash. After Willie’s name, there often follows just a simple epithet: supporter.
 
“Everyone goes on about the players, but what about the other people who died?”
demanded United goalkeeper Harry Gregg years later.
 
But as Jeff Connor notes in The Lost Babes: Manchester United and the Forgotten Victims of Munich, the nature of history pushes the more obscure names to the margins: ‘The truth about any tragedy on a grand scale is that the most famous are remembered first. Only the most devoted music fan can name the others in the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly almost 12 months to the day after Munich.’
 
A salient reminder of that point was delivered again only recently, when seven others died in a helicopter crash alongside legendary basketball star Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna in Calabasas, California.
Willie Satinoff on vacation.
This photo of Willie on vacation was kindly given to us by his son, Paul.
But Willie Satinoff has not been forgotten by those who followed in his footsteps: our loyal fans. In 2017, the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust (MUST) erected a plaque in tribute to Satinoff before our 2-0 win over Crystal Palace on the final day of the Premier League season.
 
As United prepared to travel to Stockholm to finish the club’s sweep of European trophies – completing the odyssey that Matt Busby and the club began, with Willie in tow, back in 1956 – a crowd including Paul Satinoff, Willie’s son, gathered before the MUST offices on Sir Matt Busby Way to celebrate its unveiling.
 
But who was Willie Satinoff? And why is his story so important in the history of Manchester United?
 
Born in London in 1910, to parents Reuben and Rachel Satinoff, William was their second child, following elder brother Harry.
 
Just after the First World War, Reuben founded the London Waterproof Company, and then a subsidiary, Alligator Rainwear. Alligator soon grew to encompass four factories in the UK – in London, Manchester, Leeds and Stockport.
 
Harry and Willie assumed greater control following the Second World War, as demand grew.
Satinoff was a close friend of Busby's, and would have stayed in the team hotel in Belgrade.
Willie was no ordinary businessman, though. As United fan and writer Tom Clare recounts: ‘Willie Satinoff loved life. He worked hard and played hard. He possessed unbounded energy and, however insignificant the task, he did it with all his heart and soul.
 
‘In the Manchester world of commerce he was known as a ‘human dynamo’; as an employer he was well respected by his employees, who looked upon him as a friend rather than a boss. He took great interest in the lives of those who he employed.’
 
Work was only half the Satinoff story. He was a sports fanatic – playing football daily at the old YMCA building on Peter Street, where United trainer Jack Crompton occasionally brought the Babes to train during the ’50s. He was an excellent ‘fives’ player – a game not dissimilar to squash, where the hand is used rather than a racquet. Willie was also excellent at tennis, and an expert skier – as the photo above confirms.
 
He was also a racehorse owner, and was well known on courses around Manchester and the north of England, striking up long-standing associations with trainers like Harold Wallington, who operated out of Malton in North Yorkshire.
 
Journalists Michael Crick and David Smith would later write that Satinoff ‘rarely drank’, was ‘slim’, ‘dressed immaculately’ and was ‘extremely popular with everyone’. And it was on the social circuit around Manchester that Satinoff befriended Matt Busby. Tommy Appleby, the manager of the Manchester Opera House – who was believed to have pulled out of the trip to Belgrade at the last moment, and flew over to Munich to see Busby after the accident – was a mutual friend, and both Willie and his wife Ethel became part of the Busby circle.
 
‘The Cromford Club, in an alley off Market Street [where the Manchester Arndale now lies], became known as the place for sportsmen and other celebrities to enjoy cabaret and surprisingly good food,’ explains Paddy Barclay in Sir Matt Busby: The Man Who Made A Football Club. ‘Matt and Jean Busby were the first two names on an A-list featuring friends such as [bookmaker Johnny] Foy, Appleby, [businessman] Louis and [wife] Muriel Edwards, and the Satinoffs.’
 
Here, Busby could let off steam, away from football, but it surely drew Willie Satinoff increasingly closer to his beloved United.
MUST offices.
A plaque in Willie's honour rests above the door of MUST's office on Sir Matt Busby Way.
‘Outside of his business interests, Satinoff’s main pastime was following United and he was fanatical in his support,’ suggests Tom Clare. And as the Babes tore into Europe in 1956, by virtue of this passion and his relationship with Busby, Satinoff was with them every step of the way. ‘He never missed a European trip,’ writes Barclay. ‘Satinoff was as close to Busby as [Louis] Edwards,’ whom was eventually welcomed on to the United board in the aftermath of Munich – a position many believe Satinoff could also have obtained but for the air crash.
 
Prior to Munich casting a sea of ‘what ifs’ on to United’s history, Satinoff, like Busby and the Babes, was simply riding the crest of a thrilling wave. In 1954, The Daily Herald’s George Follows – who would also perish in Germany – summed up the joy and exhilaration of covering the team at this time: ‘Matt Busby’s young men make a great adventure story, just as exciting as Biggles or Dan Dare, and certain to get more and more astounding.’
 
A sense of the wide-eyed wonder of the time was conveyed by Paul Satinoff, who recalled his father and Matt’s admiration for the progressive nature of Real Madrid’s operation after United returned from a 3-1 humbling to the Spaniards in the 1957 European Cup semi-final first leg.
 
“I can remember the discussions afterwards with my dad and Matt about Real Madrid being a real football club,”
recounted Paul in Manchester United: The Biography by Jim White.
“They said they got the youth involved, the council involved, whereas United were just not involved in the local community. They turned up and played football.”
 
The attendance at the Bernabeu that night was 135,000 – still the highest crowd the Reds have ever played before. No wonder Satinoff and Busby were awed: they were staring at the future.
says

'The attendance at the Bernabeu that night was 135,000 – still the highest crowd the Reds have ever played before. No wonder Satinoff and Busby were awed: they were staring at the future.'

Heartbreakingly, Satinoff would not live to see Busby or the team he passionately followed finally achieve European glory, due to what ensued.
 
He saw the Babes win their final game on English soil at Highbury, by the remarkable score of 5-4. Fittingly, if unwittingly, they produced something unforgettable, playing ‘like infants in paradise’, according to The Daily Telegraph.
 
Arsenal keeper Jack Kelsey later recalled:
“It was the finest match I ever played in. Even years on from Munich, it hurts me to think about that game. But I played against the Babes at their peak.”
 
Satinoff was on the train back to Manchester after the game, and was invited on to the privately chartered club plane to Belgrade, which left on Monday 3 February. What followed – after United’s final match with Red Star Belgrade – needs no further elucidation. The world and the many United supporters within it know enough about Munich to haunt them until the end of their days.
Arsenal goalkeeper Jack Kelsey on United's 5-4 win over Arsenal in '58. says

“It was the finest match I ever played in. Even years on from Munich, it hurts me to think about that game. But I played against the Babes at their peak.”

‘A Silent City Watches First Funeral’ reported The Manchester Evening News, alongside a picture of mourners thronging the streets.
 
‘Sleet fell as hundreds gathered outside the Manchester Jewish hospital before Satinoff’s funeral procession of over sixty cars moved away,’ reported David Hall in his book, Manchester’s Finest. ‘As it crossed the city centre on its way to Southern Cemetery, it was watched by all sections of the city – businessmen, doctors, lawyers, errand boys and women with shopping bags – all standing silently under a sea of umbrellas.’
 
Later this month, around 1,500 Reds will travel to Belgium, as our long and dramatic European history extends once more via a tie against Club Brugge. Travelling away to watch United is a privilege many have been able to enjoy in the years since Munich, since Willie’s death, but we should never forget that those who went bravely before us paved the way for the things we now take for granted.
 
‘Willie paid the ultimate price for following his beloved United, when he perished in that terrible accident on the runway,’ wrote Clare in 2007. ‘He was one of us – a fan – who loved the club, loved the team, and gave his life following them.’
 
So take a moment to remember Willie Satinoff today, as we commemorate those that gave their lives for our club at Munich. Or spend a few seconds before the plaque dedicated to him on Sir Matt Busby Way the next time you visit Old Trafford. Like the Babes, and everyone else who perished on that sorrowful day, he should never be forgotten by anyone that holds Manchester United dear.
 
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