What Munich means to United fans now

It’s been 63 years since that fateful day in Germany but for Manchester United fans, the importance and legacy of the tragic accident continue to grow.

And despite the emotions that 6 February 1958 evokes in those associated with United, especially around this time of year, it also continues to captivate fans to this day. A quick search on the website of a large, well-known book retailer reveals there are 82 titles currently available related to the events of Munich and the Babes.

Three years ago, around 2,000 fans travelled to Germany’s third-largest city to mark the 60th anniversary of the darkest day in Manchester United’s history. At Old Trafford on that day, many thousands more gathered to pay their respects at a memorial service inside the stadium, an emotionally charged event attended by survivors of the crash, the first-team squad, directors, staff members and fans.

As the years ebb by and we travel further away from that devastating day, Munich remains such an important and central part of the club’s identity. If anything, the coverage and attention devoted to the tragedy and those that lost their lives continues to swell. It becomes ever more vital to tell the story of the Busby Babes, describing who those players – and the coaches who helped shape them – were, what they had achieved during those glorious years in the mid-1950s when their talents blossomed and their greatness became apparent, and at times, turn to conjecture when considering what might have been.

Busby babes
The Busby Babes line up before their final game together in Belgrade.
Sixty-three years on, as we prepare to honour the victims and survivors behind closed doors, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it seems an appropriate time to look at how supporters’ relationship with the most important day in the club’s history has evolved.

Why have the commemorations stepped up a level over the past two decades? “There was a massive outpouring of grief in 1958,” says Manchester United Museum curator Mark Wylie.

“But the early years after the disaster were quite subdued, as it was still very recent and raw.

“The club had always been quite reticent about public commemorations,” he continues, “as there was a feeling that we didn’t want people to think we were trying to gain publicity from the disaster. Granada TV made a documentary on the 25th anniversary, which the club helped with, but I think that was an exception because it was a notable anniversary.”

A glance at the matchday programme archives backs that up. In the closest issue of United Review to the one-year anniversary of the disaster, a roll of honour was dedicated to the victims, but no further mention elsewhere. On the 10th anniversary, a single-page editorial by Arthur Walmsley of The Sun gives a personal take on the passing of time since that awful day, remembering not only the players and coaches who died but also the journalists, former colleagues of Arthur’s. His tribute gives some insight into the collective mood a decade on: ‘Ten years ago this week, there was Munich,’ he wrote.

‘No signal, this, for maudlin reminiscence or the hurtful probing of time-healed wounds. Yet it is a special time. A decade is a convention in the life-span; a marker on the endless tides of time; so in this week ten years on from Munich it would be unseemly not to remember. In remembering there can be no total escape from a lingering sadness – but it is not my wish to engender melancholy here. Rather would I draw on the rich storehouse of unclouded memory for recall of the golden days when those whose time was short were writing their imperishable chapter of Manchester United history. Such is the fleeting passage of time that already there is a generation of young Old Trafford devotees among us who know them only as legends – names in the folklore of football to be uttered with uncomprehending awe.’

Another 53 years on, the latest generation of Old Trafford devotees continue to find ways of paying their respects, whether chanting songs about the Babes or standing in impeccable silence whenever the club has organised for a moment of reflection ahead of a home match played on the anniversary, like this one tonight.

A tribute seen at Old Trafford last year.

But, Roy Cavanagh, a young matchgoing fan at the time of the accident, remembers well the period since. He recalls nothing comparable to the more recent memorials seen each 6 February.

“Did fans go down to the ground or congregate in the immediate decades after Munich? I don’t remember that all – I’d be lying if I said I did,” he says. “I was 10 or 11 when the crash happened, and the big thing was people lining the streets when the corteges came past. You always thought about it on 6 February, and it was always in people’s minds, but going down to Old Trafford is a more modern thing.

“Munich was only 13 years on from the end of the war, and for my mam and dad’s generation, grief wasn’t shared. It was stoic. And it was like that even in the ’70s and ’80s, though the 25th anniversary was a big one.”

At the end of the 1950s, Britain was a tough, battle-hardened place. Just weeks after the disaster, Burnley chairman Bob Lord even publicly revealed his irritation that United were receiving so much sympathy. “There is too much sentiment about Manchester United,” he told the press.

“I am just sick and tired of the whole business. When clubs offered to help it was with players sufficient to keep them ticking over; not to supply them with the cream of the country’s footballers. They’ll just have to fight their way out of it. They went into this of their own accord.”

We'll never die
This surfer flag is usually seen at Old Trafford in the home game falling closest to the Munich anniversary.

While Lord’s comments appear shockingly unfeeling by today’s standards, the UK was then world-renowned for its ‘stiff upper lip’. ‘Keep calm and carry on’ went a ‘motivational’ Second World War promotional poster produced by the government, but that line of thinking inevitably encouraged people to suppress emotion and vulnerability.

Just because United fans did not openly confront or display their feelings about the loss of their heroes does not mean those feelings didn’t exist. The legend of the Babes was kept alive by those fans who had watched them play. But as late as the 1990s, there were fears among some supporters that Munich, and all it meant, would fade into history.

Mike Thomas and his wife Elaine Giles decided to take action, setting up the Munich58 organisation, which turns 20 this year.

“We started going to Old Trafford on 6 February quite a number of years ago, in the late ’90s – there was hardly anybody there, maybe six or eight people,” remembers Thomas.

“We sang The Flowers of Manchester and went home. At the time, there was not much information out there about the crash and each year there were fewer and fewer people turning up at Old Trafford to pay their respects, and the amount of coverage in the media seemed to be getting less and less. To us, it felt like it was being forgotten.”

The supporters’ group started to organise an annual service for the anniversary, something the club has offered its support to increasingly in recent years.

“United came to us and asked if they could be of any assistance,” he explains.

“They’ve always said they don’t want to step on our toes; they appreciate it’s our event, for the fans, by the fans. But they’ve helped us a great deal in terms of promotion and logistics.”

United fan Steve Douglas takes part in a recorded memorial service, which you can watch across club media this Saturday.

Thanks to the efforts of Munich58 and other groups like the Manchester Munich Memorial Foundation, the anniversary has become an increasingly big event in the last 10
or 20 years. Thomas believes that’s down to the power of social media, and a spate of dramas and documentaries retelling the tragic story.

“We are seeing more young people turn up each year,” he acknowledges. “Twenty years ago, before we set this up, I thought people were only interested in talking about David Beckham and Ryan Giggs. And though older people definitely see it as a positive that we are keeping the memory of Munich alive, there has also been a lot of interest from young people.”

Thomas admits the way the attendances at Old Trafford have grown each year is “incredible”, but it hasn’t changed Munich58’s mission statement: “Ultimately we’re doing it to remember those 23 people that lost their lives. It’s very satisfying to be part of it and be the catalyst of what goes on each year at Old Trafford, but we’re not doing it for us.”

Whatever your views on the most appropriate way to mark the Munich anniversary each year, few fans would argue with the central tenet of Thomas’s point: that the lost Babes and the other victims deserve to have their lives celebrated and preserved.

And though this year will see the forecourt shorn of the usual crowds, Covid-19 will not alter the general trend around the anniversary: supporters want to get together, they want to remember their great team; they want to keep the stories and achievements alive.

Munich might mean pain, it might mean sorrow, but the Busby Babes were about so much more than that – joy, ambition, courage and beauty among them. And thanks to the efforts of Manchester United fans, their legacy is as strong as ever in 2021.

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