Sports’ greatest tragedy

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Published in The News (a leading Pakistani English language national daily
by Ijaz Chaudhry

On the seventh of September this year, a Yak-42 plane carrying 45 people collided with a communications mast seconds after taking off from an airport near the Russian town of Yaroslavl before plunging to the ground in a ball of flames.

On board was the town’s ice hockey team, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, for their first match of the season in neighbouring Belarus.

The team was one of Russia’s best having won the Russian championship three times and boasted star players who had appeared in North America’s prestigious NHL including three Czechs, one Slovak, and a Swede.

The disaster prompted the authorities to postpone the start of Russia’s ice hockey season, while hundreds of fans at a suspended match in the city of Ufa broke down in tears.

There have been quite a few air disasters taking lives of members of notable sports teams but the Munich Air Disaster is the most recalled mishap in the history of sports.

The Munich air disaster occurred on February 6, 1958. The British European Airways Flight 609 crashed while taking off from a slush-covered runway at the Munich airport in West Germany. The plane was on its way back from a European Cup tie in Belgrade. On board was the Manchester United football team, supporters and journalists. 23 of the 44 passengers died.

Manchester United were the best-known team in England. They were popularly called the ‘Busby Babes’ because of their manager Matt Busby and age of the players which was unusually young.

Among the dead were eight United players, four of them, Byrne, Edward, Pegg and Taylor had all been capped by England, and Whelan was a Republic of Ireland international.

BUSBY BABES WERE SPECIAL

‘Busby babes’ was based on Matt Busby’s visionary concept of youth scheme in which older players were replaced by youth team products, rather than follow the traditional approach of picking established players from other sides.

Back from the Hitler’s war in 1945, he initiated his scheme of recruiting boys straight from school. His ideas immediately paid dividends as the lads won the FA youth cup all the first five years after its inception in 1952.

Now the time had come to implement the actual master plan at the bigger stage.

The Manchester United manager had displayed great courage in throwing away the old boys. It is worth mentioning they had not done badly; had won him the FA Cup in 1948 and the League in 1952. But the 1952 champions had grown old together and the decline was dramatic. The next season, they lost six of their first 11 matches. At this stage, Busby started promoting more and more of his youth team.

Within three years, the show was set for Busby Babes. The squad with average age of just 22, won back-to-back Championships in 1956 and 1957.

Prior to the disaster, they were placed 4th. However with just one defeat in last 11 games, a hat-trick of the titles could not have been ruled out.

IMMEDIATE AFTERMATH

Seven of Manchester United’s players died immediately while the most talented of them all, Duncan Edwards succumbed to injuries after two weeks of heroic struggle at the hospital in Munich. For Johnny Berry and Jackie Blanchflower, severe injuries meant that they never played again. Busby himself suffered multiple severe injuries and remained in hospital for two months after the crash, most of the time in Oxygen Tent. He even had his last rites read twice.

There were speculations that the club would fold, but a United team mainly jumbled from reserve and youth team players completed the 1957-1958 season. United only won one league game after the crash, finishing ninth in the league. However they were able to reach the final of the FA Cup.

ENGLAND’S LOSS

Manchester United managed to revive after a few seasons but England’s loss was greater. At least three players would have been invaluable for England’s national team. Taylor was the finest all-round centre forward in the country with ratio of goals per game more than any other United player in the 20th century.

Byrne was widely regarded as the best full back in the land while Duncan Edwards was undoubtedly “the best footballer” in England. Colman and Jones were exciting prospects and left-winger Pegg who had already played for England would have served them for a long time.

Had they been available for the 1958 and more particularly 1962 World Cups, England would have definitely shone better. Former England captain, Jimmy Armfield has even said, “There is no doubt with Edwards, Byrne and Taylor we would have won the World Cup in 1958 and 1962.”

BUSBY MASTERMINDED THE REVIVAL

Busby was back very next season (1958-1959) and remarkably rose a second generation of Busby babes which included legends like George Best and Denis Law. After a build up period of a few years, Man U were back with a vengeance. They restarted their success story by lifting the FA cup in 1963 followed by two league titles in three years in mid-sixties. And a decade after the great tragedy, Manchester United became the first English club to claim the biggest prize of them all, the European Cup in 1968. Two of the crash survivors, Bobbly Charlton and Billy Foulkes starred in that victorious campaign; Charlton scored a brace in the final while Foulkes had netted a vital goal in the semifinal.

Charlton had already achieved the highest glory. He played a stellar role in England’s finest hour, winning the World Cup in 1966. A year, he also won the coveted “European Footballer of the year” award.

Both Busby and Charlton were later also knighted.

Munich Air Disaster is a saga of struggle, success, tragedy, heroism, hope, resilience, resurgence and glory (individual and collective); the greatest of all the fiction writers could not have envisioned.

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