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Published: 04 Feb 2001

WHY DOES MUNICH STILL MATTER?

by Salford Lass

The other day, I was asked a question by a fan of another team. Quite seriously he asked me - "Why does Munich still matter so much to United fans? After all, it was a long time ago and many United fans weren't even born then." Yes, it was indeed a long time ago, 43 years ago to be exact, and my son is one of those who wasn't even a twinkle in his mother's eye at the time. 1958 is ancient history to him - a time before computers, mobile phones, CD's - the list is endless and makes me feel very old, so I'll stop. But you get the picture. To his generation, it might as well have been the stone age. Yet yesterday he was singing his heart out with the rest of us, in memory of a team he has only ever seen in grainy, black and white pictures that make him cry. And as I looked around me, I saw that most of the crowd gathered there were also too young to have been around on that sad day in 1958, and it got me thinking.

First and foremost, of course, for many of us the Munich disaster is still a vivid memory and a defining event in our lives. Never mind what they were doing the day Kennedy got shot, or the day Lennon died, ask a United fan of my generation or older what they were doing the day of the Munich disaster and their eyes will mist over as the memories flood back. Indeed, ask anyone who lived in Manchester or Salford at that time, and they will remember - because despite the chants and the aeroplane impressions that issue forth from Maine Rd these days, this was a Manchester tragedy. There was no Red or Blue in Manchester in those cold February days of 1958.

For me personally, the moment I overheard a tearful conversation on a Salford street was the beginning of the end of my childhood. It was the day that not the only music, but the magic died.

So the first answer is, of course, that for anyone over the age of 45, it still matters because it's part of our life's history. We loved those lads and we miss them and always will. But there's more to it than that, much more.

When they criticise Manchester United and it's appeal to football fans all over the world, many fans of other teams bitterly point to Munich as in some way being "unfair", almost as if we did it on purpose! They say that Munich, and the death of most of our young players gave us a romantic appeal that drew fans to us like moths to a flame, and with which no other team could compete. They accuse United of having used the legend of the Babes to build the modern Manchester United and to make pots of money. And of course, to some extent, they are right. It was Munich and its aftermath that defined the modern Manchester United and attracted thousands of fans from all over the world. Many football fans, who probably hadn't taken much notice of us before, started by wanting us to win out of sympathy and then stayed loyal United fans for the rest of their lives. There is no doubt that we were carried to the FA Cup Final that year on a tidal wave of sympathy that must have helped the team on the pitch to pull out that little bit extra. And the rise of the phoenix from the flames to win the European Cup in '68 completed one of the most amazing and, yes - romantic, stories in football.

But of course the Manchester United we know today had it's roots in what was happening in Old Trafford before Munich. In the 50's, Matt Busby believed in playing the game the "right" way, in entertaining football, in giving youth its chance, in a work ethic that put the team first and that discouraged the development of ego-driven stars. His lads looked up to him in much the same way that Gary Neville now talks of Sir Alex, almost as a father. When so many of his lads were killed, Matt Busby could have walked away - indeed there have been interviews with him where he admits that is what he wanted to do for a long time - but he didn't. He stayed and he re-built and he went on to lift the European Cup at last. The winning of the European Cup showed that it's possible to come back from the depths of despair and not just survive, but win. There are many parallels today and I'm sure that there is no coincidence that the lads who form the backbone of the present team, and who refuse to be beaten until the final whistle is blown, are United fans - lads who were raised on the history and legends of the Munich air disaster.

And in that last sentence lies an important truth about why the importance of Munich lives on. Because with the passing on of the stories about Munich, we are passing on to our children and their children all that is important about supporting Manchester United. The importance of youth, of playing entertaining football, of playing for the team, of supporting the team through thick and thin - the importance of history. My son is moved when he sees a crackly video of Duncan Edwards or Eddie Colman because he knows that this is the living history of a team he loves. This telling and re-telling of what is truth and what has become legend, binds generations of United supporters together across the years and across borders. Only other United fans know how we feel about Munich, only other United fans can - a form of "them and us" that binds us into "family".

Today, it's hard to associate the modern Manchester United plc with the club that we knew in the 50's and 60's. To those of us old enough to remember, with our admittedly rose-coloured spectacles, those days seem like something out of another world - an innocent world, unsullied by football violence, millionnaire players and rampaging commercialism. It's hard to imagine that the hard-headed businessmen, who sit on the board of United today, will pause for a moment just after 3pm on Tuesday and remember, as I will. Perhaps this is the most important thing that Munich has to teach us. It reminds us all - whether we are ordinary fans in the Scoreboard, players on the pitch, executives in a fancy box or board members sitting in the Directors' bar, that there is more to supporting Manchester United, to being a part of the dream, than just making a lot of money, buying bags full of goodies from the megastore and winning trophy after trophy.

So yes, it does still matter. Indeed, as the years pass and Manchester United grows into something inconceivable in the 1950's, it matters more and more. And this is the main reason why we must never let the memories die.

Copyright 2001 by Salford Lass. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced without permission of the author
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