Football Electronic Telegraph Saturday 31 January 1998
Thanks for the memories
by Giles Smith
ON February 5, 1958, in Yugoslavia, Manchester United drew 3-3 with Red Star Belgrade and advanced, for the second year in succession, to the semi-finals of the European Cup (United had won the home leg 2-1). Directly afterwards, Matt Busby, the team's manager, called it "as great a performance as I have ever seen from our lads". These were the same 11 lads who had won 5-4 against Arsenal at Highbury on the previous Saturday. The plane crash in Munich on February 6 killed five of them.
It killed three of their fellow squad members, too, and 15 other passengers on the chartered BEA plane, 'Lord Burleigh', returning from Belgrade to Manchester, which had stopped to refuel on a grim and snowy afternoon and which could not pull out of the slush on the runway.
Next Friday, at a memorial service in Manchester Cathedral, relatives of the dead will mark 40 years since their losses. And what losses. Manchester United lost, among so many others, a captain, a coach and a trainer. The English national side lost Roger Byrne, Tommy Taylor and, at 21 and probably the most gifted of them all, Duncan Edwards, who died from his injuries two weeks after the crash. The accident abruptly tore the heart from what many who saw them still maintain was the finest club side British football was, or is likely to produce.
Forty years later, those final two scores (5-4, 3-3) seem by themselves to speak eloquently about the cavalier nature of the Busby Babes. The two goals Bobby Charlton, then 20, scored against Red Star took his total to 12 in 11 games at inside right. In both those last games United were 3-0 up at half-time. Careful husbandry of a narrow lead wasn't really their idea of football. A team that commit six or even seven players to attack are likely to concede goals; in the case of that particular United side, they were generally likely to score more than they conceded.
The story of that side's terrible destruction at Munich has been told many times but its effect is never diminished. And still further details come forward. Creating a commemorative television documentary for Granada (The Busby Babes - End of a Dream, showing tomorrow), the producers, Alan Brown and Ricky Kelehar, amassed no fewer than 1,400 pages of interview transcript by talking to survivors and witnesses, in the process coming near to the subject as few have before them.
They discovered, for instance, the location of the ball from that final game. The original match ball burst during the second half - something which, presumably, was more than averagely likely with Edwards and Charlton on the same pitch. The replacement eventually found its way into a trophy cabinet in the home of the referee, Karl Kainer. "My great strength was speed," Kainer, who is now in his 80s, told Brown and Kelehar when they found him in Austria. "I was always up with the ball."
Indeed. Kainer also admitted "balls are my weakness. I love balls as souvenirs. And all my concentration and all my thoughts were focused on taking the ball home with me".
To this end, Kainer employed his own, highly refined, match ball entrapment technique. "I always carry a net around with me in my suitcase," he told Brown and Kelehar, "and what I do, I hang the net around me inside my overcoat with the ball in it. And it's always worked. I have managed to bring home about 20 balls from really big, important games in Italy. And these balls now reside in my cabinet at home."
Kainer has been reluctant to surrender his trophy even temporarily to the Manchester United museum - though only this week, one of our fine British tabloids (doubtless scenting a "we want our ball back" saga akin to the one which embroiled Geoff Hurst not that long ago) has been to see Kainer at home, taking along a chequebook.
FROM the more serious and gruelling portions of Brown and Kelehar's material, a picture emerges of a football team on an exotic and tentative trip. Two seasons earlier, Chelsea, the champions, had declined the opportunity to become the first English side to enter the European Cup. Matt Busby saw the bigger picture and United got involved. Even so, Europe clearly seemed a long way away. The players packed hard-boiled eggs and sandwiches made by their wives and feared what awaited them in the way of beds and bathrooms on the other side. "When we got there," Harry Gregg, the goalkeeper, told Brown and Kelehar, "it was the most beautiful hotel you ever wished to see."
The second half of the match had been intemperate and coloured by, from United's point of view, extraordinary refereeing. There had been a hotly disputed penalty and a badly deflected equaliser. The referee had awarded 24 free-kicks against United and 11 against Red Star. His handling of the game was vigorously questioned in English match reports. (The referee would later say: "I can't remember a game, in all the 1,812 games I've refereed, where I got such a bad press.") But United were through and happy. The game was followed by a banquet at the British Embassy and drinking, card-playing and boiled egg-eating carried on afterwards at the hotel. Few had slept. There were, according to Gregg, "sore heads" among the players the morning after.
At Munich, after the stop-over, there had been two aborted take-offs and then a pause in which everyone returned to the terminal while the plane was re-checked. The call to rejoin the plane came sooner than expected. Jackie Blanchflower, who was to survive the crash but who was badly injured, knocked out the cigarette he had just lit and put it behind his ear. It was still there when he reached the hospital.
The players had been passing a book around on the trip. It was called The Whip, by Roger McDonald, a piece of titillating pulp fiction. It had reached Gregg, then 25 and a Northern Ireland international, but as the plane now moved off again, he decided to put it down. The thought had danced into his mind that if they crashed while he was reading it, he would go to hell.
Some of the players were frightened enough to joke about how frightened they were. During that third taxi, Gregg recalled: "Little Johnny Berry spoke and somebody laughed and coughed, and he said, 'We're all going to get friggin' killed here'. And Billy Whelan said, 'Well, if it happens, I'm ready to go'." Whelan was killed in the crash.
The plane split and the front end spun away from the tail. Those at the back suffered most. All but one of the party of nine British football writers perished, including Alf Clarke of the Manchester Evening Chronicle, who had filed his last story from the terminal building and had boarded the plane late, to mocking cries of "Scoop, scoop, scoop!"
BLEEDING from the nose but otherwise sound, Gregg's first instinct was to run for cover across the field, but his second instinct - to turn back and help - got the better of it. A legend arose and circulated in the aftermath - an image of Gregg, knight-like, on a mound, shouting to the walking wounded around him: "Come on lads, get stuck in."
"What a load of garbage," Gregg told Brown and Kelehar. "Can you imagine a mound on a runway? Can you imagine someone shouting, 'Come on lads, get stuck in'?"
That said, it was Gregg who went into the wreckage and came out holding a 20-month-old girl. The violence of the crash had separated the baby from her babysuit. Gregg then went back in and pulled out the mother who, he learned afterwards, was pregnant and would later give birth to a son.
Thames Television contacted Gregg 18 years after the event and offered to bring him together with the girl, Vesna Lukic. He was keen to meet Lukic, but he wanted to do so somewhere private, without cameras, so the deal fell through. Gregg then had to endure the newspaper headline: 'Munich Hero Snubbed the Child he Saved'. "You can't do right for doing wrong," Gregg said. He has met Lukic since, and has also appeared on television with her, in an edition of Saint & Greavsie. Lukic told Brown and Kelehar that she and Gregg speak sometimes on the phone and exchange cards each New Year.
Gregg recalled pulling Charlton and Dennis Viollet from the wreckage by the waistbands of their trousers. In witness accounts of the scene, Charlton is depicted as silent with shock. It is a silence he has largely maintained in the years since, preferring not to be interviewed in detail about what he saw and remembers - though he repeated to Brown and Kelehar what he said publicly last year, when the survivors of the disaster were invited to Munich for the European Cup final: "There isn't a day goes by I don't think about it in some way."
Manchester United players: Roger Byrne, Geoffrey Bent, Eddie Colman, Duncan Edwards, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor, Liam Whelan.
Manchester United staff: Walter Crickmer (secretary), Tom Curry (trainer), Bert Whalley (coach)
Journalists: Alf Clarke, Don Davies, George Follows, Tom Jackson, Archie Ledbrooke, Henry Rose, Eric Thompson, Frank Swift.
Capt Kenneth Rayment (co-pilot), Bela Miklos (travel agent), Willie Satinoff, Tom Cable (passengers).
The Busby Babes - End of a Dream is broadcast tomorrow on ITV at 6.30pm.
© Copyright Telegraph Group Limited 1998.
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