Socrates MacSporran

Socrates MacSporran
No I am not Chick Young, but I can remember when Scottish football was good

Monday, 5 February 2018

It Was 60-Years Ago Today - Socrates Remembers Munich

I WAS just starting to get into football on 6 February, 1958. That was half-way through my only season as a regular in my primary school team; I hadn't yet caught the Rugby Park bug, and had only been to one Scotland game.

 Still my favourite football picture - Duncan Edwards playing for England against Scotland, at Wembley, in April, 1957, Willie Fernie is the Scot in the back-ground

But, I had read a couple of editions of Billy Wright's Book of Football, the same number of Hugh Taylor's annual Scottish Football Books and, the pink Evening Times sports final was a Saturday night staple in our house – even though my Dad had stopped using his Ibrox season ticket by then.

If I had a football world, its boundaries were those of Rosebank Park, then as now, home of Lugar Boswell Thistle. In truth, in 1958, Lugar had already crested the hill of achievement and were on the downward slope, although still some way short of the foothills they inhabit today.

Through these Billy Wright Books of Football, I was aware of Manchester United. Thanks to the annual BBC broadcast of the FA Cup Final – the SFA had yet to put in place the blanket ban on that show-piece being broadcast to Scotland – I was aware that “the Busby Babes” were a special team.

I had, after all, supported them from our living room in 1957, as they just missed out on a league and cup double, after Ray Wood was injured by a challenge from Aston Villa's Dave McParland, which would today earn the perpetrator a red card, but was allowed to pass without censure back then.

Of course, I was aware of Duncan Edwards, I think everyone with even a passing interest in football knew of the 21-year-old man mountain who ruled the United midfield. But, the tragedy of February, 1958, was to turn the already famous man child from Dudley into a player of myth and legend.

Big Doug Baillie, top player himself with Airdrie, Rangers and Third Lanark, later a legendary football writer with the Sunday Post, faced Edwards in the second-half of the first Scotland v England Under-23 international, at Shawfield, in 1955.

At six foot three and 15 stones, Doug, even then, was a big guy, but, as he freely admits: “I was blown away, I could not handle Duncan, who scored a hat-trick in the second-half; he was easily the best player I ever faced.”

Harry Gregg in his Manchester United pomp

It also gave me a new hero – Harry Gregg, the United goalkeeper who rescued several fellow passengers from the wreckage, once he realised, he had himself survived the carnage.

Gregg was the new boy in the United team. Already a Northern Ireland internationalist, while playing behind future top comedian Charlie Williams for Doncaster Rovers, Gregg had cost United a then world-record transfer fee for a 'keeper of £23,000 in December, 1957.

He was a phenomenal goalkeeper, voted the world's best following his heroics for Northern Ireland in the 1958 World Cup finals in Sweden. But, surely the best saves he ever made were when he pulled those fellow survivors from the wreckage of the crashed aircraft 'Lord Burleigh' at the end of that Munich runway.

That crash, the tragic events of that day cost United almost an entire team. Captain Roger Byrne, the entire Eddie Coleman, Mark Jones and Duncan Edwards half-back line along with centre forward Tommy Taylor, inside left Liam Whelan and outside left David Pegg died, as did reserve full back Geoff Bent, the club trainer, the first-team coach and the United club secretary.

Winger Johnny Berry and centre-half Jackie Blanchflower were so badly injured, they never played again, while other surviving players were never the same again following the crash.

The last surviving players, Bobby Charlton and Harry Gregg, pictured together at the 50th anniversary service in Manchester

Today, of the players, only Gregg and Bobby Charlton survive, and, as his big brother Jackie famously commented: “6 February, 1958 was the day Our Kid – the future Sir Bobby – stopped smiling.

Byrne, Edwards Taylor and Pegg were England caps, and all bar Pegg were England regulars. Their loss seriously hampered England's 1958 World Cup campaign. Charlton won his first England cap against Scotland less than three months later, marking the occasion with one of the great Hampden goals, but, after returning with England to the stadium in Belgrade where he had played for the last time with his dead teammates, he had a stinker, was dropped and did not kick a ball in Sweden.

As we digested the terrible news on TV that night, we didn't realise how the ripples from that crash would fan out. If Munich cost England a possible five players from their World Cup squad, its effect on Scotland was equally catastrophic.

Sir Matt Busby with the European Cup in 1968.

Matt Busby, the United manager, was due to manage Scotland in Sweden, but, after sustaining injuries so-severe he as given the Last Rites of the Roman Catholic Church, he was still convalescing when that sorry tournament began. The SFA left the running of the team to trainer Dawson Walker, while the selectors made their usual nonsense of selection. With Busby in charge, what might have been.

The crash made United “different”. Tragedy those it was, it perhaps sparked-off the feeling that the Old Trafford club was somehow special. The way assistant manager Jimmy Murphy, aided by Gregg, Charlton and Bill Foulkes, suddenly promoted to replace full back partner as captain, plus a gaggle of callow young reserves, and some cheaply-acquired journeymen, surfing a tide of emotion, took the fractured club to a second successive FA Cup Final captured the public's imagination.

The Holy Trinity Statue

Busby's ten-year quest to finally land the European Cup which had seemed United's for the taking prior to Munich further captured football's imagination, while the arrival of George Best and Denis Law, to join Charlton in the “Holy Trinity” further emphasised – this club was somehow special.

On 5 February, 1958, Old Trafford was just another provincial football ground. The events of the following day was the start of the emotional journey towards the “Theatre of Dreams”, the “Class of '92” and “Football – Bloody Hell”.

It was a disaster, but, from this tragedy, greatness emerged. Today, 60-years on, we do well to remember Munich.

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