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Sunday, January 08, 2006

Thirty years of searching by Teresa McDonald - Origins of the Flowers of Manchester song

On one cold and bitter Thursday in Munich, Germany,
Eight great football stalwarts conceded victory,
Eight men who will never play again who met destruction there,
The flowers of British football, the flowers of Manchester

Matt Busby's boys were flying, returning from Belgrade,
This great United family, all masters of their trade,
The Pilot of the aircraft, the skipper Captain Thain,
Three times they tried to take off and twice returned back again.

The third time down the runaway disaster followed close,
There was a slush upon that runaway and the aircraft never rose,
It ploughed into the marshy, it broke, it overturned.
And eight of the team were killed when the blazing wreckage burned.

Roger Byrne and Tommy Taylor who were capped for England's side.
And Ireland's Billy Whelan and England's Geoff Bent died,
Mark Jones and Eddie colman, and David Pegg also,
They lost their lives as it ploughed on through the snow.

Big Duncan he went to, with an injury to his frame,
And Ireland's brave Jack Blanchflower will never play again,
The great Sir Matt Busby lay there, the father of his team
Three long months passed by before he walked again.

The trainer, coach and secretary, and a member of the crew,
Also eight sporting journalists who with United flew,
And one of them Big Swifty, who we'll ne'er forget,
The finest English 'keeper that ever graced the net.

Oh, England's finest football team its record truly great,
It's proud successes mocked by a cruel turn of fate.
Eight men will never play again, who met destruction there,
The flowers of English football, the flowers of Manchester

Thirty years of my searching for the history behind the origins of the Flowers of Manchester, the moving tribute to Munich, were finally resolved at a bizarre chance meeting at a press reception held at the Dannemann Cigar Factory high up in the hills surrounding Lake Maggiore. With it's world wide contacts Red News had secured me a ten day press pass to attend Europe's top jazz festival, held annually in the small town of Ascona on the shores of Lake Maggiore in Switzerland. My brief was to attend all the jazz sessions and hopefully all the freebie receptions and come back home with nothing more than tales of a good holiday.

As our motley crew arrived, in large Renault estate wagons containing groups of musicians, several odd-job journos and assorted luvvies we were entertained by a great traditional New York jazz band and then what we'd all come for, the champagne reception followed by copious bottles of excellent wine and a cold buffet lunch. Now I knew how the hacks out in Tokyo were suffering. An American duo working for a US cable company said you must meet Tony from England. Tony (pic opposite), a larger than life character was enjoying the wine and turned out to be none other than the ex-Spinners penny whistle supremo Tony Davis. (Tony has his own jazz radio programme - Jazz FM North - on Sunday nights).

That was it. Immediately my curious choice of venue for my holiday was made clear. Back in the 80s we at Red News had corresponded at length with Mick Groves of The Spinners. Mick was a fanatical red (still is I gather) and most helpful, but he could shed no light on the authorship of United's most famous and moving song. I immediately cornered the ebullient Tony. When I mentioned The Flowers of Manchester he stood up in the plush dining room and sang two verses before a receptive if puzzled audience of Brooklynites, New Jerseyites and bemused European jazz writers. His version was wonderful and in the bizarre setting certainly one of the most affecting versions of the song I have ever heard. He naturally got a puzzled but enthusiastic round of applause and most of the lunch was then taken up with the history of Manchester United and the events of February 6th to those around us. Luca Martinelli, the Press organiser, being Italian, mentioned the parallels with the Torino air disaster in 1949 (10 players lost), which then made the afternoon even more potent.

As soon as lunch was over I got Tony in a corner and asked him about the Flowers authorship. No problem he said, 'he told me shortly before he died he'd written it'. Who? 'Eric Winter, the Editor of Sing magazine.' Who? After the bizarre proceedings, the glasses of wine, my head spinning (no pun intended), I couldn't let this one get away. He said Eric had written it in early 1958 and it was published anonymously in SING in October 1958. The tune it was written to was an old folk song - Higher Germany. All of this Red News had published in the past, apart from the Eric Winter connection. Tony said it was the custom for folk singers to write anonymously because it gave more credence to the material.

I said I had a version the Spinners had recorded in 1967 'live' in Liverpool before an audience where you could hear a pin drop, followed by a very poignant ovation at the end. He said there was also an E.P. version with The Flowers and Manchester Rambler on. He added that after the inquiry into the disaster, Mick Groves changed some of the lyrics. (The inquiry to clear the name of Captain James Thain took eleven years and actually involved 4 inquiries - two British and two German.)

Returning to England I contacted Cecil Sharp House - The English Song and Dance Society who very kindly sent me copies of the original published version in SING in October 1958 plus the music to Higher Germany and some biographical data on the (to me) unknown Eric Winter. I grew up with the Babes and will never forget them or their memory. It is because they must never be forgotten that I have wanted to find out all I can about the song so that it is passed down to younger generations of United supporters. Winter's 1958 version has many different lines and words to the now more well known latter version that has appeared in all the Great United Songs. We reproduce the original, the version from Sing magazine shown for the first time since its publication. Some verses show that it must have been penned in the immediate days that followed the tragedy. Tony Davis also said that Ewan MacCall collaborated on the Spinners version - the Great United Songs rendition - which could go some way to explaining why for so many years rumours had it that MacCall was the author.

After all the years of trying to track down the authorship of Flowers of Manchester, I and many other reds who read the Guardian missed Eric Winter's obituary on 31st October 2000 which clearly states that "his song, The Flowers of Manchester, prompted by the 1958 Munich air disaster, was recorded by The Spinners." That a Mancunian wrote this epic tribute to our heroes is all the more fitting. If you've never heard this tribute buy, beg or borrow The Spinners version but most importantly never forget the words to the song. And if all those 'Munich' chanting scumbags over the years had heard this sung in Ascona I would hope they would hang their heads in shame.


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