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Monday, February 06, 2006

Why We'll Never Forget



With each year, as time marches relentlessly on, there are more of us at Old Trafford who weren't around to see the Babes play live and can only dare imagine the indescribable burden of events that must have left such deep scars on supporters and staff alike who witnessed those tragic events unfold back in Manchester, let alone those present at Reim Airport to witness such suffering and heartache.

I can't imagine this United side being decimated in such a way. Of course I can't. We live in times where we are protected against death, have no real understanding or comprehension of wars, watching them on our tv news, protected from the real images with censorship and control. The thought of any of our team dying in their prime just doesn't bear thinking about. So I don't. But that it happened to a team of ours does bear thinking about, and often too.

I know of the Babes, their history, their impact and what happened before, during and after February 1958 because I am as passionate about the past as I am of the present for the club I support and adore. From an early age I immersed myself in as much United knowledge as I could. I may not win any quizzes, or remember the words to many of the Great United Songs which RN so admirably maintains but I have tried to educate myself as much as I can about OUR history. For ours it is. Mine, yours, and yours to pass on. Glazers come and Glazers go but we are here to stay.

A chat with older Reds - sadly dismissed by many fans at games - is a fascinating experience because they have seen and lived through so much. Younger Reds of course don't have any blueprint to follow and, as with everything, each to their own on how they should go about 'learning' the United way. Nobody should be force fed stuff they don't want to know, and as I chose to seek out as much information as I can about our history; from record books to biographies and the like, I can understand that for a lot of younger Reds this doesn't appeal. All they may care about is the here and now; the present day and the present team. And one day no doubt, as it ever was, they will have seen enough to have their own fascinating stories about decades of 4 United history and support to tell and pass on to another, younger, generation.

But when it comes to February 6th 1958, I do think that a basic level of understanding is something that every Red should go out of his way - and he doesn't really have to go that far to acquire it either - to understand. With ageing Reds sadly dwindling in number it is left to those of us who didn't experience the period to keep the memories of Duncan, Tommy and the rest alive. For a team died playing for the team we support - surely though no debt is ever asked the least we owe them is to preserve their memory.

I understand from seeing United internet forums (a curse or a blessing, depending on which day you check) that there is an argument about how we should react to our tragedy so many years on. Each to their own of course, and people can commemorate the anniversary in whatever way they see fit, but commemorate it they should, however briefly. I don't care if people want to sing the Flowers of Manchester by the plaque or not - each to his own again, but as GreenhoffJ8 put it so well on the RI forum: “Yes, every year on the 6th, we remember it, each in our own way, for 10 seconds, a minute, or whatever, as long as we remember, it doesn't matter how...Anyone in Manchester the week Sir Matt died or at the game, knows exactly how Manchester United and its supporters feel about their legends, the memory of that day will never leave me as long as I live, and I'm sure those around at the time of Munich feel the same...”.

But it saddens me when passing the plaque on occasion this season to encounter a whole host of people - wearing United colours and certainly old enough to know better - who appear to know nothing about the plaque and what it represents and whose ignorant questions and lack of understanding about the most simplest of United memorials defies belief.

How can you (and I mean they) support a club and yet fail to ingratiate yourself with its history? How can you not know about the Babes? It's not asking for much? Of course they could go from that forecourt and want to find out more. But with each passing year I fear that more and more people will arrive at Old Trafford, caring little for the past, wanting their theme park experience and wanting fuck all to do with the remainder of our culture. Failing to realise that without our past there is nothing, for it builds and defines our future. We take the baton from our dads, we cherish it, and then pass it on to our kids. Those who just 'turn up', blindly unaware of anything bar Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo and only staying for success are a blight.

And as we rightfully slag off Glazer for knowing nothing about the traditions of this club, we should also point the finger at those closer to home who will wear their ROONEY shirts with pride on a matchday, but know nothing about those who wore it before him. I admire Ruud for going out of his way to read up about the club when he signed for us. He knows the importance of a United education.

I have heard it asked on the forecourt. “Who is this Busby?” when talking about the statue. Of course that's rare. But. A one off or not? You decide.

As I dare not imagine what it must have been like to have been a United fan during those terrible times in 1958, I can only again imagine the horror to be a parent of one of those who died; a wife, the lover, the brother, the children. And so it is that whenever I think of that era, my mind always turns too to the survivors. There is always perhaps a greater tragedy in those that were left behind, forever haunted.

If I picture my best mates and think of how it must have been to see so many perish in front of your eyes, as much as there is an incredible story in the way those that survived fought for this club to continue through the tragedy and keep their mates' memory alive, and, with the help of others, 10 years later, conquer Europe, it is impossible to imagine what affect this had on those that lived. Sir Matt, Harry Gregg, and Bobby Charlton to name but three of the more well known. There are many tragedies of that crash, and one was those it left behind, I'm sure of it.

I shudder at them, over the years, seeing it thrown back at them as rival fans taunted us with Munich chants whilst they were present at games. How must the survivors have coped with that? What memories that must have brought back. And although Liverpool fans were as guilty as anyone of singing that sick song, I feel a great deal of sympathy to their fans who saw mates die at Hillsborough too. Again, I can have no comprehension of the horrors that day too. United fans who taunt that disaster should be ashamed of themselves.

It's with that in mind, not that I clear him of all rude charges, that I always feel a great deal of sympathy when Bobby Charlton is accused of being such a surly man when encountered by United fans over the years. Maybe it's no excuse, but excuse him I do. Nobby Stiles said of Charlton: ‘He never forget the horror’, and Sir Matt years on said: “The recollections bring so much grief...although I do face it, I still wonder, at times, if the whole sorrowful business did really happen. The fact which must be faced, though, is the loss of many of my greatest footballers and my finest friends”.

As we again cocoon ourselves in different times, in a more sanitised era, the hell of a war beyond our comprehension that many of these men came through as boys, only to be pitted into darkness once more is a story that weeps its own tears. How would any of us cope in such a situation? These lads gifted with incredible skills were normal lads, not the pampered stars of todays game, getting the bus to games with fans, working down the mine or in a factory at the weekend. And then their lives were shattered.

Jimmy Murphy, a man who deserves much more accolades in our memories than he does, spoke 10 years on that: “The heartache of Munich is still there. To the generation which has grown up since then, those may be just names, but to me they were Matt's boys. My boys!”

Recalling being back home when the crash happened, Murphy said: “I was too numb to take in the awful grief and savage heartbreak. Agony piled on agony as the hours ticked remorselessly on. Thousands hurried down to the ground to see if they could help; the police threw a protective cordon around relatives and friends who had lost their loved ones. Those of us left at the ground did our best to calm and console the grief stricken. But what word of sympathy could I find to comfort the bereaved. There was nothing to lift the blanket of despair”.

When he flew to Munich to be with his players he met Matt. “The surgeons felt he might live, but no one except those of us close to him, ever felt he would be a force again in football. But I knew. In one of his conscious moments he whispered: ‘Keep the flag flying Jimmy. Keep things going until I get back.’ At that moment Matt didn't even know how many of his boys had been killed. I did. As I stumbled out of the hospital into the snow which still lay as a thick carpet over the city of Munich I was close to tears”.

Tom Williams, the liverpool chairman, rang Jimmy Murphy and said: “Any of my star players we can give you to keep United afloat let me know”.

How must the emotions have affected Sir Matt, attempting to take charge of the club once again. How can we view him in anything less than mythical status with what he did next. Not just coming back, with those tortured memories, but to lead us to glory. He wrote on returning to OT for the first time after the crash: “Resting in Interlaken, Germany was one thing and facing Old 4 Trafford another. When I approached the ground and moved over the bridge along which our supporters had squeezed fifty abreast in their tens of thousands to shout for us I could scarcely bear to look. I knew the ghosts of the Babes would still be there, and there they are still, and they will always be there as long as those who saw them still cross the bridge, young, gay, red ghosts on the green grass of Old Trafford.”

Heavens knows how hard it must have been for Charlton. “I just couldn't take it in, and therefore it washed over me. I didn't want to accept what had happened. When I got home it was worse. I could feel and smell the tragedy then. It was unbearable when I met people I had known through players who had died”. In the weeks that followed games became more than just a game. Charlton explained. “We had not been playing football games in which one side lost and the other side won. We had to win. The alternative was a return of melancholy to Manchester”. Harry Gregg explained: “Reflecting on our luck in having a future again, and trying to blot out the awful memories of Munich by thinking fixedly about football...I had gathered that when Jimmy saw Mr Busby in hospital, the boss had told him things must go on”.

Jimmy Murphy: “It was terrible at home. The papers were still full of the crash. I can't recall much about it, but then I don't think there is much to remember. The side wasn't being rebuilt - there wasn't enough time for that. It was being re-patched. The city was shocked, oh, it was so sad”. Of course there is a feeling that we became a mighty club on the back of the public support we received in the wake of the tragedy, but let us not forget that we always attracted superb support, 50,000 crowds regularly in '56-57.

When the younger players looked for guidance in the days that followed, their father figures like Bert Whalley had also died. Who could they turn to? The inspiration of Murphy must have been immense. Bill Foulkes lost a stone in weight in a few short weeks. “Jimmy Murphy kept telling us not to bother about football, but we all knew we had to start thinking about the club's future sometime soon. I got into a worse state than ever, thinking we were never going to make it. The doctors told me that I should go away and have a long holiday away from it all, but how could I? I couldn't stop thinking of poor Jimmy Murphy on his own at Old Trafford”.

Foulkes described the aftermath. “The remaining members of the team now went to Blackpool, to the Norbreck Hydro Hotel, which we had started to do during the European Cup runs of the previous two seasons. We virtually lived there, and I do not remember seeing my wife for more than one day a week for six weeks. We just had to get away from Manchester, with all its shattering atmosphere of hysteria and grief. Living together was essential to try to find some kind of team spirit, which we managed to do with such a strange assortment of players. In fact, the team spirit became quite incredible as we made our unsteady way to the Cup Final. I remember we posed for a photograph of the playing staff soon after arriving in Blackpool, and what a weird picture we made. There were a few reserves, who had played occasional games in the first team, but most of the rest looked like a gaggle of schoolkids...but how those lads fought”.

Murphy talked of that first game back, against Sheffield Wednesday. “I felt very sorry for the Sheffield side, they were never in the game with a chance, for I am sure everyone who took an interest in football willed us to win that night. I could not believe that the skeleton that was leading out Manchester United was Bill Foulkes. The crowd was hysterical, and I was not far away from being in the same state”.

It is testament to Murphy and those around him that the club went on. To the players who survived the crash and willed themselves to keep the memory of their mates alive it is nothing short of miraculous, a strange term in such tragic circumstances. Harold Hardman on the front cover of the Sheffield Wednesday programme wrote: “United will go on....the club has a duty to the public and a duty to football. We shall carry on even if it means that we are heavily defeated . Here is a tragedy which will sadden us for years to come, but in this we are not alone. An unprecedented blow to British football has touched the hearts of millions. Wherever football is played United is mourned”.

I'm hopefully trying to explain why it's still so important to everyone of us. I hope that if just one Red reading this who knows little of that time bar the basics then decides to takes time out to consider just what happened to our club that year and why it's so important that so many of us remember all year round, not just on Feb 6th. Remember a soon to be married Duncan Edwards, a Roger Byrne who never discovered that his wife Joy was expecting a child, that Geoff Bent never saw his daughter Karen grow up, nor Mark Jones his son, with Eddie Colman, David Pegg having all that to come. Tommy Taylor also to wed, and Liam Whelan whose last words to Harry Gregg, a man who watched his mates die say: ‘If the worst happens I am ready for death ... I hope we all are.’ All of those that died had their futures, their glorious futures, in front of them. We owe them their memories.

I can't help but be emotional when I write this. You hear some people, some of the younger generation, saying that because they weren't alive it doesn't really affect them. But a team died who played for Manchester United. if that doesn't move, inspire and motivate you to educated yourselves in the MUFC way and traditions then you really haven't got a clue.
Duncan Edwards was the Babes' talisman. The man who awoke from his coma and recognised Murphy. “What time's kick-off against Wolves on Saturday?” he asked. “Two thirty as usual,” said Murphy. “Get stuck in, lads,” were Edwards’ final words. They say he was the greatest. Sir Matt explained why this wasn't the mists of times propelling him into undeserved greatness.
“I think about Duncan a lot. I sometimes fear there is a danger that people will think that we who knew him and saw him in action boost him because he is dead. Sentiment can throw a man's judgement out of perspective. Yet it is not the case with him. Whatever praise one likes to heap on Duncan is no more than he deserves. There was no other player in the world like him then and there has been nobody to equal him since”. His gravestone inscription reads: “A Day of Memory, Sad to Recall. Without Farewell, He Left Us All”.

And that's what I hope all Reds realise; young and old alike, that the Babes left us all. And it is up to all of us to never forget. However you see fit.

this article first appeared in Red News 122, copyright RN

1 Comments:

Blogger zubov said...

Brilliant piece, mate. The true essence of what it means to a Red.

9:28 pm, February 13, 2006  

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