Soccer showcase-Forty years on -- United still judged by Busby B
        By Mike Collett

LONDON, Feb 4 98(Reuters) - Manchester United stopped being just another football club on the afternoon of February 6, 1958 when the plane carrying them home from Belgrade crashed after a refuelling stop at Munich.

A transformation took place in the national consciousness as a horrified nation learnt by wireless and news flashes on small black-and-white television sets of the tragedy that wiped out the cream of a generation, the Busby Babes.

People who had no interest in soccer began following the fortunes of United, neutrals willed them to win. The players who survived the crash like Bobby Charlton won a special place in people's hearts and United itself became an icon of hope born of tragedy.

Matt Busby's young team, champions of England in 1956 and 1957, died in the slush and snow of Munich after their twin-propped Elizabethan aircraft crashed on a third take-off attempt.

If the immediate loss of seven players killed outright in the crash was hard to take, another devastating blow followed two weeks later when 21-year-old Duncan Edwards, the star of the team, died in the Rechts der Isar Hospital in Munich as a result of his injuries.

His life was the 23rd and last claimed out of the 44 passengers on board.

The eight players killed were England international Roger Byrne, 28, the left-back and captain, Eddie Colman, 21, England's centre-forward Tommy Taylor, 25, Mark Jones, 24, David Pegg, 22, Irish international Billy Whelan, 22, Geoff Bent, 25, and Edwards, who in 1955 aged just 18 had become the youngest player to appear for England this century.

Four United club officials, eight journalists including Frank Swift the former England goalkeeper, the co-pilot, a stewardess and the travel agent who arranged the trip also died.

Now, on the 40th anniversary of the tragedy, their legacy lives on, undiminished by time. Everything that Manchester United achieve today is still measured by what the Busby Babes did -- and could have achieved.

Charlton, who survived the crash to become arguably England's most famous footballer, was the flower that bloomed from that tragic crop.

How much richer England's football would have been if they had never died can never be known for sure.

But arguably they could have prevented Real Madrid winning the first five European Cups, they could have become the first English team this century to win the F.A. Cup and League double rather than Tottenham Hotspur in 1961. And England, with the likes of Edwards, Byrne and Taylor, might have won the World Cup in Sweden in 1958 rather than Brazil.

At the time of the crash, the Busby Babes were the most exciting team England had ever seen.

Champions of England for two years running, Busby had defied the conservative English F.A. by taking his side into the European Cup in 1956 and they had done well to reach the semifinals before losing to Real Madrid.

In 1957-58 they were back in the European Cup, winning through to the quarter-final. On January 14 they defeated Red Star Belgrade 2-1 at home in the first leg and were scheduled to play the second leg in Belgrade on February 5.

After racing to a 3-0 half-time lead in Belgrade -- and a 5-1 lead on aggregate overall, the match finished 3-3 and United were through to the semifinals again. But that was to be the last match the Babes ever played.

United did not play again until February 19 when they met Sheffield Wednesday in an F.A. Cup fifth round game in front of almost 60,000 fans. Munich survivor Bill Foulkes led out a makeshift team on a memorable night as United won 3-0.

Carried on a wave of public sympathy over the next three months they reached the F.A. Cup final, but there was no fairytale ending as Bolton Wanderers beat them 2-0.

Nat Lofthouse, who will lead out the Bolton team for their match at Old Trafford on Saturday, scored twice to give Bolton victory.

Busby himself lived to be 84, dying only four years ago, but his life was in the balance immediately after the disaster.

He was twice given the last rites at the hospital which issued a statement at the time saying: ``We do not have much hope of saving him.''

When he did leave hospital he vowed to have nothing more to do with football, but his wife Jean told him: ``You know, Matt, the lads would have wanted you to carry on.''

United did rise again and within a decade Busby had built a new team that would fulfil the legacy of the players who died at Munich.

Five years after the crash, United won the F.A. Cup and followed that up with the league title in 1965 and 1967.

And in 1968 United became the first English club to win the European Cup when they defeated Benfica 4-1 at Wembley.

Busby later described that night as ``the greatest and most memorable event of my life.

``The moment that Bobby Charlton took the European Cup, it well, cleansed me,'' he said.

``It eased the pain of guilt I had of taking the club into Europe. It was my justification.''

Matt Busby was not a man known to shed tears but many people saw him cry that day -- May 29, 1968. A dream he thought had died with the Busby Babes in the snow of Munich, had finally come true after all.


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