Thursday, May 29 1997
Jeff Powell joins a trip into the past
For Albert Scanlon, the sight of Munich airport for the first time since the Busby Babes perished 39 years ago revived the nightmare so vividly that he is switching to train and ferry for today's journey home.
'I'm not sorry I came back,' said the portly, little man who was never quite the same winger again. 'This is something I needed to do once before I die. But I was sweating and rigid as we touched down and I can't face another take off from here.'
For Bobby Charlton, it was not flying in from Japan for one of the many Munich stopovers in his subsequent jet-set life which had him choking back the emotion yesterday. It was the powerful recollection of how the human warmth and football brilliance of Duncan Edwards, Roger Byrne, Tommy Taylor and the others had been snuffed out.
'They never grew old like the rest of us,' said the ambassadorial figure who survived to become a living legend in the world game.
'But they are still my friends. They live forever in my mind. Not a day goes by without I remember them.'
For Harry Gregg, the first Munich reunion of the Manchester United boys who were rescued forced him to lower the mental block with which he customarily shuts out the images of the most tragic wreckage in English football history.
'I cannot claim to be haunted every day I draw breath,' said the Ulsterman who still looks lean enough to be keeping goal at Old Trafford. 'We are all so close yet so different. So none of us can speak for the others. Bobby handles it as it's best for him. I get on with my life and touch these memories only when I must. Like now.'
Munich Revisited: they are all dealing in their own way with this pilgrimage to the place where they lost not just team mates but soul brothers on a wing-freezing refuelling stop on their way home from the victory in Yugoslavia which had announced them as one of Europe's greatest teams in the making.
Bill Foulkes, who came out of it still a pillar of the United defence, talked of his mixed feelings of deep sadness but fond memories and wanted most of all to see if the hotel was still there.
Jackie Blanchflower, Danny's brother, who lived but not to play another day, broke the tension with a joke from his regular after-dinner repertoire. 'Steady, Bill, we still owe money at the bar there.'
Dennis Viollet, who came out with two England caps, recalled how German coalmen clambered over the railway tracks by the airport fence and ploughed through the snow to drag them to their delivery wagon and hurry them to the intensive care ward.
That reminded Ray Wood, the England goalkeeper who had to make way for Gregg, that Byrne was the only Babe on that ill-fated attempt at a frozen take off who owned a car at the time: 'Roger loved that new Morris 1000 of his, bless him.'
Someone mentioned that Ryan Giggs, a United Babe of the 90s, drives a Ferrari and that the Brazilian wonderkid Ronaldo has just pushed up his Barcelona contract to $3.5million a year.
'We were earning £20 a week in the season and £18 a week in the summer,' recalled Gregg. 'But I wouldn't swap places with the big earners of today. They will never play against the likes of Alfredo di Stefano. They will never play with the greats like Bobby Charlton and George Best. And the best way to put it on this occasion is that they will never fly in the company of lifelong friends and team mates like Kenny Morgan. All their money can't buy that.'
So it was left to Morgan, the other winger who wandered away from the crash and back to football in his native Wales, to find the words which most powerfully expressed their strength of feeling for each other.
'Everyone needs to know one thing about three of the men sitting here with me,' said the one who was last out of hospital, three months after the crash and 11 weeks after Edwards lost his fight for life. 'Bill Foulkes, Harry Gregg and Bobby Charlton were out of the plane to safety when they realised that many of us were still trapped inside. They went back into that inferno to pull us out. That's what we mean by team spirit.'
The room went quiet then. Charlton, an emotional man at the best of times, swallowed harder than anyone.
The Munich Eight sat there, shoulder to shoulder, distinguished men now in or approaching their 60s, some with white hair, some balding, all bonded forever by their shared horror of that bitter February night in 1958 which plunged the British nation and the football world into mourning.
Blanchflower, as ever, brought back the smiles with a reminiscence of how none of them could ever guess the next team picked by Matt Busby, the solitary club official who survived.
In their mature suits or smart blazers, they might have been businessmen. But they were men on a mission.
They went to visit the Rechts der Isar Hospital where Professor Lechner one of the three surgeons who saved Busby and some of his Babes, was waiting to join the reunion.
If you were among those of us who remember where we were when the news broke, you somehow sensed that this journey into the past had helped them come to terms, at last, with the loss of their comrades.
It had been planned by United in the hope and expectation that they might reach last night's European Cup Final. When Borussia Dortmund won in Manchester and qualified instead to face Juventus, UEFA took up the arrangements and the cost.
'You see,' said Gregg, 'people talk about there being too much money in the game these days but it is football which has paid the bill to bring us here together.'
Munich accomplished, gentlemen. Safe journey home.
Seven players were killed in the Munich air crash on February 6, 1958. They were: Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Bill Whelan. Duncan Edwards died in hospital on February 21. One player, John Berry, and manager Sir Matt Busby have died subsequently.
All other United officials on the plane perished: club secretary Walter Crickmer, trainer Tom Curry and coach Bert Whalley.
In all 23 died, including eight leading sports writers, among them former Manchester City and England goalkeeper Frank Swift, while 21 survived.
A Manchester United is for life, not just for christmas.
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