Guardian Munich article
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Dance before death: The prelude to Munich
       By Paul Hayward.
Friday January 30, 1998

There were 63,000 people at Highbury and children were passed along a floor of flat caps to sit on the cinder track: a set of babes on either side of the touchline, one on a path to doom. Forty years ago on Sunday potentially the greatest of all Manchester United sides left the pitch after an epic 5-4 victory over Arsenal. It was the last time many of them were to perform in England.

The 40th anniversary of the Munich air disaster falls a week from today and Highbury will be filled with its own contingent of ghosts this weekend when Arsenal meet Southampton. Next Friday a memorial service will be held in Manchester Cathedral to remember the 23 dead. Eight were members of the original Busby Babes, the guiding spirit behind United's present youth policy; eight were journalists who had filed their last full stop. Copy ends.

"United plane crash... many dead," ran the stop press in the morning papers of February 7 1958. The raw chill, the collapsing stomach that comes with shock, must have been felt by many of the 63,000 crushed into Highbury, a ground packed to the lightbulbs these days with only 38,500. One spectator who was at Highbury aged nine says: "When I heard the news I remember thinking, no, that can't be right. I only saw them a week ago. It was impossible for a child's mind to comprehend." The headline above the match report in this newspaper was "Arsenal Go Down Bravely". The report itself was a paean to the team that was about to fly to Belgrade to draw 3-3 with Red Star in the European Cup quarter-final, and thus advance confidently to the semis. They were the English champions, youthful and masterly in all they did.

The decimation of Matt Busby's first masterwork was not about a football team being destroyed. It was about 23 men losing their lives and their families waking to desolation. In one sense it is obscene to elevate the death of a footballer above the death of a pilot or travel agent. But the loss of something so fresh and creative was a different kind of calamity. It allowed those not connected with the club or its victims to experience death as more than an abstract tragedy, another grim news item.

It can still be felt now, even by those of us who were not born when the BEA Elizabethan failed to take off after a refuelling stop in Munich and overshot the runway that wintry afternoon.

Before United play Bolton next Saturday some of the survivors of Munich will gather at Old Trafford to pay tribute to the dead. Last year they travelled to Munich for the European Cup final, which United narrowly failed to make, and visited the Rechts Der Isar Hospital, where the dead and wounded were treated 39 years before. A 40th anniversary doesn't normally carry quite the resonance of a 50th, but this time, in the side Alex Ferguson has assembled, there is an unmistakable echo of Busby's own achievement in scouring the country for the best of British youth. The average age of the players who died at Munich was 24.

Sir Bobby Charlton was quoted 12 months ago in Munich as saying: "There isn't a day that goes by I don't remember what happened and the people who are gone. The fact that the players are not here and are never going to be judged is sad. They'll never grow old." Forty years ago at Highbury, when the maximum wage was stlg17 a week, Charlton attracted professorial praise in these pages. "In less than a year," wrote our correspondent, "R Charlton has grown from a limited, left-sided player of little pace into a brilliant inside forward." In that 5-4 win "R Charlton drove lustily into goal" as United surged into a 3-0 lead by half-time. Arsenal recovered to 3-3 before United snatched the game back again.

The Manchester Guardian report is enough to confirm the legend of that team's destructive powers. United kept "one or both wing halves always poised on the frontal limit of defence ready to move forward and make a sixth or seventh forward". This left large gaps in defence, but "always, however, Manchester's forwards promised to score more goals than their defence yielded".

>From The Team That Wouldn't Die, John Roberts's definitive account of the crash, come impossibly poignant reminders of how much was lost amid the wreckage. Eddie Colman's cousin, Albert Valentine, remembers hearing confirmation of Colman's death: "I told the family and then left the house. I just had to go out. I don't remember anything until I suddenly realised I was standing in Piccadilly, Manchester, after three in the morning, soaked to the skin without a coat and still wearing my slippers. After that, I didn't eat for two weeks, and I just could not settle to anything for two years. I couldn't sleep at night. I was shattered." Thirteen days later, United played Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup fifth round at Old Trafford. When the team sheets came through, United's was empty. Almost until the kick-off the club was unsure who would be able or willing to play.

At Bolton next Saturday, as Sir Bobby Charlton and the others gather at Old Trafford, the match programme will be awash with colour and the names of the youngsters now carrying youth's flame into Europe. The long goodbye continues at Highbury tomorrow.

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