Tributes paid to Busby Babes!!!
Manchester United have paid tribute to the fallen Busby Babes 50 years after the tragedy which claimed 23 lives.
Half a century to the minute since BEA Flight 609 ZU crashed on take-off from Munich Airport, the club marked the anniversary of their passing with a memorial service at Old Trafford.
There was a solemn atmosphere inside the stadium's Manchester Suite as survivors, football and civic dignitaries and invited guests arrived to pay their respects.
Outside on Sir Matt Busby Way, where a clock stopped at 3.04pm commemorates the events of February 6, 1958, thousands gathered to add their support and lay flowers.
Many wore modern day shirts with the legend Munich 58 emblazoned on the back, while others sported the late Duncan Edwards' number six jersey.
The service was led by club chaplain the Reverend John Boyers and the order of service included a message from Prince Charles.
One of the early arrivals was former keeper Alex Stepney, a schoolboy of 15 at the time of the tragedy.
He said: "It's a sad day, but also a day to remember.
"I am very humble, I was 15 at the time and I remember how shocked everyone was.
"Little did I think or dream then that I would play for the team when they won the European Cup in 1968."
The tragedy happened as the United party returned to England from a 3-3 European Cup draw in Belgrade which had secured their passage to the semi-finals.
Eight United players died - Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor, Liam "Billy" Whelan and, 15 days later, Duncan Edwards - as a result of the injuries they suffered in the crash.
Three members of the club's staff, eight journalists, two of the flight crew and two other passengers also died.
Busby and Charlton were among the injured, but eventually returned to spearhead a remarkable recovery which saw the club claim the league title and the European Cup within a decade.
Fifty years ago the plane carrying Manchester United home from Belgrade crashed after a refuelling stop at Munich, killing 23 of the 44 people on board.
Eight United players died as a result of the accident, seven immediately and the eighth, Duncan Edwards, the jewel in the crown of the Busby Babes, 15 days later due to his injuries.
Here are some details on the tragedy and its aftermath:
On February 6, 1958, a British European Airways twin-propped Elizabethan plane carrying United's players crashed on take-off after refuelling at Munich's Riem airport.
Eight players died as well as three United club officials, eight journalists, two crew members and two other passengers, including the travel agent who arranged the trip.
The aircraft had faced problems taking off and crashed in the slush and snow on a third attempt.
Nicknamed the Busby Babes after manager Matt Busby, United were champions of England in 1956 and 1957.
They had drawn 3-3 with Red Star Belgrade in Yugoslavia and qualified for the European Cup semi-finals in their last match before the disaster.
United did not play again for 13 days until they met Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup fifth round in front of almost 60,000 fans. Bill Foulkes led out a makeshift team that included fellow Munich survivor Harry Gregg in goal as United won 3-0.
Busby, badly injured and twice given the last rites, recovered and went on to rebuild the team. In 1968 United became the first English club to win the European Cup. They also won the FA Cup five years after the crash and the league title in 1965 and 1967.
Forward Bobby Charlton, who survived the crash, went on to become arguably England's most famous footballer and was later knighted. Two of the survivors, Johnny Berry and Jackie Blanchflower, never played again.
The eight players who died were England's Roger Byrne, 28, the left-back and captain; Eddie Colman, 21; England centre-forward Tommy Taylor, 25; Mark Jones, 24; David Pegg, 22; Ireland's Billy Whelan, 22; Geoff Bent, 25; and England's half-back Duncan Edwards, 21.
The tragedy that wiped out the cream of a generation caused a transformation in the national consciousness - people who had no interest in football began following the fortunes of United and neutrals willed them to win.
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 stunned public learnt by wireless and news flashes on small grainy television sets of the tragedy that had wiped out the cream of a generation, the Busby Babes.
People who had no interest in football began following the fortunes of United, neutrals willed them to win. The players who survived the crash, such as 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 extremely hard to take, another devastating blow followed two weeks later when 21-year-old Duncan Edwards, the heart of the team, died in the Rechts der Isar Hospital in Munich as a result of his injuries.
He was the eighth player to die and the 23rd and last life lost out of the 44 passengers on board.
The young players who died were England international and club captain Roger Byrne, 28, 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 in the 20th century.
Three United club officials, eight journalists including Frank Swift the former Manchester City and England goalkeeper, the co-pilot, a crew member and the travel agent who arranged the trip also died.
Now, on the 50th anniversary of the tragedy, their legacy lives on, undiminished by time.
In the last 15 years under manager Alex Ferguson, the modern United have won the European Cup, three League and FA Cup doubles and far surpassed what Busby's ill-fated Babes achieved.
But the question that never goes away, and can never be answered is... would the Babes have done the same? Or even more?
Charlton, who survived the crash to become England's most famous footballer, was the flower that bloomed from that tragedy.
Charlton believes they would have prevented Real Madrid winning the first five European Cups and become the first English team in the 20th century to have won the FA Cup and League double, rather than Tottenham Hotspur in 1961.
He believes England, with Edwards, Byrne and Taylor, might have won the World Cup in Sweden in 1958 rather than Brazil.
"I do believe we would have won the European Cup in 1958," he said as the anniversary approached.
"We had learnt so much from our previous European experience. I think we would have become the best team in Europe for years, and certainly the best in England. And who knows what England could have done in the Sweden World Cup? Could we have won it? Very possibly."
At the time of the crash, the Busby Babes were the most exciting team England had ever seen and had been champions of England for two years running.
Busby had defied the conservative English FA by taking his side into the European Cup in 1956 and they had done well to reach the semi-finals before losing to Real Madrid.
In 1957-58 they were back in the European Cup, winning through to the quarter-finals. On January 14 they beat Red Star Belgrade 2-1 at home and drew 3-3 in the second leg on February 5. It was the last match the Babes played.
After a period of intense grief when Busby fought for life in hospital and his assistant Jimmy Murphy took over running the club, a very different looking United team met Sheffield Wednesday in an FA Cup fifth round game in front of almost 60,000 fans on February 19.
Munich survivors Bill Foulkes and goalkeeper Harry Gregg were in the side that won 3-0 to begin an improbable journey to the FA Cup final at Wembley in May but there was no fairytale ending as Bolton Wanderers beat them 2-0.
Busby lived to be 84, dying in 1994, but his life was in the balance immediately after the disaster.
He was twice given the last rites and later vowed never to have anything 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 became the first English club to win the European Cup when they defeated Benfica 4-1 at Wembley in 1968.
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."
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.
For Bobby Charlton not a day goes by without his thoughts drifting back to the Munich air disaster that wiped out so many of the Busby Babes.
Those who died were not just team mates but friends. In his recent autobiography "My Manchester United Years", Charlton wrote: "Even now...it still reaches down and touches me every day. Sometimes I feel it quite lightly, a mere brush stroke against an otherwise happy mood.
"Sometimes it engulfs me with a terrible regret and sadness - and guilt that I walked away and found so much. The Munich air crash is always there, always a factor that can never be discounted. Never put down like time-exhausted baggage."
Now aged 70, and with the 50th anniversary of the crash approaching, Charlton (pictured on the left with fellow Munich survivors Bill Foulkes and Dennis Viollet) does not find it hard to talk about the moment his life changed forever.
While eight of his team mates died as a result of the crash at Munich on February 6 1958, he escaped with minor injuries.
He survived after being thrown from the plane and, despite being knocked unconscious, soon woke up on the runway strapped in his seat.
Remarkably, he was playing football again less than a month later and played 759 matches for United until he retired in 1973 - more than any other player in the club's history.
The 49 international goals he scored from 1958 to 1970 is still a record for England and although he won the World Cup in 1966 and the European Cup with a rebuilt United team in 1968, Munich remains the defining moment of his life.
"I obviously understand why people want to talk to me about it being that I was part of it, I survived it and I am still here," he said.
"I have no problem talking about the team or the players that were killed because they were so good and I was so proud to be playing with them."
The football world at the time of the Munich air disaster was nothing like today and while every journey United took in Europe was an adventure, it was an arduous one.
It all went tragically wrong at Munich, of course, when United's plane crashed on take-off after a refuelling stop on the way back from a European Cup match in Belgrade.
The European Cup, then the only major continental club competition, was still in its infancy having started in 1955-56, and trips to places like Belgrade, Milan or Madrid involved hours of flying - and refuelling stops.
"It was nothing like today when we jump on our own plane and are in and out after the match," said Charlton. "It was work. But it was an adventure."
He believes that but for the crash and the loss of eight of Matt Busby's team, United would have won the European Cup in 1958 - and stopped Real Madrid's five-year winning streak which helped to establish them as the biggest club in the world.
"I think if the team had stayed together we would have won it in the year of the accident. Real Madrid won it for the first five years, but we were never going to go backwards once we set off on this path, to be the best in Europe.
"I remember when we played our first home match in Europe, I was wishing I was playing and we beat Anderlecht of Belgium 10-0.
"Initially, we thought, 'Will we be good enough for this sort of thing? Will they be streets ahead of us?' Streets ahead of us? It was the opposite.
"Apart from Real Madrid at that particular time, really, we could play against anyone."
United, though, had to wait 10 years before Busby, who also survived the crash, rebuilt his club and his team.
Then, on May 29 1968, Charlton scored twice as United beat Benfica 4-1 at Wembley Stadium to be crowned champions of Europe and finish the task that began in 1956.
"It was a marvellous night because it put things right in a way. The accident had happened, this great tragedy and loss had taken place.
"It helped Matt Busby. It was his team, his lads who had died. This made it a little easier for him in some ways. I think he could feel happier because he missed the players more than anyone else. He felt responsible.
"United was a family club and he was the father so you can imagine when it happened it was a tragedy that hit him more than anyone else."
Apart from one year at Preston North End as player-manager in 1973-74, Charlton has been at United since signing as a 15-year-old amateur in January 1953.
He has seen United grow, first under Busby and in modern times under Alex Ferguson, to become one of the greatest clubs in the world - on a par with Real Madrid whom they tried to emulate all those years ago.
But the events of that wintry night's disaster in Munich help Charlton to keep it all in perspective.
"My life, truly, has been a miracle granted to me," he wrote in the prologue to his book. "But in Munich in 1958 I learnt that even miracles come at a price."
Everyone who saw Duncan Edwards play agrees he was destined to be one of the greatest of all time.
His close friend Bobby Charlton, who has been associated with Manchester United for 55 years, said he was the best player to represent the club and the best he ever played with.
"He was the best player I ever saw, or am likely to see in my life," he said. "If I was asked to name a team of the players I played with, his name would be the first one I would put in, no question about it."
Bobby Robson, who made his England debut against France in November 1957 in Edwards's 18th and last international before he died, aged just 21, three months later, agreed.
"What is beyond dispute is that Duncan Edwards, at the age of 21 was the finest young player in this country at that time and surely would have gone on to be one of the greatest players the world has ever seen."
Former United manager Tommy Docherty, who played for Scotland against Robson and Edwards in that game, backed up Robson's assertion.
"There is no doubt in my mind that Duncan would have become the greatest player ever. Not just in British football, with United and England, but the best in the world.
"George Best was something special, as was Pele and Maradona, but in my mind Duncan was much better in terms of all-round ability and skill."
His old schoolmaster Geoffrey Groves recognised Edwards's potential greatness as a young boy.
He remembered a match in which the youngster "told all the other 21 players what to do, and also the referee and both the linesmen.
"When I got home that night I wrote to a friend, telling him I had just seen a boy of 11 that would one day play for England."
His prediction came true seven years later when Edwards made his full debut against Scotland at Wembley on April 2, 1955. He was just 18 years old and the youngest player to have played for England in the 20th century.
Edwards was born in Dudley in the Midlands on October 1, 1936, and scouts from every top English club were aware of his prodigious skills by the time he was a teenager.
United signed him as a 15-year-old amateur in May 1952 and 11 months later he made his league debut, but, although still young, Edwards did not look a boy.
"Look at the photos of him in the United youth teams, he is physically twice as big as everyone else," said Charlton.
Naturally blessed with size, power, speed, control and courage, Edwards was also powerful in the air and could hit the most accurate long-range, cross-field passes.
His shot, with either foot, was virtually unstoppable and when he went upfield he caused havoc in opponents' defences. His nominal position was half-back, today's wide midfielder, but he could play anywhere and do anything.
United manager Alex Ferguson said there was one particular story about Edwards he enjoyed.
"When United won the League in 1956, they were losing to Blackpool and they turned to Duncan at halftime and said: 'Come on Duncan get us going'.
"So you've got John Berry and all these experienced players in the team and they turned to Duncan Edwards as their saviour at just 19. That tells you everything about him."
Charlton was closer to Edwards than anyone at United, sharing a barracks with him when they were doing Army service together near Shrewsbury in the mid-1950s.
He remembered their great friendship and said Edwards was the only player he ever felt inferior to.
"I knew him better than anyone else, I was closer to him than anyone else because we literally were in the same billet in Shrewsbury.
"I never thought I could be as good as him. Never. He had every talent, he was the best short passer, he was the best long passer. He had terrific vision.
"His 60-70 yard passes with a heavy ball were pinpoint accurate. He had an enthusiasm for the game, he never stopped talking about it. He'd pick you up if you were losing. He was absolutely sensational, fantastic.
"He was a great loss to England, and he would probably have played in the 1966 World Cup final because he was young enough. Probably also the United team that won the European Cup in 1968."
None of that came to pass because, after a valiant battle for life, Edwards died 15 days after the Munich air crash as a result of his injuries.
There are two stained glass windows dedicated to his memory at St Francis Church in Dudley. When former United manager Matt Busby dedicated them in 1961 he described Edwards as "a truly amazing boy".
One who was blessed with almost everything, apart from the time to show the world how great he could have been.