PLAYING WITH GHOSTS OF THE BUSBY BABES
Written by John White for Manchester United Then & Now
On 5 February 1958, Bobby Charlton scored two goals for Manchester United in their 3-3 draw with Red Star Belgrade in a European Cup, quarter-final second leg tie with Dennis Viollet also scoring in the game. The result guaranteed passage for United into the semi-finals of the recently created tournament for the second season in succession, having won the first leg 2-1 at Old Trafford on 14 January 1958. Charlton and Eddie Colman scored in the home leg. United’s away game versus the Yugoslavian Champions was played at Stadion Jugoslovenska Narodna Armija, the home ground of Red Star Belgrade’s fierce rivals, Partizan Belgrade. Red Star Belgrade took the decision to play at Stadium JNA for purely financial reasons as their home ground, Red Star Stadium, was much smaller than that of their Eternal Derby rivals. The visit of Manchester United, back-to-back, English League Champions in seasons 1955-56 and 1956-57, was a game that all football fans in Belgrade wanted to see.
Partizan Belgrade, Yugoslavian First Division Champions in season 1954-55, were invited to participate in the inaugural European Cup competition the following season (1955-56). In Round 1 they beat Sporting Lisbon 8-5 over the two legs but were narrowly beaten 4-3 on aggregate in Round 2 (the quarter-final stages) by the eventual winners of the first ever European Cup final, Real Madrid. In season 1956-57, it was Red Star Belgrade‘s chance to welcome Europe’s best sides and in the First Round they beat the Dutch Champions, Roda JC Kerkrade, 6-3 over two legs. As the home tie was played at night, Red Star Belgrade rented Stadion JNA as their home ground did not have any floodlights. A crowd of 15,000 cheered the “home” side on to victory. Red Star Belgrade defeated CSKA Sofia, Champions of Hungary, 4-3 over their two leg quarter-final tie with 33,000 fans turning out at Stadion JNA to see a game played between two East European giants. In the semi-finals, Red Star Belgrade exited the competition after being beaten 1-0 over two legs to the Serie A Champions, Italy’s AS Fiorentina. The 1-0 loss at “home” (Stadion JNA) attracted a record “home” crowd of 44,000 fans for Red Star Belgrade.
On 5 February 1958, a massive crowd of 55,000 poured into Stadion JNA to watch Red Star Belgrade play a team who were known across Europe as “The Busby Babes.” It was East versus West in a showdown which would rival the Gunfight at the O.K. Coral on 26 October 1881. Red Star Belgrade may well have been the home side but a large number of the fans in attendance were most definitely fans of PartizanBelgrade.
The day after United drew 3-3 with Red Star Belgrade, the plane carrying the Manchester United team home crashed on take-off at Munich-Riem Airport following a stop-off in Munich, West Germany to refuel. The disaster instantly claimed the lives of seven Busby Babes with an eighth, Duncan Edwards, succumbing to his fatal injuries on 21 February 1958. Three club officials also perished in the crash, Walter Crickmer the Club Secretary, Tom Curry a First Team Trainer and Bert Whalley the club’s First Team Coach.
Bobby Charlton recovered from his injuries in the Rechts des Isar Hospital in Munich and returned home to Manchester to cope with the aftermath of the air disaster. He had lost eight teammates, all close friends, but more importantly, he had lost eight Manchester United brothers who were very precious to him.
“The beauty of genuine brotherhood and peace is more precious than diamonds or silver or gold.” Martin Luther King Jr
The young Charlton knew that in having his fellow Busby Babes more like brothers than teammates, was to have experienced a very exceptional gift because for Bobby, there was a special place in his heart for thosehe called “brother.”
Bobby missed United’s first game post Munich, a 3-0 home win over Sheffield Wednesday in an FA Cup Fifth Round tie on 19 February 1958 and their first League game following the crash, a 1-1 draw against Nottingham Forest at Old Trafford on 22 February 1958, the day after the last of the eight Busby Babes died from his injuries, Duncan Edwards.
“The people you love become ghosts inside of you, and like this you keep them alive.” Rob Montgomery
On 19 April 1958, the England manager, Walter Winterbottom, a former Manchester United player, handed Bobby his senior international debut. He scored in England’s 4-0 victory over Scotland at Hampden Park, Glasgow in the British Home International Championships. Bobby was aged 20 years and 189 days old at the time and electrified the first of his 106 England appearances with a classical goal when he connected with a Tom Finney cross on the volley to send it flashing into the Scotland net from the edge of the penalty area. His wonder strike came in the sixty-second minute after Bryan Douglas had headed England into a first-half lead and then laid on the first of two goals for Derek Kevan. Fulham’s Jim Langley made a commendable debut in place of the sadly missed Roger Byrne, with Wolverhampton’s Bill Slater taking on the impossible job of following Duncan Edwards. The nearest Scotland came to scoring was when a Jackie Mudie header hit the bar midway through the second-half, by which time England were sitting on a cushion of three goals. Kevan wrapped it up for England fifteen minutes from the end after Johnny Haynes, Bobby Charlton and Bill Slater had cut open the Scottish defence with a procession of precise passes.
He was given his second cap on 7 May 1958, a 2-1 win over Portugal in an international friendly at Wembley Stadium, London and scored both England goals. At the end of the 1957-58 season, England went on an End-of-Season Pre-World Cup European Tour. Sweden played host to the 1958 FIFA World Cup finals from 8-29 June 1958. Quite amazingly, Winterbottom selected Charlton for England’s first game on their Tour of Europe because their opponents were Yugoslavia and the game was played at the JNA Stadion, Belgrade. And so, on Sunday 11 May 1958, Bobby ran out of the tunnel of Partizan Belgrade’s home ground for the second time in just three short months. However, this time Bobby swapped his red United shirt for a white England jersey. All the confidence and cohesion built up in the England team pre-Munich had disappeared, and they found this World Cup warm-up match in Belgrade too hot to handle in more ways than one. The game was played in a heat wave with temperatures in the high nineties, and three of the Yugoslav goals came in the last ten minutes with several of the England players close to exhaustion. The match was a personal nightmare for Jim Langley, who was run ragged by three-goal right winger Petacavić. It was a particularly testing trip for Bobby Charlton. He was back in Belgrade where the Busby Babes had played their final match against Red Star Belgrade on 5 February 1958.
Charlton was sensational in his first two appearances for his country, a Lion cub, but in this his third outing for The Three Lions, he was a mere pussycat. When he took to the pitch in Belgrade wearing an England jersey he walked out of the tunnel with 10 teammates but without five of his brothers who walked out of that very same tunnel with him on 5 February 1958: Roger Byrne (club captain), Eddie Colman, Duncan Edwards, Mark Jones and Tommy Taylor. For Bobby, the dead never truly die. They simply change form.
“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.” Helen Keller
Bobby should never have been asked to play in the game against Yugoslavia. His mind was clearly not focused on the game, as he must have thought back to the crash and his eight fallen brothers who he could no longer see or touch. But, they were with him always in his heart.
ndeed, Bobby’s mind and heart on that sunny day in the Yugoslavian capital on 11 May 1958, was not about honouring the England crest of the three lions on his shirt. It was purely focused on the teammates he loved and who were stolen from him in the Munich Air Disaster. But Bobby more than honoured his fallen teammates because he knew that the way to have them live on was to never stop loving them. And, on 26 May 1968, ten years after the crash in West Germany, he captained Manchester United to European Cup glory when they defeated SL Benfica 4-1 after extra-time in the final at Wembley Stadium, London scoring twice in the game. When he held aloft European football’s most prestigious club trophy, he looked up into the London sky above him and with a lump in his throat, and holding back the tears behind his eyes, he remembered the eight brothers he had lost a decade earlier in pursuit of their shared dream of making Manchester United the Champions of Europe. A piece of Bobby had died in Munich but the spirit of eight teammates lived with him forever in his thoughts throughout his career.
“If the people we love are stolen from us, the way to have them live on is to never stop loving them.” James O’Barr
Not surprisingly, Bobby didn’t play particularly well in the game against Yugoslavia, although to be fair, none of the England players performed well. Everywhere Bobby looked on the pitch his mind surely must have reverted to United’s game in the Yugoslavian capital on 5 February 1958. It was if his England teammates were just blurs against the crowd, seeing numbers on the back of the England players crisp white shirts which reminded him of those he had lost. No.2 – Donald Howe (West Bromwich Albion), Roger Byrne’s number at United, No.4 – Ronald Clayton (Blackburn Rovers), Eddie Colman’s number, No.5 – William Wright (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Mark Jones’ number, No.6 – William Slater (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Duncan Edwards number and No.9 – Derek Kevan (West Bromwich Albion), Tommy Taylor’s number. And, in an eerie twist of fate, Bobby wore the No.8 jersey, the same number he wore versus Red Star Belgrade. For Bobby it must have been quite surreal, as if he saw ghosts from the past. It was if his life could only be lived in the past, almost stuck in reverse, without being able to move forward and live again. He needed to breathe a new life, but mourn those he had lost.
The defeat to Yugoslavia for England just underlined how much England had gone back since the Munich Air Disaster. They were disjointed and totally lacking any sort of team pattern. If anything, the final score line, Yugoslavia 5 England 0, flattered England and it did severe damage to their confidence with the 1958 FIFA World Cup finals so close. Not surprisingly, Bobby was selected by Winterbottom in his England squad for the 1958 FIFA World Cup finals. It made sense, as Bobby had appeared for United in 10 of their last 14 First Division games of the 1957-58 season (never scored), despite the fact that he was recalling on a day to day basis what he endured on a slush covered runway at Munich-Reims Airport on 6 February 1958.It has never been made known why, but, Bobby never appeared for England on football’s world stage in Sweden. They played four games, but Squad Number 20, Bobby’s shirt number from a 22 man squad, was never used. He was aged 20.