By 90Min
March 09, 2018

Manchester United marked the 60th anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster earlier this year with a special service on the day of the tragedy, while respects were paid prior to a Premier League clash with Huddersfield three days earlier and thousands of fans made a pilgrimage to Germany.

The disaster, which struck at take-off after a scheduled refuelling stop as the team was making its way back from a successful European Cup quarter final in Belgrade, claimed the lives of 23 people in total. Eight of them were United players, ripping the heart out of the club.

The impact was felt throughout the country and Europe. The 'Busby Babes' as the team had become known, were a youthful and exciting group. They had won back-to-back league titles in 1956 and 1957 and were on course to win a third in 1958 prior to the fatal crash. They had also been making progress in Europe and several were England stars or on the cusp of a call-up.

SOCCER-MANCHESTER UNITED-PLANE CRASH

It is often said that Manchester United might have won their first European Cup sooner than 1968 had the likes of Duncan Edwards, Roger Byrne and Eddie Colman not perished, but perhaps England might have been challenging for the World Cup sooner than 1966 in different circumstances as well.

After a disappointing first World Cup in 1950 where they were embarrassingly beaten by an amateur USA side, the Three Lions had improved to a quarter final showing in 1954 and were only knocked out by defending champions Uruguay. And while the 1950 loss to the United States ultimately did little to dent the English superiority complex, back-to-back humiliations at the hands of Hungary's 'Magical Magyars' in the months leading up to the 1954 tournament had finally kicked into a motion a gradual change in how the FA viewed international football.

In the latter half of the decade, that mental shift, combined with the emergence of fresh talents, particularly from Old Trafford, to replace what had become an ageing team, promised to give England a good chance when the World Cup went to Sweden in the summer of 1958.

United captain Roger Byrne, 28 at the time of his death in Munich, had been to the World Cup in 1954 at the very start of his international career and was at his peak four years later. The left back was seen as a very intelligent player who had become a guaranteed starter for his country.

Salford born Eddie Colman was the youngest player to die as a result of the crash, just three months after his 21st birthday. He was an incredibly popular and tenacious wing half, a box-to-box midfielder in modern day terminology. And, although he was yet to be selected by England before he died, it was felt that a first call-up was only a matter of time.

Centre half Mark Jones was another talked about as being England material, even if only initially as a back up to veteran Three Lions skipper Billy Wright, the man infamously floored by Ferenc Puskas' iconic drag-back at Wembley in 1953. Jones died without a cap to his name, but uncapped Tottenham centre half Maurice Norman did get the nod to go to Sweden, highlighting that a place was there for the taking.

Geoff Bent, a loyal Old Trafford servant but perennial reserve, wasn't on England's radar. Winger David Pegg had been capped by England in 1957, but having lost his place in the United side in the months leading to his death was unlikely to have been in World Cup contention.

That certainly wouldn't have been the case for striker Tommy Taylor, who, like Byrne, was a guaranteed starter. The former miner had been bought by United boss Matt Busby for £29,999 so as not to burden him with a £30,000 price tag and had scored 16 England goals in only 19 caps. He was widely regarded as one of the finest headers of the ball in Europe and was thriving out of the shadow of Nat Lofthouse, his predecessor as England's number nine.

Then there was Duncan Edwards, the last United player to lose his life as a result of the Munich crash, dying 15 days afterwards in hospital. Had he gone to the World Cup that summer, it may well have been a 21-year-old Englishman from the West Midlands that captured the imagination of the global audience instead of a 17-year-old Brazilian named Pele.

Image by Jamie Spencer

Sir Bobby Charlton, who shared pitches with Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Eusebio, George Best and countless other legendary players during his illustrious career, famously remarked that Edwards was the only one who ever made him feel 'inferior'.

"Duncan had everything," Busby once said. "He was so big, so strong, so confident and still so young. Right from the start we gave up trying to spot flaws in his game... he used to move upfield brushing people aside to lash in late goals when we needed them."

Edwards was a teenage prodigy in the mid 1950s, playing regular senior football for United as early as 1954 when he was only 17. The beating heart of the team, he was just 19 when he played 33 times in the club's 1955/56 title winning season and 20 when they retained it the following year. Aged 18 when he made his senior England debut, Edwards had 18 full England caps and five goals to his name by 1958, and would have entered the World Cup as one of the squad's most experienced international players despite only being very young at the time.

Of the 22 players that were chosen for the final England squad that went to Sweden, only four - Billy Wright (92), Johnny Haynes (20), Tom Finney (73) and Ronnie Clayton (20) had more than seven caps to their name. Five that were chosen were uncapped and three others had just a single cap. Jones and Colman would have had a strong case when United wrapped up a third straight domestic title - a patched up United side was caught by Wolves, while the team was robbed of the chance of making a real go of their European Cup semi final against AC Milan.

Given that Byrne, Taylor and Edwards, three of the best players in Europe at the time of their deaths, would have started, England's would have been lining up significantly differently in alternative circumstances in 1958 - a strong and talented spine of experienced players all from the same best club side in the country.

As it was, three draws, which included a 0-0 score-line against eventual winners Brazil, and a narrow playoff defeat against the Soviet Union, saw the Three Lions return home following early elimination. A quarter final tie against Wales or Sweden would have been next for England had they got through, and who knows how history might have been different.

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