Air transport has served to draw once widely separated worlds of sport into close communion. Where once the championship of all England might have been enough for the men of Manchester's great soccer team, these days a team has to test itself against the best within schedule-reach by air. And so last week the Manchester Uniteds, after holding Yugoslavia's top footballers to a 3-3 tie in Belgrade, were well on their way to achieving a new ambition: the championship of Europe. Their attitude as they boarded the chartered British European Airways transport that was to take them home was one of jubilant confidence in the future—a confidence fully shared by the British sportswriters traveling with them.
Back home in Manchester, equally enthusiastic rooters were lining up to buy tickets for the Uniteds' next match—against the Wolverhampton Wanderers. "By goom," the look on their seamed North Country faces seemed to say, "the Uniteds'll show 'em this time." But the Uniteds never got the chance. Some 400 miles away, on a snow-swept Munich airport where she had put down for gas, the twin-engine Elizabethan transport bearing them home was trying desperately to become airborne. On two take-offs she had failed. On the third try she made it—only to come crashing earthward seconds later. Seven Manchester players were killed, along with eight of the sportswriters accompanying them. Nine other footballers, including Manager Matt Busby, a man as admired in England as is Casey Stengel in the U.S., were burned or injured.
In dour Manchester the first reaction to the news was plain disbelief. It was too appalling. In Westminster, a Manchester-born M.P. stood blank-faced in the parliamentary corridor muttering over and over, "But I was with them last Saturday." As the terrible truth took hold, flags all over the nation fluttered to half-mast, and Manchester families huddled together over their radios in attitudes reminiscent of wartime. In Bad Gastein skiers from 25 nations observed a minute of silent tribute to the dead athletes, while soccer fans at matches all over Europe and even Russia followed suit. Queen Elizabeth, Pope Pius and Yugoslavia's Tito hastened messages of sympathy. As the news broke in black headlines across the shocked U.S., the tragedy took on a new significance as baseball fans realized suddenly that this summer their own favorites would be keeping their new far-flung playing dates by air.
But England's loss, if such things can be measured, was greater even than that America might feel at losing the heart of a major league club. In the 13 years since he first took over the Uniteds, when their stadium was a heap of bombed-out rubble and British soccer was at its lowest ebb, enthusiastic and devoted Matt Busby has raised the prestige of a whole nation with his victories. More than any U.S. athletes, the young local schoolboys (the Uniteds averaged 23) he molded into Britain's best pros belonged to their fellow countrymen and to Manchester.
February 17, 1958
"In these past two days," wrote a correspondent from the north to London's Daily Mail, "I have seen a city draw breath as a city, live, die or sigh as a city.... Where, we are often asked, is the heart of a large industrial town? What symbol gives one a sense of belonging?...Dare one say that where the symbol once lay in a village inn or a church...it now lies in a football team?"