The 1957–58 season was Manchester United’s 56th season in the Football League, and their 13th consecutive season in the top division of English football.
The season marked the biggest tragedy in the club’s history as eight players, three club officials and ten other passengers died as a result of their injuries in the Munich air disaster on 6 February 1958 on their way back from a European Cup quarter-final away to Red Star Belgrade. Centre-half Mark Jones, captain Roger Byrne, full-back Geoff Bent, winger David Pegg, right-half Eddie Colman, inside-right Bill Whelan and centre-forward Tommy Taylor were all killed instantly. Left-half Duncan Edwards was in hospital for two weeks before he too died on 21 February.
Winger Johnny Berry and centre-half Jackie Blanchflower were both injured to such an extent that they never played again, while several of the surviving players were unavailable for a considerable amount of time as they recovered from their injuries.
Manager Matt Busby was badly injured, and his assistant Jimmy Murphy (who was not on that fateful flight) took charge of the first team until the end of the season as Busby recovered from his injuries. Club secretary Walter Crickmer and coaches Tom Curry and Bert Whalley were all killed in the crash, which claimed a total of 23 lives.
Despite the decimation of their squad, a makeshift United side still managed to reach the FA Cup final that season, where they lost to Bolton Wanderers. They also reached the semi-finals of the European Cup. However, their league form suffered after the crash and their title challenge faded as they finished ninth in the final table.
With the United squad decimated by death and injuries in the aftermath of the Munich tragedy, a number of younger players broke through into the first team. These included winger Shay Brennan and forward Mark Pearson. Another notable new member of the side was goalkeeper Harry Gregg, signed in December 1957 a few weeks before the Munich crash, and who was hailed a hero for his rescue efforts in the crash.
United’s top scorer for the season was Dennis Viollet, who found the net 23 times in all competitions and 16 times in the league despite being out of action for some two months as he recovered from injuries sustained in the Munich crash.
The Munich air disaster occurred on 6 February 1958 when British European Airways flight 609 crashed on its third attempt to take off from a slush-covered runway at Munich-Riem Airport, West Germany. On the plane was the Manchester United football team, nicknamed the “Busby Babes”, along with supporters and journalists. Twenty of the 44 on the aircraft died at the scene. The injured, some unconscious, were taken to the Rechts der Isar Hospital in Munich where three more died, resulting in 23 fatalities with 21 survivors.
The team was returning from a European Cup match in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, having eliminated Red Star Belgrade to advance to the semi-finals of the competition. The flight stopped to refuel in Munich because a non-stop flight from Belgrade to Manchester was beyond the “Elizabethan”-class Airspeed Ambassador’s range. After refuelling, pilots James Thain and Kenneth Rayment twice abandoned take-off because of boost surging in the left engine. Fearing they would get too far behind schedule, Captain Thain rejected an overnight stay in Munich in favour of a third take-off attempt. By then, snow was falling, causing a layer of slush to form at the end of the runway. After the aircraft hit the slush, it ploughed through a fence beyond the end of the runway and the left wing was torn off after hitting a house. Fearing the aircraft might explode, Thain began evacuating passengers while Manchester United goalkeeper Harry Gregg helped pull survivors from the wreckage.
An investigation by West German airport authorities originally blamed Thain, saying he did not de-ice the aircraft’s wings, despite eyewitness statements to the contrary. It was later established that the crash was caused by the slush on the runway, which slowed the plane too much to take off. Thain was cleared in 1968, ten years after the incident.
Manchester United were trying to become the third club to win three successive English league titles; they were six points behind League leaders Wolverhampton Wanderers with 14 games to go. They also held the Charity Shield and had just advanced into their second successive European Cup semi-final. The team had not been beaten for 11 matches. The crash not only derailed their title ambitions that year but also virtually destroyed the nucleus of what promised to be one of the greatest generations of players in English football history. It took 10 years for the club to recover, with Busby rebuilding the team and winning the European Cup in 1968 with a new generation of “Babes”.
In April 1955, UEFA established the European Cup, a football competition for the champion clubs of UEFA-affiliated nations, to begin in the 1955–56 season. However, the English league winners, Chelsea, were denied entry by the Football League’s secretary, Alan Hardaker, who believed not participating was best for English football. The following season, the English league was won by Manchester United, managed by Matt Busby. The Football League again denied their champions entry, but Busby and his chairman, Harold Hardman, with the help of the Football Association’s chairman Stanley Rous, defied the league and United became the first English team to play in Europe.
The team – known as the “Busby Babes” for their youth – reached the semi-finals, beaten there by the eventual winners, Real Madrid. Winning the First Division title again that season meant qualification for the 1957–58 tournament, and their cup run in 1956–57 meant they were one of the favourites to win. Domestic league matches were on Saturdays and European matches midweek, so, although air travel was risky, it was the only choice if United were to fulfil their league fixtures, which they would have to do if they were to avoid proving Alan Hardaker right.
After overcoming Shamrock Rovers and Dukla Prague in the preliminary and first round respectively, United were drawn with Red Star Belgrade of Yugoslavia for the quarter-finals. After beating them 2–1 at Old Trafford on 14 January 1958, the club was to travel to Yugoslavia for the return leg on 5 February. On the way back from Prague in the previous round, fog over England prevented the team from flying back to Manchester, so they flew to Amsterdam before taking the ferry from the Hook of Holland to Harwich and then the train to Manchester. The trip took its toll on the players and they drew 3–3 with Birmingham City at St Andrew’s three days later.
Eager not to miss Football League fixtures, and not to have a difficult trip again, the club chartered a British European Airways plane from Manchester to Belgrade for the away leg against Red Star. The match was drawn 3–3 but it was enough to send United to the semi-finals. The takeoff from Belgrade was delayed for an hour after outside right Johnny Berry lost his passport, and the plane landed in Munich for refuelling at 13:15 GMT.
Aircraft and crew
The aircraft was a six-year-old Airspeed Ambassador 2, built in 1952 and delivered to BEA the same year.
The pilot, Captain James Thain, was a former RAF flight lieutenant. Originally a sergeant (later a warrant officer), he was given an emergency commission in the RAF as an acting pilot officer on probation in April 1944, and promoted to pilot officer on probation in September that year. He was promoted to flight lieutenant in May 1948, and received a permanent commission in the same rank in 1952. He retired from the RAF to join BEA.
The co-pilot, Captain Kenneth Rayment, was also a former RAF flight lieutenant and a Second World War flying ace. After joining the RAF in 1940, he was promoted to sergeant in September 1941. He was commissioned as a war substantive pilot officer a year later, and promoted to war substantive flying officer in May 1943. He shot down five German fighters, one Italian plane and a V-1 flying bomb. He was awarded the DFC in July 1943, and promoted to flight lieutenant in September 1943. After leaving the RAF in 1945, he joined BOAC in Cairo, before joining BEA in 1947. He had had experience with Vikings, Dakotas and the Ambassador “Elizabethan” class.
Thain had flown the “Elizabethan”-class Airspeed Ambassador (registration G-ALZU) to Belgrade but handed the controls to Rayment for the return. At 14:19 GMT, the control tower at Munich was told the plane was ready to take off and gave clearance for take-off, expiring at 14:31. Rayment abandoned the take-off after Thain noticed the port boost pressure gauge fluctuating as the plane reached full power and the engine sounded odd while accelerating. A second attempt was made three minutes later, but called off 40 seconds into the attempt because the engines were running on an over-rich mixture, causing them to over-accelerate, a common problem for the “Elizabethan”. After the second failure, passengers retreated to the airport lounge. By then, it had started to snow heavily, and it looked unlikely that the plane would be making the return journey that day. Manchester United’s Duncan Edwards sent a telegram to his landlady in Manchester. It read: “All flights cancelled, flying tomorrow. Duncan.”
Thain told the station engineer, Bill Black, about the problem with the boost surging in the port engine, and Black suggested that since opening the throttle more slowly had not worked, the only option was to hold the plane overnight for retuning. Thain was anxious to stay on schedule and suggested opening the throttle even more slowly would suffice. This would mean that the plane would not achieve take-off velocity until further down the runway, but with the runway almost 2 kilometres (1.2 mi) long, he believed this would not be a problem. The passengers were called back to the plane 15 minutes after leaving it.
A few of the players were not confident fliers, particularly Liam Whelan, who said, “This may be death, but I’m ready”. Others, including Duncan Edwards, Tommy Taylor, Mark Jones, Eddie Colman and Frank Swift, moved to the back of the plane, believing it safer. Once everyone was on board, Thain and Rayment got the plane moving again at 14:56. At 14:59, they reached the runway holding point, where they received clearance to line up ready for take-off. On the runway, they made final cockpit checks and at 15:02, they were told their take-off clearance would expire at 15:04. The pilots agreed to attempt take-off, but that they would watch the instruments for surging in the engines. At 15:03, they told the control tower of their decision.
Rayment moved the throttle forward slowly and released the brakes; the plane began to accelerate, and radio officer Bill Rodgers radioed the control tower with the message “Zulu Uniform rolling”. The plane threw up slush as it gathered speed, and Thain called out the plane’s velocity in 10-knot increments.At 85 knots, the port engine began to surge again, and he pulled back marginally on the port throttle before pushing it forward again. Once the plane reached 117 knots (217 km/h), he announced “V1”, at which it was no longer safe to abort take-off, and Rayment listened for the call of “V2” (119 knots (220 km/h)), the minimum required to get off the ground. Thain expected the speed to rise, but it fluctuated around 117 knots before suddenly dropping to 112 knots (207 km/h), and then 105 knots (194 km/h). Rayment shouted “Christ, we won’t make it!”, as Thain looked up to see what lay ahead.
The plane skidded off the end of the runway, crashed into the fence surrounding the airport and across a road before its port wing was torn off as it caught a house, home to a family of six. The father and eldest daughter were away and the mother and the other three children escaped as the house caught fire. Part of the plane’s tail was torn off before the left side of the cockpit hit a tree. The right side of the fuselage hit a wooden hut, inside which was a truck filled with tyres and fuel, which exploded. Twenty passengers died on board, and three died later in hospital.
On seeing flames around the cockpit, Thain feared that the aircraft would explode and told his crew to evacuate the area. The stewardesses, Rosemary Cheverton and Margaret Bellis, were the first to leave through a blown-out emergency window in the galley, followed by radio officer Bill Rodgers. Rayment was trapped in his seat by the crumpled fuselage and told Thain to go without him. Thain clambered out of the galley window. On reaching the ground, he saw flames growing under the starboard wing, which held 500 imperial gallons (2,300 L) of fuel. He shouted to his crew to get away and climbed back into the aircraft to retrieve two handheld fire extinguishers, stopping to tell Rayment he would be back when the fires had been dealt with.
Meanwhile, in the cabin, goalkeeper Harry Gregg was regaining consciousness, thinking that he was dead. He felt blood on his face and “didn’t dare put [his] hand up. [He] thought the top of [his] head had been taken off, like a hard boiled egg.”Just above him, light shone into the cabin, so Gregg kicked the hole wide enough for him to escape. He also managed to save some passengers.
- Captain Kenneth “Ken” Rayment. Co-pilot. Survived but suffered multiple injuries and died in hospital three weeks later as a result of brain damage.
- Tom Cable, cabin steward
- Manchester United players
- Geoff Bent
- Roger Byrne
- Eddie Colman
- Duncan Edwards (survived the crash, but died in hospital 15 days later)
- Mark Jones
- David Pegg
- Tommy Taylor
- Liam “Billy” Whelan
- Manchester United staff
- Walter Crickmer, club secretary
- Tom Curry, trainer
- Bert Whalley, chief coach
- Alf Clarke, Manchester Evening Chronicle
- Donny Davies, Manchester Guardian
- George Follows, Daily Herald
- Tom Jackson, Manchester Evening News
- Archie Ledbrooke, Daily Mirror
- Henry Rose, Daily Express
- Frank Swift, News of the World (also former England and Manchester City goalkeeper; died on his way to hospital)
- Eric Thompson, Daily Mail
- Other passengers
- Bela Miklos, travel agent
- Willie Satinoff, supporter, racecourse owner and close friend of Matt Busby
- Margaret Bellis, stewardess (died 1998)
- Rosemary Cheverton, stewardess
- George William “Bill” Rodgers, radio officer (died 1997)
- Captain James Thain, pilot (died 1975)
- Manchester United players
- Johnny Berry (never played again, died 1994)
- Jackie Blanchflower (never played again, died 1998)
- Bobby Charlton
- Bill Foulkes (died 2013)
- Harry Gregg
- Kenny Morgans (died 2012)
- Albert Scanlon (died 2009)
- Dennis Viollet (died 1999)
- Ray Wood (died 2002)
- Manchester United staff
- Matt Busby, manager (died 1994)
- Journalists and photographers
- Ted Ellyard, Daily Mail telegraphist (died 1964)
- Peter Howard, Daily Mail photographer (died 1996)
- Frank Taylor, News Chronicle reporter (died 2002)
- Other passengers
- Vera Lukić, the wife of a Yugoslavian diplomat, and her baby daughter, Vesna. Both passengers were saved by Harry Gregg. At the time, Vera Lukić was pregnant with her son Zoran.
- Eleanor Miklos, wife of Bela Miklos
- Nebojša Bato Tomašević, Yugoslavian diplomat (died 2017)
Although the crash was originally blamed on pilot error, it was subsequently found to have been caused by slush towards the end of the runway, causing deceleration of the aircraft and preventing safe flying speed. During take-off, the aircraft had reached 117 knots (217 km/h), but, on entering the slush, dropped to 105 knots (194 km/h), too slow to leave the ground, with not enough runway to abort the take-off. Aircraft with tail-wheel undercarriages had not been greatly affected by slush, due to the geometry of these undercarriages in relation to the aircraft’s centre of gravity, but newer types, such as the Ambassador, with nose wheel landing-gear and the main wheels behind the centre of gravity, were found to be vulnerable. The accident resulted in the imposition of operating limits for the amount of slush build-up permitted on runways.
Despite this conclusion, the German airport authorities took legal action against Captain Thain, as the one pilot who had survived the crash. They claimed he had taken off without clearing the wings of ice, which caused the crash, despite several witnesses stating that no ice had been seen. De-icing the aircraft was the captain’s responsibility, while the state of the airport’s runways was the responsibility of the airport authorities, among whom there was widespread ignorance of the danger of slush on runways for aircraft such as the Ambassador.
The basis of the German authorities’ case relied on the icy condition of the wings hours after the crash and a photograph of the aircraft (published in several newspapers) taken shortly before take-off, that appeared to show snow on the upper wing surfaces. When the original negative was examined, however, no snow or ice could be seen, the “snow” in the original having been due to the sun reflecting off the wings, which was clarified when examining the negative rather than the published pictures which had been produced from a copy negative. The witnesses were not called to the German inquiry and proceedings against Thain dragged on until 1968, when he was finally cleared of any responsibility for the crash. As the official cause, British authorities recorded a build-up of melting snow on the runway which prevented the “Elizabethan” from reaching the required take-off speed. Thain, having been dismissed by BEA shortly after the accident and never re-engaged, retired and returned to run his poultry farm in Berkshire. He died of a heart attack at the age of 53 in August 1975.
20 people, including seven of Manchester United’s players, died at the scene of the crash. The 21st victim, Frank Swift, the journalist and former Manchester City goalkeeper, died on his way to hospital. Duncan Edwards died from his injuries on 21 February at the Rechts der Isar Hospital in Munich, and the final death toll reached 23 several days later when co-pilot Ken Rayment died as a result of serious head injuries. Johnny Berry and Jackie Blanchflower were both injured so severely that they never played again. Matt Busby was seriously injured and had to stay in hospital for more than two months after the crash, and was read his Last Rites twice. After being discharged from hospital, he went to Switzerland to recuperate in Interlaken. At times, he felt like giving up football entirely, until he was told by his wife, Jean, “You know Matt, the lads would have wanted you to carry on.” That statement lifted Busby from his depression, and he returned by land to Manchester, before watching his team play in the 1958 FA Cup Final.
Meanwhile, there was speculation that the club would fold, but a threadbare United team completed the 1957–58 season, with Busby’s assistant Jimmy Murphy standing in as manager; he had not travelled to Belgrade as he was in Cardiff managing the Welsh national team at the time. A team largely made up of reserve and youth team players beat Sheffield Wednesday 3–0 in the first match after the disaster. The programme for that match showed simply a blank space where each United player’s name should have been. With seven players dead (Duncan Edwards died just over 24 hours later), and with only Harry Gregg and Bill Foulkes fit to play out of the surviving players, United were desperate to find replacements with experience, so Murphy signed Ernie Taylor from Blackpool and Stan Crowther from Aston Villa. Three players, Derek Lewin, Bob Hardisty and Warren Bradley, were transferred to United on short-term contracts by non-League club Bishop Auckland. Bradley was the only one of the three players to play for the first team, and the only one to sign a permanent contract. The remaining places in the team were filled by reserve players including Shay Brennan and Mark Pearson.
There were changes in the backroom staff at the club too, following the deaths of secretary Walter Crickmer and coaches Tom Curry and Bert Whalley. United goalkeeper Les Olive, still registered as a player at the time of the disaster, retired from playing and took over from Crickmer as club secretary, while another former United goalkeeper, Jack Crompton, took over coaching duties after United chairman Harold Hardman had negotiated with Crompton’s then-employers Luton Town for his release.
United only won one league game after the crash, causing their title challenge to collapse and they fell to ninth place in the league. They did manage to reach the final of the FA Cup, however, losing 2–0 to Bolton Wanderers, and even managed to beat Milan at Old Trafford in the semi-finals of the European Cup, only to lose 4–0 at the San Siro. Real Madrid, who went on to win the trophy for the third year running, suggested that Manchester United be awarded the trophy for that year – a suggestion supported by Red Star Belgrade – but this failed to materialise.
Busby resumed managerial duties the next season (1958–59), and eventually built a second generation of Busby Babes, including George Best and Denis Law, that ten years later won the European Cup, beating Benfica. Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkeswere the only two crash survivors who lined up in that team.
A fund for dependents of victims of the crash was established in March, and chaired by the Chairman of the FA, Arthur Drewry. The fund had raised £52,000 (equivalent to £1.1 million in modern money) by the time of its disbursement in October 1958.
FA Charity Shield
|Date||Opponents||H / A||Result
F – A
|22 October 1957||Aston Villa||H||4 – 0||T. Taylor (3), Berry||27,293|
|Date||Opponents||H / A||Result
F – A
|24 August 1957||Leicester City||A||3 – 0||Whelan (3)||40,214|
|28 August 1957||Everton||H||3 – 0||T. Taylor, Viollet, own goal||59,103|
|31 August 1957||Manchester City||H||4 – 1||Berry, Edwards, T. Taylor, Viollet||63,347|
|4 September 1957||Everton||A||3 – 3||Berry, Viollet, Whelan||72,077|
|7 September 1957||Leeds United||H||5 – 0||Berry (2), T. Taylor (2), Viollet||50,842|
|9 September 1957||Blackpool||A||4 – 1||Viollet (2), Whelan (2)||34,181|
|14 September 1957||Bolton Wanderers||A||0 – 4||48,003|
|18 September 1957||Blackpool||H||1 – 2||Edwards||40,763|
|21 September 1957||Arsenal||H||4 – 2||Whelan (2), Pegg, T. Taylor||47,142|
|28 September 1957||Wolverhampton Wanderers||A||1 – 3||Doherty||48,825|
|5 October 1957||Aston Villa||H||4 – 1||T. Taylor, Pegg, own goal||43,102|
|12 October 1957||Nottingham Forest||A||2 – 1||Viollet, Whelan||47,654|
|19 October 1957||Portsmouth||H||0 – 3||38,253|
|26 October 1957||West Bromwich Albion||A||3 – 4||T. Taylor, Whelan||52,160|
|2 November 1957||Burnley||H||1 – 0||T. Taylor||49,449|
|9 November 1957||Preston North End||A||1 – 1||Whelan||39,063|
|16 November 1957||Sheffield Wednesday||H||2 – 1||Webster (2)||40,366|
|23 November 1957||Newcastle United||A||2 – 1||Edwards, T. Taylor||53,890|
|30 November 1957||Tottenham Hotspur||H||3 – 4||Pegg (2), Whelan||43,077|
|7 December 1957||Birmingham City||H||3 – 3||Viollet (2), T. Taylor||35,791|
|14 December 1957||Chelsea||H||0 – 1||36,853|
|21 December 1957||Leicester City||H||4 – 0||Viollet (2), Charlton, Scanlon||41,631|
|25 December 1957||Luton Town||H||3 – 0||Charlton, Edwards, T. Taylor||39,444|
|26 December 1957||Luton Town||A||2 – 2||Scanlon, T. Taylor||26,458|
|28 December 1957||Manchester City||A||2 – 2||Charlton, Viollet||70,483|
|11 January 1958||Leeds United||A||1 – 1||Viollet||39,401|
|18 January 1958||Bolton Wanderers||H||7 – 2||Charlton (3), Viollet (2), Edwards, Scanlon||41,141|
|1 February 1958||Arsenal||A||5 – 4||T. Taylor (2), Charlton, Edwards, Viollet||63,578|
|22 February 1958||Nottingham Forest||H||1 – 1||Dawson||66,124|
|8 March 1958||West Bromwich Albion||H||0 – 4||63,278|
|15 March 1958||Burnley||A||0 – 3||37,247|
|29 March 1958||Sheffield Wednesday||A||0 – 1||35,608|
|31 March 1958||Aston Villa||A||2 – 3||Dawson, Webster||16,631|
|4 April 1958||Sunderland||H||2 – 2||Charlton, Dawson||47,421|
|5 April 1958||Preston North End||H||0 – 0||47,816|
|7 April 1958||Sunderland||A||2 – 1||Webster (2)||51,302|
|12 April 1958||Tottenham Hotspur||A||0 – 1||59,836|
|16 April 1958||Portsmouth||A||3 – 3||Dawson, E. Taylor, Webster||39,975|
|19 April 1958||Birmingham City||H||0 – 2||38,991|
|21 April 1958||Wolverhampton Wanderers||H||0 – 4||33,267|
|23 April 1958||Newcastle United||H||1 – 1||Dawson||28,393|
|26 April 1958||Chelsea||A||1 – 2||E. Taylor||45,011|
Pld = Matches played; W = Matches won; D = Matches drawn; L = Matches lost; GF = Goals for; GA = Goals against; Pts = Points
|Date||Round||Opponents||H / A||Result
F – A
|4 January 1958||Round 3||Workington||A||3 – 1||Viollet||21,000|
|25 January 1958||Round 4||Ipswich Town||H||2 – 0||Charlton||53,550|
|19 February 1958||Round 5||Sheffield Wednesday||H||3 – 0||Brennan (2), Dawson||59,848|
|1 March 1958||Round 6||West Bromwich Albion||A||2 – 2||Dawson, E. Taylor||58,250|
|5 March 1958||Round 6
|West Bromwich Albion||H||1 – 0||Webster||60,000|
|22 March 1958||Semi-final||Fulham||N||2 – 2||Charlton||69,745|
|26 March 1958||Semi-final
|Fulham||N||5 – 3||Dawson (3), Brennan, Charlton||38,000|
|3 May 1958||Final||Bolton Wanderers||N||0 – 2||100,000|
|Date||Round||Opponents||H / A||Result
F – A
|25 September 1957||Preliminary round
|Shamrock Rovers||A||6 – 0||T. Taylor (2), Whelan (2), Berry, Pegg||45,000|
|2 October 1957||Preliminary round
|Shamrock Rovers||H||3 – 2||Viollet (2), Pegg||33,754|
|20 November 1957||First round
|Dukla Prague||H||3 – 0||Pegg, T. Taylor, Webster||60,000|
|4 December 1957||First round
|Dukla Prague||A||0 – 1||35,000|
|14 January 1958||Quarter-final
|Red Star Belgrade||H||2 – 1||Charlton, Colman||60,000|
|5 February 1958||Quarter-final
|Red Star Belgrade||A||3 – 3||Charlton (2), Viollet||55,000|
|8 May 1958||Semi-final
|Milan||H||2 – 1||E. Taylor, Viollet||44,880|
|14 May 1958||Semi-final
|Milan||A||0 – 4||80,000|
|Pos.||Name||League||FA Cup||European Cup||Other||Total|