MANCHESTER (Reuters) - 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 soccer 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.
Editing by Ken Ferris