Not a day goes by when Wilf McGuinness doesn’t think of the friends and teammates he lost when the Munich air crash ripped the heart out of Manchester United’s “Busby Babes”.
The disaster, 60 years ago this week, killed eight of the young, vibrant side who had won successive league titles and left manager Matt Busby fighting for his life.
The events of February 6, 1958 are woven into the fabric of the club, who recovered to become the first English team to lift the European Cup 10 years later on a deeply emotional night at Wembley.
McGuinness, now 80, was not on the plane – which crashed on the third take-off attempt in terrible weather conditions – because he was injured.
The ill-fated aircraft was bringing the team back via Munich from Belgrade after they had reached the European Cup semifinals. Twenty-three people died in total.
“You think of the ones who went, you don’t think of yourself escaping or not going on the trip,” says McGuinness, who was in hospital following a cartilage operation when he heard the terrible news.
“I was thinking how great they were, it will never ever stay out of my mind. It is the number one thing that remains with me. They were extra-special and so young when they died . . . unbelievable.”
For McGuinness, whose own career ended prematurely aged just 22 when he broke his leg, the two standouts were the halfbacks, “cheeky chappie” Eddie Colman and Duncan Edwards, “a giant”, to whom McGuinness played understudy.
“I couldn’t have licked their boots,” says McGuinness modestly at his home in Sale near Manchester in the northwest of England.
Colman’s parents did not have a telephone and only learned of the accident through his close friend and Manchester City goalkeeper Steve Fleet as he ran to their corner shop to tell them.
Edwards survived the crash but died two weeks later in hospital.
‘Best ever United team’
“They would have been the best ever United team, in fact they were the best ever. They would have won everything,” says McGuinness, who attended all his teammates’ funerals.
“But then the crash happened and eight were killed and two never played again. It was a very difficult time, even now,” he adds with tears welling in his eyes.
United, featuring the likes of Bobby Charlton and George Best, with Busby still in charge, famously lifted the European Cup at Wembley in 1968.
“We did think of the players [after the 4-1 European Cup victory over Benfica] and said: ‘This is for them – it is not for us, it is for them,’” says McGuinness. “Really, the players who died, they made United,” adds McGuinness, who was on the United coaching staff when they won the European Cup and later managed the club.
There is a clock at Old Trafford stuck at four minutes past three, the time when the plane crashed and the club has a Munich Tunnel that includes an eternal flame in memory of the dead.
But McGuinness, who at the tender age of 31 was handed the unenviable task of managing United after Busby stepped down, says it is a shame that the Busby Babes are lost in time.
“[The young] missed them,” says McGuinness. “There wasn’t enough footage of them – they were magnificent players.”
He describes a different era, far removed from the wealth and glamour of the modern Premier League.
“I couldn’t have a car, they wouldn’t let us,” says McGuinness, grinning. “Duncan [Edwards] rode a bike to training as he couldn’t afford a car.
“The coaches, Bert Whalley [who also died in the crash] and Jimmy Murphy, were magic with us. They knocked us and bullied us into being players.
“I liked being pushed around because it meant I learned how to do it to the others. We trained sometimes in the Old Trafford car park where we kicked ourselves to death.”
McGuinness pays special homage to Murphy for pulling the side together in the aftermath of the crash and with Busby – who twice received the last rites from a priest – near death.
“The two of them [Busby and Murphy] were totally different. Matt would put his hand on your back and say ‘Do this’ and Jimmy would do the opposite and yell at you. One was a bully and the other a father. We had a wonderful staff that made us feel ‘United, United, United’.”