The Munich Disaster: Part IX

by Sam Peoples

So the story continues…I hope you guys are enjoying the series of articles I am doing and in this episode, we will begin to look at how the Munich disaster impacted on the City of Manchester and it’s inhabitants.


“Supporters had seen Manchester United not just as a football team but as one of the greatest international prestige boosters the city had ever known”

Football possesses a unique ability to unite peoples in a togetherness that would not be seen without it and it is therefore important and relevant to look at its place within society. Gary Armstrong elaborates the importance of football in his book, Football Cultures and Identities, in which he discusses how football can help build social stability. Communities within Europe became weakened during the 20th century through increasing individual social mobility, with improved transport and work opportunities causing the population to spread. In turn, symbolic locations such as the Kop End at Liverpool’s Anfield or the Stretford End of Manchester United’s Old Trafford then became of paramount importance to these communities. They provided a link for society and allowed for the re-establishment of local roots for those who became unattached to their respective communities. Munich played its part in such a fashion, helping the city come together collectively in response to the disaster. Society bonded mutually in such a fashion where the city was mourning as one, such as the 4000 Mancunians who attended Henry Rose’s (Daily Express journalist who died on the plane) public funeral, with eye witnesses stating that the crowds were as large as 10 deep on the pavements.

Armstrong also sheds light on the impact United had on footballs place in society when he divulged how prior to United’s successes in the 1960s, fans often supported more than one team as football was a social event, watched for the mere entertainment of it. A recently discovered interview from Manchester on 6 February following the incident substantiates this argument, when a City fan divulged how he would ‘go to Old Trafford when Manchester City was in London because he was guaranteed a good game’. United’s dominance, however, created a jealousy that led to rivals emerging especially between inter-city teams, and the emphasis of football switched from entertainment to club success. Steve Fleet, ex-Manchester City goalkeeper from the 1950s, highlighted this point in an interview where he stated that the divide came with Manchester United asserting themselves as the dominant force. Tom Clare pursues this case further and recognises that the old culture of fan was replaced by a gradual culture of passionate one club loyalty and that is what has transcended down the years to the tribalism between fans that we see today. Society was going through this transition period just as much as Manchester United was.

The community lost great links between themselves and the team with the death of 8 journalists on the flight. The press and football shared a different relationship at the time of the Babes. The lack of a celebrity lifestyle meant that footballers were not criticised as openly by the press. Many journalists, such as George Follows, were openly Manchester United fans and their writings came from that perspective. Of the 4 journalists pictured above with Sir Matt Busby, 3 died on the plane at Munich: Henry Rose, George Fellows and Tom Jackson. Henry was a national figure due to his controversial writings was a revered journalist. He was the greatest loss to journalism and to those who followed his writings. During my visit to the County Record Office, I waded through 7 boxes of telegrams and letters congratulating Henry on 30 years of work for the Daily Express, highlighting just how popular he was amongst his readers and admirers.

With the Manchester Evening News publishing the headline that Matt Busby had a ‘50/50 chance of survival’, labelled ‘Edwards ‘Grave’ and ‘Berry: Coma’ on 7 February, thoughts and news about the crash was inescapable in a city consumed by grief. Surprisingly maybe, on a national scale the event was not front page news. The February 7 edition of the Times even ironically advertised a ‘New Viscount route to Beirut from London in 11.5 hours from B.E.A’, the same airline upon which United had just tragically perished. It was only when one reached page 8 of the Times that news of the ‘Manchester United in Air Crash’ emerged. Even then, in a somewhat official and militaristic tone, the journalist, only referred to as ‘Our Special Correspondent’, did not portray a sense of personal loss that was rife in Manchester. It was a very different article from those seen in the Manchester Evening News, with these articles telling a deeper, vivid recollection of how the plane ‘plunged into houses at Munich’ and how ‘survivors were saved from the blazing wreckage’. Instead of emphasising the severity of the losses from Munich, the Times highlighted how, even in 1958, air travel was extremely reliable:

“British European Airways have been using twin piston engine Elizabethans since 1952 and this was their first fatal accident with one. In that period they have flown some 30 million miles in making 86,000 flights, carrying 2,340,000 passengers.”

Something that gave further light on the importance of the Munich disaster in the national agenda was the transcript of a speech by Charles Royle from the House of Commons from 7 February:

“The figures for the Elizabethan aircraft are marvellous, and we have a right to be proud of the record. It is perhaps wise under these very tragic circumstances that we should remember the millions of miles which are flown in perfect safety.

I wish to be associated with the expression of sympathy.”

Charles Royle was the representative of the West Salford constituency in Manchester in the House of Commons. Despite this, he emphasised the importance of the upkeep of British Elizabethan Airways image before expressing his desire to be ‘associated with sympathy’ for Munich. The phrase ‘associated with sympathy’ in itself was extremely impersonal from a man supposedly with personal links to Manchester. Such evidence emphasises how the Munich disaster, regardless of dominating local news, was not a matter of national importance despite 3 international players perishing in the crash. Clearly, politics and the national press shared the same opinion.

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