1958- How tragedy in Munich shaped England’s Swedish World Cup.

Last Tuesday marked the 60th anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster. A Commemorative service was held at Old Trafford whilst many made the pilgrimage to where the fateful spot  near Munich Reim Airport where one of club footballs greatest sides met their end.

23 people including 8 footballers lost their lives on that fateful day. Of course none of the repercussions that subsequently happened on a football pitch can compare to the shock and grief those who lost loved ones suffered after Munich. But the ramifications on the pitch were not only felt at Old Trafford but throughout the English game and the England Team. So how did the tragedy impact England and their subsequent World Cup campaign in Sweden just 4 months later?

Tough Times for England

The early 1950’s proved a chastening time for England. They made their World Cup bow in 1950 as hot favourites but crashed 1-0 to the part timers of the USA. But the failure was put down to the rarefied climate of Brazil and England continued to believe they were football’s top dogs. That was until Ferenc Puskas and his Mighty Magyars of Hungary homed into view. England were drubbed 7-1 in Budapest in 1953 and to prove the game was no fluke Hungary then won 6-3 at Wembley.

The alarm bells were suddenly ringing around Lancaster Gate- England needed to change. The revised plan saw manager Walter Winterbottom put the emphasis on team shape and tactics- a concept that irritated many of the senior players. Progress was made and England achieved a respectable quarter-final placing in the 1954 World Cup, going out to defending champions Uruguay 4-2.

A New Hope

1958 seemed to represent a great opportunity, the tournament would be played in the temperate climate of Sweden and England were motoring in the 2 years leading up to the tournament. England lost only once in their 18 games running up to February 1958. Central to the new team were three of the Busby Babes: left-half Duncan Edwards, full-back Roger Byrne and centre forward Tommy Taylor were all automatic picks for England.

Taylor had been outstanding over the preceding 2 years netting in total 16 goals from just 18 games and was seen as the successor to veteran Nat Lofthouse. The hard working Byrne was a comparative veteran in Busby’s team and had been England number 3 since making his England debut in 1954 and played through that years World Cup. Edwards was considered a special talent- he’d made his England debut in 1955 aged just 18- becoming England’s youngest ever player in the process- a record that stood until Micheal Owen’s debut 40 years later. By 1958 he’d already accumulated 18 caps and 5 goals, the highlights being a stunning solo goal against West Germany in 1956.

Duncan Edwards lets rip against Scotland

Alongside the 3 England regulars United had Outside left David Pegg who made his England debut in 1957 and was seen as Tom Finney’s successor, Wing half Eddie Colman was tipped as a future international along with centre back Mark Jones. Outside right Johnny Berry had 4 caps although the last was in 1956 and then there was young uncapped forward Bobby Charlton.

But it wasn’t just the talent in Busby’s side that made them key to the national team’s future: their European odyssey through the 56/57 & 57/58 seasons made them the only players available with experience of playing Europe’s top club sides. The Football League had blocked Chelsea’s entry to the inaugural European Cup in 1955 as the League’s General Secretary Alan Hardaker bitterly opposed English clubs participation. But in 1956 Busby wanted his newly crowned League Champions to enter Europe and Hardaker was trumped by the FA who for once knew a winner when they saw it, although Hardaker would steadfastly refuse to move domestic fixtures to accommodate European competition a stance he held all the way through to his death in 1980.

With their footballing education being completed by playing in Europe, in all England were set to select 3 United players in their World Cup opener plus anything from 2 to 5 amongst the remainder of the squad, but on February 6th as United were returning from their win over Red Star Belgrade everything changed.

The Busby Babes line up for their final game

Tragedy & Consequence

At 4 minutes past 3 o’clock United’s plane crashed into a farmhouse on the edge of Munich Airport killing 21 people, amongst them United players Taylor, Colman, Jones, Pegg, Byrne, reserve team player Geoff Bent and Republic of Ireland international Billy Whelan. Most of the survivors were in critical condition including Matt Busby who made a miraculous recovery, whilst Berry and Northern Ireland’s Jackie Blanchflower would survive but never played again. 15 days on from the crash things became even grimmer when Edwards succumbed to the internal injuries he’d suffered in the crash and arguably England’s most gifted ever player was lost aged just 21. By mid March co-pilot Kenneth Rayment- a wartime RAF hero became the disaster’s 23rd and final victim.

As Manchester fell into mourning United’s Assistant Manager Jimmy Murphy kept the club going and assembled a scratch side to complete the season and remarkably made it to the FA Cup final only to fall to Lofthouse’s Bolton 2-0. With the nation still grief-stricken the last thing on anybody’s mind was the World Cup, but the tournament would go ahead and England would be there- the question would be how ready were they?

A Tournament Overshadowed

In April England reconvened and there would be a bittersweet moment for Bobby Charlton. Just 2 months on from Munich, Charlton was called up and made his England debut on the 19th in a 4-0 win over Scotland- he earned rave reviews and scored with a stunning volley but his selection was almost certainly  fast tracked in part due to the holes in the squad left by his deceased teammates. Charlton was selected for England’s World Cup squad but was strangely left out of the team by Winterbottom and wouldn’t play a World Cup Finals match until 1962.

Although weakened by Munich England still had a strong squad on paper to take to Sweden, captain Billy Wright was still around as was Tom Finney but they were now aged 34 and 36 respectively. There were however promising young forwards Charlton, Johnny Haynes and Derek Kevan together with his West Brom teammate a certain Bobby Robson.

The Munich disaster cast a dark cloud over the finals- partly because 1958 remains the only World Cup for which all 4 British teams managed to qualify. Whilst Scotland were not directly effected Wales were managed by United Coach Jimmy Murphy. Ironically Murphy had missed the fateful tie in Belgrade because he was managing Wales in a key qualifier. Meanwhile Northern Ireland had Munich survivor Harry Gregg in goal and he would have been joined by United teammate Jackie Blanchflower (younger brother of team captain Danny Blanchflower) had the half back not sustained career ending injuries in the crash. Gregg was later voted the best goalkeeper in the tournament.

The draw had done England few favours, pitting them against the Soviet Union (who would win the inaugural Euros 2 years later), Brazil  (eventual champions) & Austria. England started against the Soviets and found themselves 2 goals down after an hour. But they fought back through Kevan & Finney to claim a spirited 2-2 draw. Next up were Brazil in what should have been the showdown between world football’s 2 brightest young talents- Duncan Edwards & Pele. But the game turned into the World Cup’s first ever 0-0 draw with Pele & Garrincha confined to the bench.

To qualify England required a win over Austria and Brazil to beat the Soviets- the Brazilian’s held up their end by recording a simple 2-0 with Pele taking centre stage for the first time. But England fell behind early and needed an equalizer from Haynes to get themselves back into the game, Austria thought they’d got the winner on 70 minutes only for Kevan to haul England level with 17 minutes to play but England couldn’t find a winner and they were level points with the Soviet Union meaning a playoff was needed for the right to play hosts Sweden in the last 8.

Fulham FC/Haynes
Johnny Haynes takes on Austria

In a controversial game a 68th minute goal from Anatoli Ilyin gave the Soviets the lead and legendary keeper Lev Yashin kept England at bay. England were out and a tournament that only a few months earlier had promised so much ended in disappointment. The Soviets were tamely beaten by Sweden in the quarter finals who went on to the final only to run into Pele whose magic secured a 5-2 win and Brazil’s first World Cup.

Club & Country Look to the Future

England’s early return from Sweden was put in prospective on upon their return. Munich was still too much of an open wound for World Cup failure to send the nation into meltdown. In Manchester the recovered Matt Busby privately admitted it would take 5 years to rebuild his team- he almost proved himself wrong when his new look side finished 2nd in the League in 1959. But it proved a false dawn as the cost of promoting the new players too quickly saw their careers fail to bloom and United struggled to retain their First Division status in the early 60s. In 1963 United won the FA Cup; their first post Munich trophy with a side featuring Charlton, and young duo Dennis Law & Johnny Giles (whose sale to Leeds Busby would later say was his worst mistake in management). It started a second golden period for United which peaked with their emotional European Cup win in 1968.

As for England the next World Cup had already been confirmed to take place in Chile making a win particularly tough for European sides. Focus started to switch to the World Cup’s return to Europe a further 4 years down the line. The FA pondered a bid to host the tournament and in June 1960 England were confirmed as hosts for the 1966 World Cup having beaten out bids from Spain & ironically West Germany

In 1962 England travelled to Chile where a side featuring Charlton, Haynes, Jimmy Greaves and a young defender named Bobby Moore whose play bore a striking resemblance to Duncan Edwards, they made it to the World Cup quarter finals. They lost 3-1 to Brazil but progress was made and England’s youthful side looked one that could be ready for ’66. Shortly afterwards Winterbottom was replaced as manager by Ipswich Town boss Alf Ramsey and the rest is history.

What was and what might have been? 

60 years on the Munich Air Disaster still touches football fans, books and even films continue to be written about the Busby Babes providing us with a glimpse into footballs more innocent past and tales of the dynamic talent lost that day in Munich.

It should be remembered that United were not alone in their cursed luck in losing such a great side to tragedy; in 1949 the great Torino side that had won every post war Serie A title to that date were all killed in the Superega Air Disaster. With no surviving players or coaches Torino faded into footballing obscurity and Italy were robbed of 10 of their first 11 players a year before the 1950 World Cup- consequently The Azzurri went out of the 1950 & ’54 World Cups in round 1.

Football historians often claim had he lived Duncan Edwards would have been England Captain in 1966, whilst it’s true Edwards would have been only 29 years old in ’66 it’s always difficult to project so far into the footballing future, what is clear is that had Edwards and his teammates lived England would have sent a serious title contending squad to Sweden in 1958 capable of achieving an away World Cup win- something that 60 years later remains an elusive goal.

The Duncan Edwards Memorial in his hometown, Dudley



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