Published 25/11/2012 | 05:00
The footballer who escaped the Munich disaster with his life but not his hugely promising career, writes Ivan Ponting
As an 18-year-old, Kenny Morgans, who died last weekend aged 73, escaped with superficial physical wounds when Manchester United's plane crashed on a snowy German runway in February 1958. But his career as a top-level footballer, which for six heady weeks had sparkled with seemingly limitless potential, was effectively over.
The accident, which happened when United were returning from Belgrade, where they had won through to the semi-finals of the European Cup by drawing with Red Star, claimed 23 lives. The dead included eight of his comrades in the most exciting young team the British game had ever known, while two more of manager Matt Busby's "Babes" were maimed so grievously they never played again. Two months later Morgans was back on the pitch, straining every sinew in a patched-up side which somehow, against all probability, was keeping the Red Devils' flag flying, all the way to an FA Cup final at Wembley.
But though there was no external injury to the callow Welshman, the psychological scars had bitten deep, and the hitherto brilliant winger was a gaunt shadow of his former boldly confident self. Morgans proved unable to hold down a place even in the severely weakened unit which Busby's inspirational assistant manager Jimmy Murphy assembled from a combination of a few survivors, two emergency transfer recruits and a sprinkling of youthful reserves, while Busby fought for his life in an oxygen tent. The winger's subsequent attempt at sporting rehabilitation with Swansea Town and Newport County in his homeland, while plucky, never led him back to the elite grade.
After being spotted in action for Wales Schoolboys, Morgans had enlisted at Old Trafford in the summer of 1955 and turned professional the following spring. Though surrounded by plenty of rivals, Morgans soon emerged from the pack as clear first-team material. Slim but resilient, and capable of leaving would-be markers in a heap either through outright pace or deft trickery, he made such rapid progress that when United, the reigning League champions, stuttered with uncharacteristic uncertainty in the autumn of 1957, Morgans was called up to replace the England international Johnny Berry on the right wing.
Busby was never afraid of momentous decisions – as he had proved earlier in the decade when pinning his faith in the precocious but still raw talent of rookies such as Duncan Edwards, Eddie Colman, Dennis Viollet and David Pegg – yet Morgans' promotion came as a surprise. Though the boy's ability was not in question, Berry was a formidable performer, feisty and battle-hardened as well as gifted.
However, Morgans responded to the challenge upliftingly and, with Busby also adding new goalkeeper Harry Gregg, centre-half Jackie Blanchflower, inside-forward Bobby Charlton and left-winger Albert Scanlon to his preferred line-up, results improved significantly enough for United fans to be predicting a third successive title.
But then came calamity. On the return journey from Yugoslavia on February 6, 1958, United's plane refuelled at Munich in a snowstorm. Two attempts to take off were aborted. On the third the airliner failed to rise from the runway, crashed through a perimeter fence and into a house.
Morgans, who would later speak movingly of his fear as he gazed from a window as the doomed plane gathered pace, was the last person to be pulled from the wreckage, having been pinned underneath a wheel and discovered by two German reporters hours after the official search had been abandoned. He was unconscious for three days, then made a gradual physical recovery. When he returned to action eight weeks later, his comeback a necessity due to United's slim resources, he was a poignantly reduced force.
Astoundingly, Murphy guided his valiant band to the FA Cup final against Bolton Wanderers, but he dismayed Morgans by omitting him from the Wembley line-up, judging the occasion too awe-inspiring for his traumatised fellow Welshman. United lost 2-0, and after admitting he had made a selection mistake, Murphy recalled the 19-year-old for the European Cup semi-final against Milan, and Morgans shone in a 2-1 first-leg victory. Not unexpectedly they were overwhelmed 4-0 in the second leg, but now there seemed realistic hope that the Wales under-23 international would prove an indispensable building block for Busby as he set about assembling a new team. Agonisingly, though, he was never the same player again, having lost pace and, perhaps, self-belief.
Accordingly in March 1961, he left Old Trafford, having made only 23 senior appearances, in an attempt to resurrect his career with Swansea Town (now City) of the Second Division. Morgans let no one down at the Vetch Field, but the old bounce was missing and he was allowed to join Fourth Division Newport County in the summer of 1964.
For three seasons he flourished for the Ironsides, scoring 44 times in his 125 League outings before leaving the professional game at 28, going on to be a pub landlord, then a ship's chandler in South Wales. Kenny Morgans was a survivor of Munich, but he was a victim all the same.
Kenneth Godfrey Morgans, was born in Swansea on March 16, 1939. He was married with two sons and died in Swansea on November 17.