Saturday 21 September 2019

Big part of Bobby Charlton's heart still remains in Munich 60 years on from haunting airplane crash

Journalist Don Davies, Jack Blanchflower, William Foulkes, club secretary Walter Crickmer, Roger Byrne, Duncan Edwards, Albert Scanlon, journalist Frank Swift, Ray Wood, Dennis Viollet, journalist Archie Ledbrooke, Geoff Bent, Mark Jones, journalist Alf Clarke. Photo: Getty Images
Journalist Don Davies, Jack Blanchflower, William Foulkes, club secretary Walter Crickmer, Roger Byrne, Duncan Edwards, Albert Scanlon, journalist Frank Swift, Ray Wood, Dennis Viollet, journalist Archie Ledbrooke, Geoff Bent, Mark Jones, journalist Alf Clarke. Photo: Getty Images

James Lawton

Next week 60 years will separate Bobby Charlton from the Munich air tragedy but there isn't a day when he doesn't travel back to the snowy, ruinous field some deep part of him has never truly left.

He doesn't quite know when he will make the journey of a second. It can happen at the breakfast table, a crowded room or when he takes an evening stroll beneath the big trees that border the garden of his Cheshire home.

"Sometimes," he says, "the moment passes very quickly, a fleeting thought, a pang of sadness and I get on with my day.

"Other times it takes a greater hold. I think of the miracle of my life, the things I went on to see and do after the lads I loved so much had been taken away, and I have to believe that even miracles have a price. For a little while, you see, football, all of life, had seemed to lose its meaning.

"Yes, it still touches me every day. Sometimes it fills me with a terrible regret and sadness - and guilt that I survived, walked away and found so much."

Today at Old Trafford there will be a ceremony beneath the Munich plaque before the game with Huddersfield Town and a minute's silence in the ground.

Ten years ago United manager Alex Ferguson summoned Charlton to a meeting of the players so that he could tell young stars like Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney what it was to be at Munich, to suffer it, survive it and then have it as something always to remind you of how narrow the line is between a life of success, even glory, and some abrupt disaster.

This time, Charlton, 80, who with the heroic Irish goalkeeper Harry Gregg is now one of two survivors, has written a letter that will be handed to all the players. It will seek to serve the same purpose as the summons to speak made by Ferguson at the 50th anniversary.

Current manager Jose Mourinho would wish for a similarly inspiring effect. Rooney and Ronaldo helped deliver the Champions League title in Moscow a few months after the emotional address.

Ferguson said to Charlton, "Tell them about Munich, Bobby, tell them about the makings of this place - tell them what was passed to them so many years ago, before they were born, and what they should represent every time they go out on the field. Tell them what it means to play for this club."

Charlton has spoken graphically of the horror he awoke to after being flung from the plane still strapped to his seat.

He said: "It would be possible for me to list a thousand good things that have happened to me before I deal with the moment I regained consciousness and faced that hellish scene at the airfield.

"At my first glance I saw that one beloved colleague was dead after suffering injuries I could never bring myself to describe - and then the manager Matt Busby groaning and holding his chest as he sat in a pool of water.

"I could delve into so much that has been a joy to me before I come to the sight of seven of my team-mates laid out in the snow.

"I've never stopped asking myself why I was able to run my hands over my body and find that I was still whole when Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Billy Whelan, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor, Mark Jones and Geoff Bent lay dead and Duncan Edwards, who I loved and admired so intensely, faced an unavailing battle for his life."

The years have not helped Charlton with holding back tears. Sometimes, he shakes his head and says, "I'm sorry, I can't go on."

He remembers all of it as if it was yesterday and perhaps most poignant of all is the elation he carried on to that lethal airplane.

He recalls a fine performance in the old European Cup against Red Star of Belgrade before returning home via Munich, and then the terrible ebbing of the mood after two aborted take-off attempts and a third which went on too long, something he sensed even before the plane smashed into a fence.

He sat next to his team-mate Dennis Viollet and while they had talked with enthusiasm of the weekend game with Wolves on the third run the cabin had been made wordless by a swift and icy dread.

He remembers the desolation which came when a fellow patient in the hospital who spoke English read from a German newspaper the names of the dead, which in all numbered 23.

Charlton returned to his native North East, driven by his brother Jack, he said that he never wanted to kick a ball again. Eventually, some local lads tempted him into the street with a ball and there, the resurrection of Bobby Charlton the footballer began.

Busby came back from Munich frail and said it would take five years for the team to be competitively reformed. It was five years later when Charlton, with the help of John Giles and Noel Cantwell, delivered a brilliant FA Cup victory over Leicester City.

In another five they were champions of Europe after beating Benfica at Wembley.

Nobby Stiles also carried much passion that night at Wembley. He was an adoring Old Trafford apprentice who ran errands for the great stars. He screamed his disbelief when he bought an evening newspaper on his way home and saw the pictures of his dead heroes.

An altar boy, Stiles went to his local church - "they weren't padlocked during the day back then" - and sat in a pew and rocked with despair.

Tomorrow Stiles will not be with his friend Charlton at Old Trafford. He has dementia and one of the last times Charlton visited him he left in tears, plainly his old comrade had not recognised him.

Tomorrow, Charlton will try to console himself with the legacy left by the fallen of Munich, by the glory of the giant Edwards and his team-mates and the part they played in making Manchester United one of football's greatest clubs.

Irish Independent

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