Monday 10 December 2018

John Giles: I’m convinced third, fatal Munich take-off had something to do with the possibility of docked points by the English FA

Read John Giles every week in The Herald

The wreckage of the British European Airways plane which crashed in Munich in February 1958. Photo credit: PA Wire
The wreckage of the British European Airways plane which crashed in Munich in February 1958. Photo credit: PA Wire

John Giles

THERE has always been one question which stands out above all others about the Munich air disaster. Why did they take off a third time when it was so treacherous? What was the motivation to take such a risk?

I’ve thought about that a lot over the years and come to some conclusions, none of which I must add, were on my mind on the afternoon I was sent home from training with the ‘B’ team because the first team had been involved in an incident in Germany.

At that point, nobody knew how serious the situation was but by the time I had reached my digs, news of the scale of the disaster had filtered through.

I was on my own in the digs, Jackie Hennessy who came with me from Dublin had gone back and I remember being told to stay away from Old Trafford for two weeks when I went in the following day.

Most of that time was spent going to funerals – an extraordinary experience for me as a 17-year old.

The fact was, I didn’t know any of the lads who died very well. I was just starting out and at a level well below the first team.

Of course there was some interaction between senior players and lads like me but I had no real personal connection with anyone who was killed and yet I was in the middle of an enormous tragedy.

They were very difficult and strange days indeed and I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Bobby Charlton who was at the same funerals but knew all of the lads very well indeed and had himself survived virtually without a scratch. There was no such thing as counselling in those days, for Bobby who definitely needed it or a young lad like me trying to deal with the enormity of what had happened.

It was only after I had left Manchester that I began to think more deeply about the Munich disaster and why it happened.

I now believe that central to it all was the trouble United had after disposing of Dukla Prague in the previous round when a series of delays during the trip back created a risk that they would be docked points if they weren’t back in England 24 hours before their next First Division fixture against Birmingham.

It should be noted here that the English FA were opposed to Matt Busby’s decision to enter the European Cup in the first place.

They had blocked Chelsea’s involvement the previous season and I’m sure the United hierarchy on the plane believed that the FA would throw the book at the them if they were forced to delay by a day and broke rules as a result.

United were chasing three-in-a-row and they knew that disciplinary action could and probably would mean docked points.

I know that this may seem a petty thing and that it is difficult to imagine how it could have influenced a decision to try for a third take-off when the pilots had problems with the first two.

But I’m convinced that it did, that this was a desperately unlikely and unfortunate consequence of an entry in the FA rule book which created an artificial deadline and enough pressure on those involved to take a risk.

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