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Tuesday 23 January 2018

Albert Scanlon

Left-winger and one of the 'Busby Babes' to recover from the Munich air crash, writes Patrick West

The soccer player Albert Scanlon, who died on December 22 at the age of 74, was an eye-catching feature of the young Manchester United side that twice won the English first division in the late-1950s, only for eight of the team members to die tragically in the Munich air crash of February 1958.

Scanlon sustained a fractured skull and received severe kidney injury in the disaster, which killed 23 people. The tragedy took the lives of two of England and Ireland's most promising youngsters, Duncan Edwards and Liam "Billy" Whelan, while even some survivors, notably Northern Ireland international Jackie Blanchflower, never recovered from the disaster, physically and mentally.

Yet Scanlon, it seemed initially, was one of the lucky ones, and went on to appear in all of Manchester United's first division games in the 1958-59 season, in which the side finished runners-up in the league, with Scanlon scoring 16 goals in the process.

Albert Joseph Scanlon was born in Hulme, Manchester, on October 10, 1935, and after leaving St Winfred's School he intended to become a plumber, only to be spotted by a scout from Old Trafford.

Scanlon, a Manchester City fan as a youth, signed for the reigning champions in 1952, shortly after his 17th birthday. Blessed with pace, power and adept with both feet, the left-winger looked sure to make a swift progression to the first team; his only major shortcoming was inconsistency. He made his full debut against Arsenal in 1953, by which time he was earning a handsome wage of £11 a week (his father's weekly wage at a Dunlop factory was, by comparison, £2 10s). With a team of gifted youngsters, mostly recruited and reared locally, United went on to lift the first division title in 1956 and 1957, by which time Scanlon was only 22, the then average age of the "Busby Babes".

The Red Devils were also making an impression in Europe, losing only to Europe's most accomplished team, Real Madrid, in the semi-finals of the 1956-57 European Cup.

They reached the same round in the following campaign, after a 3-3 draw away to Red Star Belgrade secured a 5-4 aggregate victory.

On the squad's return flight from Yugoslavia on February 6, 1958, the aircraft stopped off at Munich to refuel. During a blizzard, the propellered BAE liner had trouble getting airborne again, and after two aborted take-offs, it crashed on the third attempt. Scanlon, thrown from the wreckage, was found under one of the wheels by Northern Ireland international Harry Gregg.

Scanlon regained consciousness two weeks later in a Munich hospital, unaware that eight of his teammates were dead. An Australian priest explained to him what had happened, and while making his way around the hospital in a wheelchair, Scanlon gradually came to comprehend the full scale of the calamity. "I. . . looked in on the boss, Matt Busby, he was in an oxygen tent and was in a mess," he recollected. "Then there was Duncan Edwards, sitting up in bed. He was shouting about wanting to get up to play, but the reality was he was in such a bad way." Edwards died two weeks later.

Scanlon spent a further six weeks in recovery, and he was told by doctors that he would never play again. "I played every game the following season," he recalled in an interview last year. However, the success of the 1958-59 campaign proved illusory.

His form began to suffer, mainly owing to a crisis in confidence; some believed the trauma had not been averted, but postponed. After 115 appearances and 34 goals for United, he was transferred to Newcastle United, then to Lincoln City, before ending his playing days in 1966 with Mansfield Town.

Because he had recovered from his injuries, Scanlon did not qualify for insurance payment. He had no pension and no savings, and after his playing days he worked 12-hour shifts in a bakery, then as a docker, before ending his working life as a factory nightwatchman in 1997.

Scanlon had been in Hope Hospital, Manchester, for two months suffering from pneumonia and kidney problems.

He was twice divorced, and is survived by seven children.

Patrick West is author of 'Beating Them at Their Own Game, How the Irish Conquered English Soccer', Liberties Press, 2006

Sunday Independent

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