This week marks the 60th anniversary of the Munich air disaster. Although the tragedy would be particularly devastating for Manchester United and the families of those who died, it would also have major repercussions for the England team. Today we look back at how the side had to contend with the loss of three major players as they headed to the World Cup in Sweden just four months later…
It’s November 1957 and England are dishing out a 4-0 thrashing to France at Wembley. The result means England’s last 18 games have yielded 13 wins, four draws and just one defeat. The early part of the 1950s represented a major wake-up call for England as they were humiliated by the United States in the 1950 World Cup and twice torn apart by Hungary in the years that followed. But now there appears much to be optimistic about ahead of the following year’s World Cup in Sweden. Bobby Robson marks his England debut by scoring twice, with Tommy Taylor netting the other two goals. Taylor is part of a strong Manchester United trio in the side with the dependable Roger Byrne and the wonderful talent of Duncan Edwards.
Other members of the celebrated Busby Babes are in with a shout of making the World Cup squad and with good reason. The United players operate extremely well together, they have boosted their footballing education by playing in Europe in successive seasons and above all they are excellent players in their own right.
And so all looks good for the future of English football, with the national team considered a decent bet for the World Cup after the display against France. In The Times after the match, ‘Association Football Correspondent’ (Geoffrey Green) writes: “Unless injuries and loss of form gnaw away during the next five months until the Scottish match in Glasgow, England now look to possess the firm basis of their World Cup team for Sweden next year.” But something much, much worse than “injuries and loss of form” will lead to England’s plans being thrown into disarray and make on-field matters seem almost irrelevant.
The events of February 6, 1958, have passed into infamy as eight Manchester United players were among the 23 people killed when their plane crashed in Munich after refuelling while returning home from a European Cup tie in Belgrade (the team are pictured above prior to that match). Club captain Byrne and star forward Taylor lost their lives, as did left winger David Pegg who had won his first England cap the previous year. Fellow victims Eddie Colman and Mark Jones could quite feasibly have soon played for the national side. The much acclaimed Edwards was left critically injured. He would fight courageously for his life for 15 days but it was ultimately one battle he could not win. The great hope of English football was lost and the realisation would sink in that such a wonderful crop of players had been wiped out in the most tragic of circumstances.
For United it was devastating and they would somehow have to rebuild, initially without manager Matt Busby as he recovered from his serious injuries. For England it was a case of planning for the World Cup without three major players – the sort where like-for-like replacements would be difficult to come across. Byrne brought leadership skills with him and his defensive competency was such that he had made the England left back slot his own in recent years, being capped 33 times; left half Edwards was only 21 but he had already accomplished so much for both club and country, scoring five times in 18 England caps; and Taylor was the ideal forward, netting 16 goals in his 19 England caps including hat-tricks in successive appearances against Denmark and the Republic of Ireland in 1956-57. They would have been as close to certainties for the England World Cup side as you could have got.
Of the eight players killed, the depth of talent was such that only eternal reserve Geoff Bent and Irishman Billy Whelan were not realistically in England contention. A prominent name from England’s past was also sadly a victim – legendary former goalkeeper Frank Swift being one of several sports journalists to lose their life. United winger Johnny Berry, who had been capped four times by England earlier in the decade, survived the crash but was so seriously injured he would never play again. Wherever you looked, the England team – past, present and future – was affected.
It was understandably a tragedy that was felt by football fans throughout the country, as grounds fell silent prior to matches two days later. Also taking place on that day was the World Cup draw in Sweden. The usual cliche about very difficult groups would be totally inappropriate to use given the events of 48 hours earlier, but England’s World Cup hopes were to diminish even further as they were paired with fellow favourites Brazil and the Soviet Union – plus Austria who would be no pushovers. With only two sides going through this was going to be brutal.
Green’s optimism had clearly eroded, as he wrote: “England’s hopes of winning the World Cup suffered a blow when the flower of Manchester United lay tragically scattered in the snow of Munich Airport last Thursday. Those same hopes took another jolt on Saturday when the organising committee of FIFA assembled in Stockholm to make the draw for the final stages of the World Cup competition.”
When England returned to action in April away to Scotland, three men faced the unenviable task of filling in for the players killed at Munich. Fulham’s Jim Langley replaced Roger Byrne in the number three shirt; Wolves’ Bill Slater was capped for the first time in more than three years in place of Edwards; and West Bromwich Albion’s Derek Kevan was the number nine after the loss of Taylor. But there was another significant change, as one future Sir Bobby was replaced by another with the uncapped Charlton picked ahead of Robson. Charlton had survived the disaster while several of his friends perished, including close mate Edwards. Now, while still coming to terms with the ordeal, he found himself making his England debut and being the United representative in the squad.
Back to Belgrade
Charlton scored in a 4-0 win over Scotland and followed it up the next month by netting twice in a 2-1 victory over Portugal. But the third game was always going to be a difficult personal challenge, as he returned to Belgrade just three months after the Babes played their last match there. The game against Yugoslavia would act as a poignant reminder of just what England had lost, as they were beaten 5-0 in intense heat. Charlton struggled and it would cost him his place in the side, going to the finals but never playing.
Despite being drawn in the same group, England’s final warm-up international was a friendly away to the Soviet Union. England rang the changes after the thrashing in Yugoslavia with Robson brought back in and debuts handed to goalkeeper Colin McDonald, full back Tommy Banks and wing half Eddie Clamp. These were not just token caps so players got a game on tour, but effectively auditions for the side for England’s opening World Cup match. A tight game would set the trend for the coming weeks as England drew 1-1 in front of a crowd of 102,000 with Kevan scoring, helping restore pride after the Yugoslavia result.
When World Cup squads are announced even now there is a tendency to read into whether those handed shirt numbers 1-11 are first choice. But back in 1958 there was no doubt about it. In the first three games England fielded the players wearing shirt numbers 1-10 each time, with only injury to the great Tom Finney at number 11 leading to a change as Alan A’Court came in from the second game. Two men in Walter Winterbottom’s side would later go on to become an England managerial duo in Robson and Don Howe. Howe was established as right back in 1958, while Robson got the nod to play in attack.
The 1958 World Cup uniquely saw all four UK sides reach the 16-team finals, being placed in separate groups. There would be a welcome opportunity for TV viewers back home to see some of the matches live, although the technological limitations of the time and the fact numerous fixtures were played simultaneously meant just two England games could be screened. While media coverage was increasing with each World Cup, it seems minimal by today’s standards. Just one page was devoted in the Daily Mirror– one of the more sport-orientated papers – to the tournament on the eve of the opening games and the matches would not make front page headlines. But an interest in the private lives of England players is not a modern phenomenon, as shown by the tabloids speculating about a blossoming romance between captain Billy Wright and Joy Beverley.
England’s opening game was against the Soviet Union, with the meeting back in the USSR the previous month still fresh in the mind. It was a belated first World Cup appearance for the Soviets and they made up for lost time by forging 2-0 ahead within an hour. But England showed character to reduce the deficit through Kevan, before Robson controversially had a goal disallowed. Five minutes from time they drew level, Finney converting from the spot after a foul was deemed to have been committed in the box. England had gained a draw and the group remained wide open. It was to be the veteran Finney’s last act, as injury curtailed his involvement in the competition.
In the Mirror, Frank McGhee certainly nailed his colours to the mast as he laid into the officials. “Whenever we play the Russians we get robbed,” he wrote with more than a hint of bias. “It happened in Moscow last month when an Austrian referee gave them a goal that never was. It happened again here in England’s first World Cup game when Istvan Zslot, of Hungary, said no to a Bobby Robson goal. I’ll always swear that this was as legal, legitimate and well earned goal as any I’ve ever seen.” McGhee believed Kevan was adjudged to have committed a foul, adding it was “a foul, I’m sure, that never happened”. In the interests of balance, it should be pointed out that USSR were incensed by the equalising penalty being awarded.
No goals but plenty of pride
Three days later England faced their big test as the took on Brazil. The Brazilians were looking to win the World Cup for the first time after their dream slipped away on home soil in 1950. Garrincha and Pele were not involved against England, but they would soon make a key impact on the tournament and end up as winners. The sides had only met once before, England winning 4-2 at Wembley in 1956.
This match ended 0-0, the first goalless draw in World Cup history. But it was hailed by Bill Holden in the Mirror as “one of the greatest goalless draws of all time”, as he praised the performance of England. “Eleven superb fighting heroes restored the word ‘pride’ to England’s soccer dictionary by matching the brilliance of the Brazilians – and almost beating them,” he wrote.
Robson and Kevan both missed chances to score, while at the other end goalkeeper McDonald was called upon to make vital saves. In the dying moments Johnny Haynes came close to scoring a winner, but there was contentment over England’s display. Winterbottom said: “I am delighted. Now we have got to play as well against Austria.”
The anticipated tight group was materialising, with a scenario existing whereby England, Brazil and the USSR would be locked on points if England beat Austria and Brazil drew with the Soviet Union. However, if England drew with Austria they would be out if the other game also ended in a draw.
Yet another draw…
The Austrians were already out after losing both games, but they were to prove tough opponents. It ended 2-2 and for England there was a strong sense of deja vu. They drew yet again; Robson once more controversially had a goal ruled out; and England would have to play the USSR for the third time in a matter of weeks to determine who would go through in second place.
Austria twice went ahead, with Haynes and Kevan both equalising before Robson had his goal ruled out. In an ironic twist given an infamous event that would follow 28 years later in his England managerial career, Robson was adjudged to have handled the ball. “I never touched it,” Robson said of the suggestion he used his hand. “It hit my chest as I controlled it, but that’s all.” To rub salt into his wounds the linesman who adjudged he had handled it was Zsolt, the referee who ruled out his goal against the USSR.
But for England it had been a big disappointment after the display against Brazil. USSR’s defeat to Brazil meant a play-off would be necessary, with proposals to use goal average to separate sides having not come to fruition. “We cannot be satisfied when we have got to play again,” said Winterbottom as he rued the display against Austria.
In a move that would leave modern day managers tearing their hair out, the play-off would be played just two days after the final group game and a mere 48 hours before the winners played a quarter-final against hosts Sweden. Changes were made after the display against Austria, with Ronnie Clayton and debutants Peter Brabrook and Peter Broadbent all brought into the side in place of Clamp, Robson and Bryan Douglas. Despite his disallowed goal, Robson was dropped after his disappointing overall performance against Austria. And speculation Charlton would come in for A’Court proved unfounded.
It was another close contest between England and the USSR but this time there would be a winner, as a goal by Anatoli Ilyin on 68 minutes settled the contest in the Soviet Union’s favour. England tried to find the goal that would force extra-time but they could not beat Lev Yashin. They had suffered their only defeat and were making a swift return home. But England’s performance escaped criticism, Green noting the irony that their defeat should come in a match “where they held a greater command than at any time since they arrived here”. He described the Soviet Union as being “at times like a heavyweight boxer stumbling on his knees and holding on for dear life”, but ultimately the goal would not come and Brabrook twice hit the woodwork.
Green reflected in his summary about how England had been out of luck during the competition, given the disallowed goals and the ball seeming fated not to go in. Incredibly a fourth meeting with USSR in 1958 was held later in the year at Wembley and England at last triumphed by winning 5-0 with Haynes netting a hat-trick. It was a firm case of what might have been…
For England the World Cups of the 1950s had represented a big disappointment. They played 10 matches in three tournaments and won just twice, only getting beyond the group stage in 1954. In an echo of Euro 2016, in 1958 they were returning home disappointed while Northern Ireland and Wales were lauded for their achievements (both reached the quarter-finals). With both nations there was deserved joy for men with strong links to the Munich disaster. Harry Gregg, hailed as a hero for his actions following the crash, kept goal for the Irish; Jimmy Murphy, who had helped hold the club together following the crash, was in charge of Wales during what remains their only World Cup finals appearance. For Scotland it was group stage elimination, coping without Busby who had been due to lead the side in the finals prior to the Munich disaster.
With England the eternal question was whether they would have achieved more but for the tragedy. “Who can say where we would have gone from there with three such good players who had so much to contribute?” pondered Robson in the 1990 edition of his autobiography as he dwelt upon the players he appeared alongside just once before fate intervened. It would be wrong to make out that England were solely reliant upon the United contingent – Finney, Haynes and Wright are all famous names that remain revered and there were other established internationals in the England team such as Howe and Douglas – but there is little doubt the tragedy took its toll. England went from being a very good side to a good one, a team which was to narrowly lose out in the fight between three leading sides to reach the last eight.
Fortune was not on their side that year, as the draw went against them and so did key refereeing decisions. But the pain of an early World Cup exit was nothing compared to the horror of talented young men being killed in their prime. If ever an England World Cup campaign was firmly in perspective, this was it. On the 60th anniversary of the tragedy we salute those who died, remembering the impact they made at club level and, in several cases, for their country. The tragedy will forever be associated with Manchester United, but it was also one greatly felt throughout English football and beyond.
Blogging about the history of the England national football team, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.