The Flowers of Manchester
“We’ll never die, We’ll never die. We’ll never die, we’ll never die. We’ll keep the red flag flying high, cause Man United we’ll never die.”
As you step into Old Trafford on matchday you’re bound to hear these words echo across the grounds during the match. It’s a United staple, but these words don't simply echo as a chant the fans sing to urge their team forwards. They pervade through every aspect of the club. They are the essence, the verysoulof Manchester United.
Sixty-one years ago Manchester United was at the pinnacle of world football. They had won the league two years in a row and were the first English side to participate in the European Cup, reaching the semi-finals in both their first and second years. Unstoppable at times and even better was that many of them were just kids. Boys of 19 or 20. United was prepped for a decade of dominance the likes the world had never seen - then tragedy struck. Attempting to take off from the snowy fields of Munich Airport, United’s plane went down and in sixty-one years nothing has been able to fill the hole that was left behind.
Lest we forget, it was February 6th at 3:04 pm when we lost them. From the wreckage, twenty-three people wouldn’t survive. They were players and coaches, reporters and employees, even fans. Bent, Byrne, Colman, Edwards, Jones, Pegg, Taylor, Whelan. These are the eight who would never grace the pitch again. Amongst them were United’s captain, Roger Byrne, and their best player, Duncan Edwards. But they were more than numbers on a pitch. They were fathers and sons, brothers and friends, husbands. They were the heroes of every kid in Manchester, the inspiration for every boy in the United academy. They were a future. They were hope. Then, suddenly, they were gone.
Duncan Edwards wasn’t simply United’s best player, he was perhaps the best player toeverplay the game. At the age of 21, Edwards had already appeared 177 times for Manchester United and won 18 caps for England. Nicknamed “Boom Boom” by the Germans for his thunderous goal against them in 1956, his power was legendary. But it wasn't just power, he could use either foot at will and was lighting quick. He was the best defender on any team and the best attacker too. Silky smooth with the ball he could brush you off with his strength or glide past with you with skill and control. Sir Bobby Charlton called him the only player to ever make him feel “inferior”. This is a man who played against Pele and Eusebio, not to mention playing with George Best and Bobby Moore. Thousands of goals and multiple World Cup, league, and European titles but they still couldn’t hold a candle to Duncan Edwards. Legendary United manager and survivor of the Munich Air Disaster, Sir Matt Busby, said that he had to give up looking for things in training that Edwards needed to work on, there was simply nothing to improve. It’s amazing to think the heights Duncan Edward’s career would have reached. Unfortunately, that makes it all the more painful to know his story ended far too early in Munich.
However, only through adversity can there be triumph. Munich wouldn’t spell the end of Manchester United. United’s story doesn't end here, but Bobby Charlton’s almost did. He still thinks about it every day. Sometimes the pain is fleeting and sometimes it lingers on through the day.
“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”
-Sir Bobby Charlton
He watched the friends he loved die before his very eyes. He recalls opening his eyes after the crash to find “one beloved colleague was dead after suffering injuries I could never bring myself to describe...” and the devastation of seeing the bodies lined up on that snow-covered runway. He returned to England never wanting to play again, how could he? He had fought so hard with the ones he loved, and he had losteverything. But when nothings left what choice do we have but to fight? The weight of history, of the Busby Babes, rested on Sir Bobby Charlton's shoulders and as you well know, his story didn’t end in Munich.
Busby and Charlton would rise from the ashes and United would rise with them. They rebuilt this team together. In five years United would win its first title after the crash, an FA Cup against Leicester City. Ten years after the crash United would find themselves in the European Cup Final, the same competition tragedy had struck during just a decade earlier. It was fitting that in the end, it was the academy graduates that insured the victory. Bobby Charlton scored two, twenty-two-year-old George Best had one, and nineteen-year-old Brian Kidd rounded out the scoring for a 4-1 victory over Benfica. At last Charlton could rest. The destiny that had once seemed inevitable for those who perished in 1958 was finally grasped. That win was for them, for those who lost their lives.
The Flowers are the soul of Manchester United. The Busby Babes, a group of kids, kids that tore apart every side from Manchester to Belgrade are the pinnacle of what all United sides strive to be. Youth is a pillar of what United is built on. For 81 years United have named an academy graduate in their matchday squad without fail. That’s almost four-thousand matches gone by with at least one United academy graduate in their squad. It’s unheard of, it's unimaginable, it’s the legacy of the Babes.
Those who died became the foundation of the Manchester United we know today. Trusting the youth, an unrelenting attack, and never giving up. That legacy continued with the Class of ‘92 and Sir Alex Ferguson. The Busby Babes never got their shot at dominance, so Sir Alex did it for them. Twenty years of title after title, all led by talented youth and an unwillingness to quit. These United squads became famous for “Fergie time”, a seemingly supernatural ability to pull out a victory in the dying embers of the match. At one time, Munich was the dying embers. United could have given in there, said it wasn't meant to be and moved on. But they didn't, they drug themselves back to the top of world football. They’re the inspiration for every European Cup win. Before United won the Champions League in 2008, Sir Alex had Sir Bobby come and talk to the young squad about what it meant to be a United player. He talked about Munich, and about what winning a European cup means for those boys who never got a chance to win one of their own. A few months later United were hoisting their third European Cup title. It was all for them.
“We’ll never die, We’ll never die.”
These words are defiance. They’re strength. They’re pride. A declaration that we won’t come quietly. They are Sir Alex tapping his wrist on the sidelines with 1 minute left in extra time. They’re David Beckham crossing it in for Solskjaer and Sheringham in the 1999 European Cup final. They are the truth. While those who died in Munich can never be replaced, those we lose never truly leave us. They live on in our hearts and minds and in this case, the club that their tragedy built.
Lest we forget.
Remember the history of Manchester United by checking out the Vintage Sports collection of Manchester United Memorabilia.
Knox Ashford, a content writer for Vintage Sports, is a regular contributor to the site including stories, product descriptions, and video scripts. You can follow him on twitter @KnoxVSports for regular updates.
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