On the 6 February 1958, 23 people, including eight Manchester United players, lost their lives in the Munich Air Disaster, one of the biggest tragedies in football history. Of the players that survived, some went on to still have very successful careers, but for some others however, that unfortunately wasn’t the case.
Jackie Blanchflower and Jonny Berry were both forced into early retirement and could only watch their friends continue on the legacy of the Busby Babes. Of course, they still had their lives and that is the most important thing, but Blanchflower and Berry lived with the scars of Munich both mentally and physically for decades.
Blanchflower, nicknamed ‘Twiggy’ by teammates, was a Northern Irishman and younger brother of Danny, captain of Tottenham Hotspur during their glory years in the early 1960s. He joined United in 1949 and came through their now renowned academy, making his debut for the first team in late 1951, before helping United later claim the league title in both 1956 and 1957.
When the squad travelled to Yugoslavia for the second leg against Red Star Belgrade on the 5 February 1958, Blanchflower was taken as a reserve. Despite his lack of game time, he was known for his versatility, playing both upfront and in defence, while even going in goal during the 1957 FA Cup final defeat. Blanchflower was the 20th century equivalent of John O’Shea, a talented footballer and a true squad player.
Just like Blanchflower, Berry made his United debut in 1951. He arrived for £25,000, big money at the time, from Birmingham City as a flying winger with a growing reputation. A quick and skilful player, Berry is rarely considered when there is a list of the greatest ever players to wear the number seven shirt at the club, but he did make an impressive 276 appearances, scoring 45 goals from the right-wing.
Another reason why he isn’t fondly remembered is like Blanchflower, he wasn’t a regular in the team. He had been a permanent starter in previous title winning sides of 1952, 1956 and 1957, but in 1958 at 31 years old he had lost his place to the younger Welshman Kenny Morgans, who started on the right in both legs of the tie against Red Star.
In the tragedy of Munich, Blanchflower and Berry both survived, but at some cost. Fellow Northern Irishman and long-time friend Harry Gregg revealed that he found Blanchflower lying beneath deceased captain Roger Byrne. The injuries Blanchflower suffered from the crash were not fatal for his life, but unfortunately were for his footballing career. He suffered a fractured pelvis and crushed kidneys with multiple limb fractures.
“While some people may think about it each February, I have had to live with it every day since.”
Berry has been quoted as saying ‘We are going to die’ on the plane, moments before the crash and it has been reported that when he awoke he had no recollection of what had happened. Berry was stuck in a two-month coma before awakening to find out that his friends and teammates had died and that his horrific injuries meant he would never play again. Berry had a fractured skull as well as a broken jaw, elbow, pelvis and leg.
“A time of indescribable pain and grief.”
– Neil Berry, Johnny’s son, on the time after Munich for him and his family.
Both players when leaving United had to vacate their houses that were owned by the club.
Unsurprisingly, Berry suffered a personality change after the crash and sadly was the first of those who survived the disaster to die when he passed away in 1994. Blanchflower was the second, passing away in 1998, two weeks after he attended a memorial match at Old Trafford for the 40th anniversary of the disaster.
Jackie Blanchflower and Johnny Berry were vital members of a legendary team that was struck down in their prime by a terrible tragedy. The two men lived for 36 and 40 years respectively after the crash with the pain of not only losing their teammates and friends but losing their own careers as professional players. Long may they be remembered.
Written by Alex Metcalfe