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Blanchflower and Berry – The Babes who never played again

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.”

Blanchflower on the Munich Air Disaster

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

Harry Gregg – The Hero of Munich

When the clock struck 15:03 on the 6 February 2020, the 62nd anniversary of the 1958 Munich Air Disaster, Manchester United and the footballing world remembered the lives of the 23 people who sadly never returned back home.

Without the courageous actions of one man, it is probable they would have been remembering more lost ones as Harry Gregg risked his own life to save those of others on that tragic day. Many may be unaware of Gregg’s heroics because he himself in the past hasn’t regularly recollected the events, neither does he enjoy receiving praise for his bravery

The Northern Irishman signed from Doncaster Rovers in December of 1957 for a world record fee at the time for a goalkeeper of £23,000, showing the faith United had in him. Gregg made his love for the club known before he had even played a match when Sir Matt Busby and Jimmy Murphy turned up to negotiate a deal, stating to them ‘if I’d been born a rich man, I’d have paid to play for Manchester United.’

“It was a great time to be alive. Here I was, Harry Gregg from Windsor Avenue, a professional footballer with Manchester United. To me it was the Hollywood of football I had joined.”

– Gregg speaking about the move to United in a 2013 interview.

At 25 years old, Gregg was one of the more experienced players in Busby’s young team. However, it’s stated that Gregg actually disliked played in goal as he was ‘stuck in a cage’ while everyone else was on the pitch enjoying themselves. In the middle of January, the Busby Babes continued their run in the European Cup with the first leg of a Quarter-Final tie against Yugoslavian side Red Star Belgrade. Gregg played his first match in European competition for United as they gained a 2-1 first leg advantage.

In the return leg on the 5 February, the Babes played out a 3-3 draw to secure a Semi-Final spot for the second season running. Gregg and the team stayed the night in a Belgrade hotel before setting off to fly as normal back to Manchester the next morning. Gregg was known to be a poker player and was part of a card school at the club. The documentary United, released in 2011, depicted Gregg playing cards with the team on the flight back and it was clear that he had already become a popular figure in his short first few months at the club.

The team stopped off in snowy Munich to refuel but the plane aborted take-off shortly after as the pilot could not get enough power from the engines. When the plane attempted to take off for the second time without success, the players again went back inside the airport, as they did on arrival, none the wiser about the situation. Back on the plane and on the third attempted take off, many began to panic, and after stunned silence, disaster struck. The plane skidded on the ice before crashing into a fence and subsequently into a nearby house.

Gregg commented in an interview that when he regained consciousness, he incredibly crawled his way through the debris and out a hole in the side of the plane. After hearing the escaping pilot telling him to run as the plane was going to blow, he decided to go against this advice and to go back to save others. Gregg found Sir Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet, as well as his manager Sir Matt Busby who was lying in pain.

“I thought Dennis and Bobby were dead. Even so, I grabbed them by the waistbands of their trousers and trailed them through the snow for about 20 yards, away from the smouldering front of the plane.”

– Gregg commenting on how he saved Charlton and Viollet’s lives in Munich.

Gregg also rescued his long-time friend Jackie Blanchflower, who was lying below the lifeless Roger Byrne, one of the many he unfortunately could not save. One of the most amazing aspects of Gregg’s bravery in Munich is that he didn’t just stop when he helped those connected to the club, he even went in to save the life of a pregnant Yugoslavian woman, Vera Lukic

Nearly two weeks after the crash, Gregg played in goal in an FA Cup tie against Sheffield Wednesday at a packed Old Trafford, which United won 3-0. However, the rest of the team was mostly made up of debutants, fringe players and players given to United from other clubs. For Gregg to not only play weeks after seeing his friends and team-mates tragically pass in Munich, but to lead such a team to victory in such an emotional match, is a testament to the character of the man and his will to honour the Busby Babes.

Gregg played in the FA Cup final defeat to Bolton Wanderers at the end of the season along with Charlton and Violett but unfortunately missed out in the successful cup winning year of 1963. Gregg left United in 1966, two years before United won the European Cup at Wembley, with Busby in charge and Charlton captaining the team. Gregg never won a trophy at the club, but without his heroics in Munich in 1958, Busby and Charlton may not have even been alive to triumph a decade later.

 In the 2019 New Year’s honours list Gregg was awarded an OBE for services to football after a campaign was set up for him to be honoured the year before. Harry Gregg was not only a brave goalkeeper, he was a brave man, and the hero of Munich should never be forgotten as one of the most important individuals in the club’s history.

Written by Alex Metcalfe

The Munich Air Disaster – Manchester United’s darkest day

On Wednesday 5 February 1958, Manchester United faced Red Star Belgrade in the quarter-final second leg of the European Cup in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (now Serbia). At Old Trafford, United win 2-1with goals from Sir Bobby Charlton and Eddie Colman. However, it was going to be a tense fixture with a place in the semi-finals at stake. United took a strong squad and were seeking to get what they needed – a victory.

It was a 3-3 draw in the match, with Charlton scoring a brace and Dennis Viollet scoring the other, putting United through to the semi-finals after a 5-3 aggregate scoreline. United were to face AC Milan in the semi-finals, a match the majority of the players who walked out onto the pitch in what turned into their final game, would not take part in. The last lineup, as the picture will always be known, became symbolic.

United stayed at The Majestic Hotel in Belgrade, which would have looked after the players of that time. They will have arrived back at the hotel celebrating reaching a European Cup semi-final with a team that could well have gone on and dominated for years to come. The return back to Manchester will have been something this team would have been excited for, to be welcomed home because of the feat they had achieved.

The United players, management, staff, journalists, photographers, crew, and other passengers – 44 people in total, left Belgrade Airport, in Yugoslavia on a British European Airways Airspeed AS-57 Ambassador. The flight was due to stopover in Munich, Germany in order to refuel as the range of the plane would not have reached Manchester on a non-stop flight. This turned out to be one of the aspects of the tragedy.

The flight twice abandoned on take-off as the pilot, Captain James Thain and co-pilot Kenneth Rayment recorded boost surging in the left engine. They were offered a night in Munich, but so that there was no delay, Thain decided to continue the flight. By this time, snow was falling in the Bavarian city and id made things all the more difficult to say the least. It was this that helped things become more disastrous.

A layer of slush formed at the end of the runway. On take-off, the plane hit the layer of slush, forced the plane off the runway, through a fence which is where the left win was torn off after hitting a house. Thain survived the crash and began evacuating the passengers, helped by the hero of the moment, goalkeeper Harry Gregg. Twenty people were killed instantly in the crash with one more dying on the way to hospital.

Those who died were; cabin steward, Tom Cable, United players, Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Liam ‘Billy’ Whelan. Three members of United staff, club secretary, Walter Crickmer, trainer, Tom Curry, and chief coach, Bert Whalley also died. Journalists, Alf Clarke, Donny Davies, George Follows, Tom Jackson, Archie Ledbrooke, Henry Rose, and Eric Thompson also died.

Two passengers; travel agent, Bela Miklos and supporter, Willie Satinoff were also killed in the tragedy. Journalist and former Manchester City goalkeeper, Frank Swift died en-route to the hospital, United player Duncan Edwards died 15 days later in hospital and co-pilot Captain Kenneth Rayment died five weeks later suffering from a brain haemorrhage. A total of 23 people were killed as a result of the crash.

There were 21 survivors from the crash; pilot, Captain James Thain, stewardessed, Margaret Bellis and Rosemary Cheverton, radio officer, George William “Bill” Rodgers, United players, Johnny Berry, Jackie Blanchflower, Bobby Charlton, Harry Gregg, Bill Foulkes, Kenny Morgans, Albert Scanlon, Dennis Viollet and Ray Wood. United manager, Matt Busby, journalists, Ted Ellyard, Peter Howard, and Frank Taylor.

Four passengers also survived; Vera Lukić and her baby daughter, Vesna (although Lukić was pregnant with son, Zoran at the time), Eleanor Miklos, the wife of deceased Bela Miklos, and Yugoslavian diplomat, Nebojša Bato Tomašević. Initially Thain was blamed for the disaster but was cleared ten years later. By then, he had been dismissed by BEA and never recovered, dying in 1975.

A broken plane, a broken dream, a broken heart, a broken team, no word said, a silent vow, we loved you then, we love you now. We’ll never die.

Written by John Walker

copyright: JW