Today is the 56th anniversary of the Munich air disaster. If you had stood by the Munich clock at Old Trafford at 3:04 p.m. on any Feb. 6 in the 1990s, you’d have been almost alone. At times, there were fewer than a dozen people paying their respects on the anniversary.
Munich’s anniversary was never forgotten, but neither was it remembered as it is today, when hundreds gather outside the clock, the original version of which was paid for by supporters.
Manchester United fans now sing "The Flowers of Manchester," an anonymous folk song in the style of a soldiers’ lament written in 1968, a tradition that is repeated before the nearest home game to the anniversary.
A minute’s silence has always been observed at games played on the anniversary, although not in 2003 as the nearest home game was against Manchester City and there were fears that it might be disrupted. City fans would prove that theory wrong five years later.
Social media has changed the memorials, too. Websites today are filled with references to the event and its anniversary, with iconic pictures of the "Babes in Belgrade," of graves and a stricken airplane in the Munich snow.
To some, it’s a symptom of an increasingly maudlin, mawkish Britain which revels in grief. It’s unedifying to see fans point scoring over a disaster, and one wonders what the relatives of the deceased make of it.
The Munich air disaster will be forgotten if it’s not remembered, though. In September 2012, I went to see recently retired Bayern Munich goalkeeper Hans-Jorg Butt at his home. He lives close to the crash site and explained, “The older people in Munich know the story, not so much the younger people.”
In Munich itself, the crash is almost forgotten. A simple memorial to the 23 people who died sits at the Manchesterplatz, at end of a residential avenue near what was once the Munich-Riem Airport.
Manchester United officials visit the memorial on any trip to Munich, while City sent a large representation to pay their respects before the Blues played Bayern Munich in September 2011.
City, as a club, have always been faultless in paying their respects, and their fans were exemplary on the 50th anniversary in 2008 when almost no United fans thought they would be. Few in Manchester believed there would be silence from City fans and there were rumours of planned disruptions.
In reality, there were none as 76,000 red and blue paid their respects. With 73,000 red and white scarves and 3,000 blue and white scarves in the away end, it was a sight to behold.
A small minority of the most cerebrally challenged City fans persist in singing Munich songs. Included in the dead was former City goalkeeper Frank Swift.
The manner of the memorials has changed over the decades, from the original “black week” which followed the disaster. In the immediate aftermath, the Football League ordered two minutes of silence at all games on Saturday, Feb. 8, together with the wearing of black armbands and the lowering of flags to half-mast.
However, the League’s official silence was preceded by a musical remembrance at a Halle Orchestra concert in Sheffield on Feb. 7. The audience stood as the orchestra played Elgar’s “Nimrod Variation”, the musicians’ traditional tribute for colleagues who have died, followed by the observation of a minute’s silence.
The Football League came under criticism for not suspending matches, and the Manchester Evening Chronicle claimed that the “vast majority” of people in Manchester wanted professional football called off the following Saturday.
The League consulted United, whose chairman Harold Hardman backed their decision to carry on as “the best way of paying tribute to the players concerned in the tragedy.” After all, the League programme had not been suspended after the death of the last two kings.
On the night of Feb. 10, remarkable demonstrations of public mourning accompanied the return to Old Trafford of the bodies of the dead players and Manchester United officials, which had been flown back to Manchester.
Although the aeroplane arrived late at midnight, and it rained heavily, the 12-mile route from Ringway Airport to the stadium was lined, according to the Daily Express, by a quarter-million onlookers, although The Times reduced the figure to a still-impressive 100,000.
The bulk of the spectators stood to attention in orderly ranks or maintained a silent vigil as the coffins passed. Others demonstrated their sorrow more openly -- it was reported that “women knelt and men wept.”
One of those who joined the vigil directly evoked the war, saying, “This is the most terrible thing that has happened since the Blitz, and the least we can do is to pay our respects.”
Women were prominent in the crowds of mourners, reflecting perhaps partly the pin-up status of the Busby Babes, but also symbolically mourning the loss of sons, brothers and husbands in wartime.
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Late Manchester City goalkeeper Bert Trautmann, a German who was a prisoner of war during World War II and later settled in England, was among those who were there that night. “It was cold and wet, one of those awful Mancunian winter nights,” he later said.
“I wanted to pay my respects and intended going alone, but my wife said she wanted to come. And friends. And friends of friends, people who had no interest in football. The disaster touched us all.”
Manchester was in shock, yet there were dissenting voices. When some businesses in the city refused to fly their flags at half-mast, one letter writer defended them for resisting the prevailing “mass hysteria.”
Some relatives of the dead players maintained their own commemorative shrines in their homes, collections of shirts, caps and medals, as well as other mementoes, which they showed to visitors. The graves of some of the players became sites of unofficial pilgrimage. A Salford man claimed to have visited Eddie Colman’s grave every week “because he was our local star.”
The courage shown by Duncan Edwards in his two-week struggle for life won him a special place among the dead. Edwards’ father, Gladstone, became caretaker at Dudley’s Queen’s Cross cemetery, where his son and infant daughter were buried, and guided visitors to the grave they shared. A 1967 tribute reported: “Even now ... there are sometimes 20 pilgrims a day at his grave in Dudley Cemetery.”
Standing at the side of Colman’s headstone was a marble statuette of the player in his kit with a ball at his feet, but it was removed later because of damage by vandals and kept in his grandfather’s house along with other mementoes.
This is not the only memorial of the disaster, intended to be permanent, which suffered later harm or neglect. Edwards’ headstone (unveiled by Matt Busby at a special ceremony on Oct. 5, 1958) bore his portrait -- a continental European tradition rarely seen on English graves.
There were several more memorials at Old Trafford, the first unveiled on Feb. 25, 1960. The memorial was unpublicised as it was felt that thousands of spectators would try to attend. The Manchester Evening Chronicle observed that the unveiling would bring a measure of closure to the mourning, writing: “Quietly ... the closing chapters were written ... to the tragedy at Munich.”
The memorials continued, with attention growing rather than receding over the decades. There was more attention paid to the 40th anniversary than the 20th, 25th or 30th. A service was held at Manchester Cathedral on Feb. 6, 1998, and a small ceremony of remembrance was carried out on the Old Trafford pitch the following day.
People remember in different ways. At the recent home defeat to Tottenham, I spoke to an elderly fan who claimed that the Munich disaster hit him harder as a child than the loss of his own father in later life.
On Sunday at Old Trafford, when United host Fulham, flags will be raised by fans in memory of those who lost their lives. Manchester remembers.