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The Lost Babes: Manchester United & the Forgotten Victims of Munich by Jeff Connor

Release date: 06th February, 2006
Publisher: Harper Sport

List Price: £14.99
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Last Monday was the forty-eighth anniversary of the night when a plane transporting footballers and staff of Manchester United back from Belgrade failed to clear the runway at a virtually snowbound Munich airport and crashed, killing eight members of the league championship-winning side.

It was one of British sports' most poignant incidents, more chilling for the black and white newsreel coverage depicting the tangled wreckage which stood in bleak contrast to the team's thrilling performance the Saturday before when they had beaten Arsenal 5-4 at Highbury.

In his excellent autobiography, Nobby Stiles, then an apprentice at Old Trafford, described how, upon hearing the news, he went to church and prayed and wept in equal measure, numbed by the crash's impact: "I sat back in the pew for a long time," he wrote, "it could have been an hour or two. I really don't know."

Following months of hospital convalescence and the care of his family, manager Matt Busby announced he would accept the challenge of rebuilding a team worthy of the names of the young men who had lost their lives. It was the manner in which Busby, ably assisted by his number two, Jimmy Murphy, reconstructed his new side that led to the establishment of a Manchester United tradition and which accounted for the club's staggering level of support.

Busby, armed with the accommodating manner of a much-loved uncle, succeeded in first establishing the nucleus of his second great team and then added genius in the form of Law, Charlton and Best. By the time Busby's men won the European Cup in 1968, the Manchester United tradition symbolised recovery, tenacity and technical brilliance.

Of course, this story has been told before, but the principal argument behind Jeff Connor's thought-provoking book is that while the club re-ignited its understandable quest for glory soon after those sombre days of 1958, the families of Munich's victims were forgotten.

It was not until 1998 that a benefit match was played at Old Trafford for the families of the dead, but a sense of bitterness lingers. Although the game raised £47,000 for each family, the forty year delay between disaster and monetary benefit was considered too long.

In fairness, Manchester United had nowhere near the financial clout in the late 50s they have possessed since the club floated on the stock market in the early 90s.

Nevertheless, the lengthy delay, coupled with the comparatively paltry level (in current footballing terms) of remuneration upset a number of the victim's families, but readers must decide whether this was the scandal which Connor, a Manchester United fan, believes it to be.

Perhaps the greatest legacy of those who lost their lives at Munich is the fact that under the tutelage of Sir Alex Ferguson, the Old Trafford tradition lives on, if modified occasionally to accommodate an equally successful siege mentality.

Naturally, fans may look at some of the current batch of highly-paid stars on the books at Manchester United and wonder whether they understand what that tradition really means. Yes, football has moved on, but there is little doubt that locally-produced players such as Neville, Scholes and Giggs appreciate what playing for United is all about, such is the strength of the link with that great team of 1958 who will always be remembered with affection by the Old Trafford faithful.

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