First published in Sons View, 02 February 2008, Dumbarton -v- Elgin
Before I saw the light in 1969 and switched by allegiance unwaveringly to Dumbarton, influenced by my mother’s tenuous Scottish connections and a shaky 11-year-old’s grasp of geography, I was, like many football loving boys of my generation, a Manchester United fan. Everyone, it seemed, went through a Red Devils “phase”, just as most favoured the Beatles at some point. That was simply how it was.
These days it’s hard to recall that the team in red and white were not then thought of as globe straddling show-offs, despised by most who didn’t follow them. Instead, they captured the sympathy and imagination of a huge swathe of the populous on account of three words: ‘Busby Babes’ and ‘Munich’.
The air disaster that killed eight players and 15 other people (club officials, journalists and crew) on that fateful night in Bavaria on 6 February 1958 happened five weeks before I was born. It ended up shaping my outlook and that of several generations around me.
The Beautiful Game was forever tinged with the shadow of tragedy, just as it was when 66 people were killed leaving an Old Firm match at Ibrox on 2 January 1971, when 96 Liverpool fans died at Hillsborough on 15 April 1989, and more recently when Phil O’Donnell collapsed at Motherwell on 29 December 2007. In each of these instances, and on a number of others over the years, the sense of pointlessness and waste was immeasurable. But the determination to go on living was also incredibly powerful.
In the light (or rather, the snowy dark) of Munich, many found affection for Manchester United simply as a result of the guts and determination with which they faced their loss and adversity. I was 10 years old in 1968, when that great Scotsman Matt Busby led his team to victory in the European Cup Final against Benfica, a year after Jock Stein’s Celtic had brought it to these islands for the first time. I was allowed to stay up late that evening to watch the game on TV. I can still see the goals going in. Bobby Charlton, a Munich survivor, got two; Brian Kidd and George Best, stars of a bright new generation, got the others in a 4-1 win watched by 250 million people – a staggering number forty years ago.
In an emotional interview afterwards, Busby instantly dedicated the victory to the memories of Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor, Liam Whelan and Duncan Edwards. Had they survived, the trophy might well have been theirs sooner.
But Sir Matt, as he became, was not the only Scot caught up in the heroic recovery from Munich. Alex Dawson from Aberdeen, now aged 67, had his passport and visa ready to fly out to Belgrade for United’s European Cup quarter final against Red Star. But he was dropped, and as result was not on the plane when it refuelled in Germany, subsequently crashing on the runway as a result of technical failure brought on by snow and ice.
Instead, Dawson, just 19, and a player who had appeared in the last three games of the team’s title winning season, went on to feature in the first post-Munich eleven that took to the field to beat Sheffield Wednesday 13 days later. Duncan Edwards died in hospital on Alex’s 21st birthday, and he went on to notch up 54 goals in 93 appearances before moving to Preston North End.
The fate of the Scottish national team was also embroiled in the Munich disaster. In January 1958, Matt Busby had agreed to take charge of Scotland for the World Cup in Sweden. One month later, the horrendous injuries suffered by the Manchester United boss as a result of the crash brought his stint at the helm to an abrupt halt. He did return briefly after the tournament, but then gave it up again in December.
Does any of this have relevance for fans today, at the Rock and elsewhere? Indeed so. Football is important. But it isn’t, as Bill Shankly once over-enthusiastically suggested, more important than life and death. At its finest it can display human creativity, teamwork and solidarity at its best. But it can also be an arena of bitter and damaging hatreds. The memory of Munich is that intractable rivalries are nothing compared to the capacity of the game to bring us together. It’s a lesson well worth recalling, whatever happens on the pitch tonight.
Simon Barrow became a Sons fan on 13 December 1969.