Much has been made of the 50th anniversary of the Munich air disaster, although little has been written about the eight sports journalists who died that day. With contributions from TREVOR BOND and DON ANTHONY, the SJA pays tribute to the colleagues who lost their lives that tragic day
“I was called up from the news desk. The crash had wiped out all the city’s top sportswriters,” said David Meek at the weekend.
Meek has been covering Manchester United for 50 years, first with the Manchester Evening News, more recently as a regular ghostwriter for Sir Alex Ferguson’s matchday programme notes. Meek’s professional association with the club began the day after the terrible tragedy of the Munich air disaster on February 6, 1958: as he said on BBC Radio 5Live’s SportsWeek on Sunday, of the 23 killed in the crash, 11 were Manchester United players and officials, and eight were sports journalists, all travelling on the charter flight to cover the European Cup match in Belgrade.
As Trevor Bond notes, in an era when our national newspapers all had large, near-autonomous offices in Manchester, the casualty list was as follows: Frank Swift (News of the World), Henry Rose (Daily Express), Eric Thompson (Daily Mail), George Follows (Daily Herald), Archie Ledbrooke (Daily Mirror), Alf Clarke (Manchester Evening Chronicle), Tom Jackson (Manchester Evening News) and H D “Donny” Davies (Manchester Guardian).
Meek’s predecessor, Jackson, has a brass plaque commemorating him near the Manchester Evening News sports desk still.
“Don Davies was a former England amateur international (v Wales in 1914) and had played for Northern Nomads,” Bonds says. “Frank Swift was England’s goalkeeper before World War 2 and immediately after it. He played his first Cup Final for Manchester City against Portsmouth in 1934 as a ‘mere boy’ and fainted after the match. When he came round, he stammered: ‘Have we won?’
“The Mirror‘s Archie Ledbury finished a three-part series at nine o’clock on the night before the flight. Had he not finished it, Frank McGhee was due to take his place. Archie died, Frank lived,” Bond says.
George Follows was 40 when he died. He had worked his way up from a number of Walsall newspapers to the lofty position of sports reporter for the prestigious Daily Herald, the old-fashioned, broadsheet newspaper that ultimately was transformed into the Sun. He had his own column “Follow George Follows” on the paper and was covering Manchester United’s first trip into Europe when the accident happened.
Monday’s Independent carried an account of the press box at that first Manchester United match after the tragedy.
“Consider the scene in the Old Trafford press box when, just 13 days on, Manchester United returned to competitive action in the FA Cup fifth round against Sheffield Wednesday.
“The box should have been full of life that night, much of it radiated by the irrepressible Henry Rose of the Daily Express, whose prose was almost as revered as the players. But the crash had claimed … the cream of British sportswriting who then, as today, sat at the back of the plane carrying United into European competition.”
According to Meek: “The atmosphere in the press box was totally different. So many of us were new. Some had covered the occasional game, but we knew we were literally stepping up into dead men’s shoes.”
Some of the reporters who lost their lives were as revered by the Manchester public as were the players. The funeral procession for Rose stretched six miles to the Southern Cemetery, with around a thousand taxi drivers ferrying mourners to the burial, without charge.
The only sports writer to survive that ill-fated BEA flight 609 was Frank Taylor. Don Anthony knew Frank Taylor for many years. Taylor, of course, was a long-serving chairman of the then SWA as well as President of AIPS.
“I always wondered what had caused his disability â€“ he limped, and one shoe was bigger than the other,” Anthony recalls.
“I felt it impertinent to ask…until one day we were both delayed for many hours at a European airport. We got on so well I thought the time opportune and I said ‘Frank,what happened to your foot?’.”
The following, Anthony says, is not a word-perfect report but it sums up the spirit of Taylor’s reply.
The plane tried to take off twice in really bad wintry weather. On the third try I noticed a little red house near the runway which I hadnâ€™t seen on the previous tries and, being an ex-RAF navigator, I sensed that something was wrong. I said to Bobby Charlton next to me â€œGet your head between your knees !â€
Then everything went blank. When I opened my eyes I felt no pain but I wondered what a bloody great wheel was doing in front of me. I then saw that my best suit was covered in dirt and blood and my first thought was â€œWhat will the wife say?â€
I then passed out. My name was published on the â€œmissing â€“ presumed dead” â€“ list but my wife rang up those in charge and said, â€œHe is a great survivor â€“ keep searching â€“ for a funny little fat man with a moustache!â€
When I came round I was in a room, in bed, and three nuns were standing by the bed. It turned out that I was in a German Catholic Hospital. They kept me there many weeks and the surgeon managed to avoid amputation of my lower leg. However, I lost some two inches of bone and my shoes had to be so constructed to account for this severe injury.
The doctor was a marvellous man and before leaving I said to him: â€œWhat a crazy world… ten years ago we were trying to kill each other and now you save my life and my leg!â€
The doctor said to me, â€œAh- but Frank â€“ when you were unconscious I took my revenge â€“ I gave you transfusions of German frauleinâ€™s blood.”
Says Anthony, “That story sums up Frankâ€™s delightful sense of humour â€“ a quality which served him, and us, well throughout his years in office.”
Full list of victims and survivors of the crash can be found by clicking here
It was all so hard to take in. A hastily scrawled billboard said that Manchester United’s plane had come down on the way back from Belgrade. Only slowly did the full terrible details emerge. There were no rolling news channels, no pocket radios, no mobile phones, no web. How many players, if any, had been hurt – or worse? What about Busby and, above all, what about Duncan Edwards, who represented the future of the English game and the England team? When Edwards died in hospital a fortnight later, a light went out in football. Read David Lacey by clicking here
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