IT was, as sportswriter Frank Taylor entitled his book on the tragedy, The Day A Team Died.
Here, Anton Rippon pays his own tribute to the eight sports journalists who perished along with footballers, staff and friends on the fateful journey out of Munich.
February 6, 1958, when a British European Airways Elizabethan class Airspeed Ambassador crashed on its third attempt to take off from a slush-covered airport in Munich. Yes, the Busby Babes, on their way home from a European Cup match in Belgrade, died that day.
Everyone knows the name of the players who perished – Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Duncan Edwards, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Liam “Billy” Whelan – but there were others too, 23 in all, including eight sports journalists. They were known as “The Crazy Gang”. They were giants of their profession. Football press boxes would never be the same again.
One of them, Alf Clarke, best known among his colleagues for rarely, if ever, being seen without his tobacco pipe, had at one time – before Matt Busby even – been on United’s books. He wrote for the Manchester Evening Chronicle of blessed memory.
Like Clarke, Tom Jackson of the Manchester Evening News was a lifelong United fan. And like Clarke, he never let it show. His match reports, hammered out at breakneck speed on his typewriter, were always impartial.
Don Davies wrote for the Manchester Guardian under the pen name of “Old International”. Davies was working as an education officer teaching apprentices when the Guardian editor came across a fictitious match report that he had written. Davies had always had the ambition to be a sportswriter, and so it came to pass.
Others who perished were George Follows of the Daily Herald, Archie Ledbrooke of the Daily Mirror, Henry Rose of the Daily Express, Eric Thompson of the Daily Mail, and Frank Swift of the News of the World. Swift, of course, was the gentle giant of a goalkeeper who had made 376 appearances – 209 of them consecutive – for Manchester City, for whom he played in the 1934 FA Cup final alongside Busby.
Frank Taylor, chief sports writer of the News Chronicle survived the crash. He wrote that 1983 book The Day A Team Died, but not before he had read his own mistakenly published obituary. Daily Mail photographer Peter Howard, and Ted Ellyard his telegraphist – the man who wired home Howard’s pictures, also survived.
Of course, we should remember all of those who lost their lives: United’s club secretary, Walter Crickmer; trainer Tom Curry; chief coach Bert Whalley; Captain Kenneth Rayment, co-pilot of the Elizabethan; Tom Cable, a cabin steward; Bela Miklos, a travel agent; Willie Satinoff, United supporter and a close friend of Matt Busby.
A few days before Archie Ledbrooke’s funeral, a postcard dropped through the door of the family home in Bramhall, Cheshire. It was addressed to his daughter, Helen, and read: “This is the famous Blue Danube river. Not much snow here but saw plenty on the way. Love Daddy.”
In 2008, the SJA’s Trevor Bond, wrote for sportsjournalists.co.uk: “Archie Ledbrooke 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.”
The funeral procession for Henry Rose began at the Express building in central Manchester and stretched six miles to the Southern Cemetery. It was reported that some 1,000 taxi drivers took mourners along the route, all without charge.
Without doubt, as well as some of the greatest of a generation of footballers having perished, so too did the cream of British sports journalism. Only 13 days after the crash, David Meek, who took over from Tom Jackson and covered Manchester United for the Manchester Evening News from 1958 to 1995, returned to Old Trafford to report on a match. In 2008 he recalled: “It was a surreal atmosphere. The press box mood was weird as well. All the number one writers had gone and the replacements were all very young, very inexperienced, and very nervous.”
Sixty years ago today was also The Day That A Press Box Died.