Bobby Charlton and Brian Kidd at Wembley, 29th May 1968

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
January 5, 2019

"Why had I been picked out to inherit so much of what they, in the first surge of brilliant youth, had achieved so beautifully.” Sir Bobby Charlton

What’s easy to forget about the Munich disaster is that life went on for the Manchester United players who survived. According to the accounts of those who joined the club after the crash, it was never spoken about – it was never used as a rallying cry, never mentioned by any of those who experienced it. It would have been there though: any time one one of the survivors stepped onto a plane, into the dressing-room, or onto the pitch itself, the memories of that day would have accompanied them.

Or when they closed their eyes at night. Or when they did anything at all. Even then, a footballer’s life would have been ruled by routine, so not a single day could have passed without each of them being terrorised at some point by some aspect of the tragedy. In Patrick Barclay’s biography of Sir Matt Busby, Harry Gregg talks in vivid detail about the scene he encountered on the runway – his one regret from that day being that, having found Roger Byrne dead, he didn’t close his captain’s eyes.

Gregg is absolutely a hero. With the jet fuel burning and the plane threatening to explode, he had every right just to take himself to safety. He didn’t, he saved lives instead – including an infant Vesna Lukic and her mother. Gregg didn’t play in 1968, he had joined Stoke City two years early, but that he still thinks about Roger Byrne betrays just how vivid the events February 6th 1958 have remained in his mind.

The privilege of those who didn’t experience Munich or who had no connection is their ability to mourn without any of the horror. To remember just the football, not the devastating way in which it ended For those who came home, there was clearly no such luxury.

Prior to the 1958 World Cup, England actually played a friendly against Yugoslavia and did so back in the JNA Stadium in Belgrade. They also flew in via Munich. That would have been a difficult symmetry for every player on board, but presumably an almost unbearable one for Bobby Charlton. Just months on from the tragedy, he was back in the same stadium, flying in by the same route. Bobby Robson, who sat near to him on the plane, would remember his teammate sweating and shaking through the turbulence of that flight.

The picture above was taken ten years later. The European Cup has been won, the family members of those who died in its pursuit are watching from the stands, and a weeping Charlton is held by Brian Kidd. The symbolism of the occasion was obvious and, mostly, the pictures of it are all extremely famous. George Best is caught in his moment of triumph, Charlton and Busby in a tearful embrace. The history of what preceded that night is burnt onto British football’s soul, of course, but this is one of the only photographs in which that pain can actually be seen.

We had never spoken about Munich. Never, ever. Bobby never mentioned it. Bill Foulkes never mentioned it...yet when the final whistle went we all instinctively went to Bobby, Bill or Matt. Alex Stepney (to Patrick Barclay)

Charlton was very close to Duncan Edwards, the two did their national service together in Shropshire. He also counted David Pegg and Eddie Colman as two of his best friends in the team and would regularly go drinking with Tommy Taylor on a Saturday night.

When he regained consciousness after the crash, he encountered one of his dead teammates in the debris field. He has never revealed who that was and, in his autobiography, he even wonders aloud why that is. It’s not really important though; how can a person ever be free of something like that?

“There was never an instinct to put Munich out of mind, to say that it was something terribly sad but had to be relegated to the past because how else could you deal with the present and the future? Munich was just too big, too overpowering, to permit that kind of reaction. It was something that you knew, right from the start, you had to learn to live with.” Sir Bobby Charlton

In today’s context, the notion of repressing something as vast as Munich sounds horrendous. Where there is tragedy, there is the immediate expectation of therapy and catharsis. But that’s a very modern assumption: in the decade after the crash, society’s expectation was for men to bury that kind of trauma and not complain. After all, the Second World War would still have been fresh in plenty of minds and, sadly, there would have been many people around with far worse stories to tell. Full understanding of PTSD didn’t yet exist, the concept itself was decades away, and this was very much an era in which you were supposed to grin and bear it.

What this picture seems to show, then, is release in an acceptable form. Even in sport though, which has always been more relaxed than society in its expectations, it was quite unusual to see this level of emotion. Look back through the photos of World Cup and FA Cup winners and, typically, you see only a very reserved kind of joy. There’s jubilation and happiness, certainly, but nothing comparable with the contemporary equivalents. See the pictures from 1966: Stiles dances, Moore holds the trophy aloft but, really, it’s a job-well-done kind of glee, nothing more.

Clearly, Charlton did learn to live with Munich. To this day, there isn’t a more dignified or treasured person in the whole of English football. Here though, the personal cost of the last decade is plainly clear. His expression isn’t joy or relief, it doesn’t suggest that any great weight has been lifted from him either; instead, it’s something completely unrelatable, something immensely powerful but ultimately beyond description.

What are you looking for?