Manchester United in Belgrade, 5th February 1958

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

“We haven’t come here for nothing…”

A photograph to get lost in – in the foreboding of the ice on the pitch, in the expressions of the players who have barely another day to live, and in the faceless Serbian public watching on. Then, the more abstract, unoriginal thoughts: what might they have achieved had they survived, what effect could they have had on English football history.

Here’s Manchester United’s 1958 side for the final time, deep in Yugoslavia and about to hold Red Star Belgrade to the 3-3 draw which will allow them to advance to the European Cup semi-final.

The day before, they had had dinner at The Majestic Hotel and walked the streets of Belgrade to watch an English film in a local cinema. These weren’t today’s millionaires, but they would still have felt the differences between industrial Manchester and Tito’s communist repression. These were young, bright-eyed players high on life and excited for their futures and they were traipsing around a place of poverty and rigid limitations. Eddie Colman crooned the latest Sinatra, Albert Scanlon talked about the newest Marilyn Monroe and, among the propaganda posters and the occasional tank, that would have been a strange sort of spectacle.

The next day, they would leave the bowels of the JNA Stadium and run out onto a frozen pitch in the winter sunshine, Busby’s final calming words in their ears.

“There are no terrors out there for you boys now.”

United were protecting a 2-1 lead from the first leg and, with goals from Viollet and two from Charlton, they appeared to put the tie beyond Red Star inside 31 first-half minutes. Back came the Yugoslavians though, erasing that deficit in the fifteen minutes after half-time. Bora Kostic scored twice, Lazar Tasic beat Harry Gregg from the penalty spot. United held on. There were terrors, but they had been survived.

That night, both sets of players would dine together. Afterwards, Busby will relax a curfew and allow his players out for an hour. Denis Viollet will drink with Frank Swift in the hotel bar, Roger Byrne, Bill Foulkes and Albert Scanlon will head to the British embassy’s staff club, and Duncan Edwards and Tommy Taylor will drift into the Belgrade night, finding their way onto a local bar stool alongside Red Star midfielder Dragoslav Sekularac.

And then, the end. The slush in Munich, the snow on the wings, the Football League’s deadline and the third attempt at a takeoff.

For anyone born after 1958, the concept of the Munich disaster is just too vast. Younger generations can read the history and learn the anecdotes, but the magnitude of the crash is impossible to comprehend. In The Footballer Who Could Fly, Duncan Hamilton recalls his father telling him of the news filtering down the pits and then men emerging up into the light to drink silently, feeling that to enjoy themselves in any way on that day would have been wrong.

Today, that’s an unimaginably respectful sadness. As has been shown by more recent tragedies, now there will always be somebody looking to capitalise and cheapen a disaster – perhaps with a manipulative social media posting, or a contrary article with an agenda in its crosshairs. The sort of grief Hamilton described was, as well as dignified, absolutely total in its sincerity.

There’s a rich library of images documenting the days and weeks after the crash. The sight of Bill Foulkes leading United out again at Old Trafford just twelve days later is deeply affecting and there are many others which convey the literal destruction. The wreckage of the mangled Elizabethan is hard to bear, so too the pictures of a gravely ill Busby inside, the relatives back home and the dreadful foresight applicable to one, in which Foulkes and Gregg, who look concerned but hopeful, are shown looking down on a hospital bed from which Edwards would never rise.

It’s all dreadful, no matter where you look. Perhaps the final line-up in Belgrade is Munich at its most palatable though. To look at them there is to know terrible things. Their fate, of course, but also the aftermath: Mark Jones’s landlady having to give away his pet birds to local children, Gladstone Edwards taking a job in Dudley Cemetery to remain close to his boy and, worst of all. Roger Byrne never getting to learn that his wife, Joy, was pregnant with the couple’s first child.

But the image’s dull sepia tone still possesses a quiet spirit. To look at it is to remember how selfless Gregg was the following day, to know that Charlton, Busby and Foulkes would all recover to lift the European Cup ten years later, and that, really, here is the last place where they can live forever.

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