Dead Men's Shoes
How the Munich air disaster revolutionised football writing in Britain
One damp morning in February I found myself in the Newsroom at the British Library, ensconced deep within the screel and flap flap flap of the rewinding microfilm machines: 6 February 2018, to be exact, the 60th anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster.
Blessed with that insatiable human tendency towards procrastination, I had stopped doing the research that I was supposed to be doing and was scrolling idly through Twitter. “Odd,” I thought when I came across a newspaper article on the timeline, “It’s the anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster.” A light came on in my brain. “I’m working in the Newsroom in the British Library. It’s the anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster. This could carry my procrastination to the next level.” Within a minute, I had spooled up the microfilm of the Daily Mail labelled ‘January/February 1958’ and had run it through to the front page of 7 February – the day after that fateful afternoon in Munich.
‘7 BUSBY BOYS DIE’ the headline flashes up. ‘4am: Hope is fading for Matt’, ‘I saw goalie Gregg lead the rescuers’, ‘Plane split in two’, ‘Was it sabotage?’, ‘Miracle saved them’. The headlines continue page after page but then there, snuck into the last remaining slot of the full coverage on page six, a little feature of fewer than 50 words. ‘Worst disaster for newsmen’ it was headed. “‘The disaster has just about swept the North of England and Manchester in particular of its leading sports writers,’ said Mr HJ Bradley, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, last night. ‘I cannot recall a greater disaster to journalism this one.’
In the weeks and months that followed, I could hardly get this parenthetical remark out of my head. Before long, it had become something of an obsession and I would often find myself returning to the Newsroom, scrolling through the archived newspapers in a bid to find out more about those journalists who had died in Munich.
In 1958, football was on the cusp. The European Cup had been inaugurated two seasons earlier and, appearing in the second year of the competition as the first team to represent English football, Manchester United had made it through to the semi-finals before being dumped out by the famous Real Madrid side of Alfredo Di Stéfano. That summer would see Brazil lift the World Cup, spurred on by the 17-year-old Pelé. By the following year, Bill Shankly would be the manager of Liverpool and Matt Busby had already constructed one of the finest young teams that the Football League had ever seen.
For the eight journalists who would embark on British European Airways Flight 609 on that snowy day in 1958 but who would never disembark, this future was lost to them. They would not have the chance to cover England’s World Cup triumph in 1966. Nor would they wield their pens at Wembley two years later when Manchester United finally lifted the European Cup, the first English team to do so. This responsibility was passed on to others who would carry on the mantle of the eight who would die. This is the story of the Munich Air Disaster and British football journalism. The story of those who died and those who replaced them.
By the time 1958 rolled around, the British sports media boasted a respectable pedigree. Although it would be reductive to point to a single historical event as the watershed, 1855 tends to be seen as the definitive moment in the acceleration of the print media in Britain. While newspapers had been in circulation since the mid-17th century, the imposition of the Stamp Act in 1712 changed everything. Passed as a tax on publishers, the Act affected all publications which “sold for less than six pence, contained an opinion about news, or which were published more frequently than every 26 days”. By elevating the already high overhead for print media outlets, a burgeoning industry was stymied, leading to the Act being decried both by radicals and conservatives as a “tax on knowledge”. When it was finally repealed in 1855, the way lay open again for the cheap production of newspapers.
Five years earlier, the Factories Act of 1850 – colloquially named the ‘Compromise Act’ – had ruled that the textile industry’s working week would include a mandatory 2pm finish time on a Saturday. By the end of the 1870s, the majority of industries around the country had accepted this scheduling for their working week and, with working men now finding themselves with free time on their hands and the week’s pay in their pockets, the stage was set for the birth of football as a spectator sport.
The sport was growing in popularity and it had never been easier to meet that demand with print publications. By the 1880s, the proto-newspaper magnate Edward Hulton had enjoyed great success with his coverage of sports news, beginning with The Tissue, a one-sheet racing paper which morphed first into the Prophetic Bell and then the Sporting Chronicle. The Athletic News and Cyclists’ Journal, set up in 1875, was intended to cover sports other than racing. However, in 1887, in a bid to capture the growing football market, Hulton reduced the cost of the magazine to half a penny and moved the publication day to Mondays rather than Saturdays. The gamble paid off spectacularly. In 1896, Athletic News had a circulation of 180,000 copies a week and was considered by many to be the leading authority on football.
Another indication of the growing popularity of the football media was the emergence of the ‘football special’ during the 1880s. Given affectionate nicknames which referenced the colour of the paper they were printed on—the Green ‘Un or the Pink ‘Un, for example—these were usually city-specific papers printed on a Saturday afternoon which carried the local sports news. So popular did these specials become that, in 1905, an early history of football described a scene in which newsstands were “illuminated by innumerable broadsheets in colour like unto the rainbow, devoted solely to the purveying of fact and fancy on the one topic.”
The First World War changed everything. The season ran its full course in 1914-15, but the Football League and the FA Cup were suspended thereafter until 1919, with consequences for the independent sporting press. With next to no sport to cover, many publications folded or merged with other news publications. Hulton felt the heat and, in 1917, Athletic News was combined with the Sporting Chronicle’s Monday edition with a promise to return when “there is a prospect of normal conditions”. Although it was back within a month of armistice, Athletic News never recovered and was merged with its sister publication in 1931, never to exist again as a stand-alone newspaper.
For the football journalist writing at the tail-end of the 1950s, therefore, there was a curious mixture of longevity and novelty to their employment. Their profession boasted a not insignificant pedigree. Yet still they had to come to terms with the upheavals of a post-world war Britain. Writing in 1955, Archie Ledbrooke, one of the victims of Munich, noted in his book Soccer from the Press Box that, during the Second World War, “It became the fashion for the reporter [during the few exhibition matches that were held] to enter the dressing-room to talk to players, to ask their opinions and quote them, a development which surely represented a step backwards in the art of reporting?” Even as late as 1958, then, this was a brave new world for football journalists. And the arrival of European competition into their schedule would only make it braver still.
“It all began in the summer of 1956, the year Manchester United, with an average age of just over 20, won the English League Championship, and were invited to enter a new competition open to the élite clubs on the continent,” wrote Frank Taylor, Munich survivor and journalist for the News Chronicle, in his memoir of the disaster.
The early years of the twentieth century had seen a number of pan-European tournaments emerge, although none would encompass the continent as a whole. This all changewhen, having received reports of the success of the Campeonato Sudamericano de Campeones in 1948, the editor of L'Équipe, Gabriel Hanot, started putting plans in place for a continent-wide competition. He finally convinced Uefa to go ahead with these plans in 1955. The European Champions Clubs’ Cup was born.
Perhaps predictably, English football was apprehensive of the opportunity to compete with the great and good from the leagues around Europe. For the opening edition of the competition, Chelsea—as winners of the First Division the previous season—were invited to compete. However, after suspected pressure from the Football League and the Football Association, they dropped out to be replaced by Polish side Gwardia Warszawa.
When Manchester United won the league the following season, they were similarly urged to pull out of the competition. However, both the directors and the manager, Matt Busby, were confident that their young team could compete along with the best in Europe. So it would prove. But where the footballing authorities were sceptical, the fans were not. With Granada dedicating coverage to their European adventures, Manchester United had quickly become a household name. As Frank Taylor went on, “In a few short months, people were fighting and clamouring to get tickets for these glamorous cup ties under the flood-lights.” And wherever the interest of the fans migrated, there the newspapers had to follow.
The European Cup presented a unique challenge to football journalists. Primarily, those challenges were logistical. In the 1950s, the commercial airline infrastructure was not up to the task of ferrying football teams, let alone journalists, around Europe with enough time to spare for a mid-week fixture schedule. With the Football League warning of sanctions should they fail to return to the country in time for league fixtures, there was little option for United than to charter jets for their European clashes. The press were only too happy to the cost and so it was that the 11 press men came to share a plane with the team for their journey to Belgrade.
The magic of the European Cup, then, came at no small cost to players and journalists alike. Frank Taylor recounted a story in which the United players themselves were roped in to ensure their safe travel: “In January 1957, Manchester United flew [to Bilbao] for a European Cup tie; and BEA flew a ground engineer out on his own, to make sure the plane was serviced correctly and that it was de-iced, for in that part of sunny (?) Spain there was snow. Why, we even took pictures of the Manchester United players sweeping the wings of the Dakota free of ice and a layer of snow before we took off for England.”
On top of this, European travel was arduous. Aviation technology was still in its relative infancy, requiring that journeys over certain distances be punctuated by refuelling stops. It was for this reason that BEA Flight 609 had stopped off at Munich to refuel as it made its way back from Belgrade after United’s clash with Crvena Zvezda. For many, including journalists, international travel remained unfamiliar, a fact underscored by David Meek, one of the journalists who would go on to replace Tom Jackson at the Manchester Evening News. Meek tells of meeting Matt Busby after the latter’s first game back at Old Trafford following the crash. United were about to travel to Milan to play in the semi-final of the European Cup. “Matt came up to us both and said, ‘I don’t know how much travelling abroad you have done, but in case you haven’t had the chance, here is some local currency for you.’”
For the journalist, the European Cup meant difficult journeys, shared accommodation and unreliable phone connections when they tried to ring in their copy. Frank Taylor describes one such scene in which he and Henry Rose, the infamous Express journalist who died in the crash, were sharing a room in Bilbao for a United away leg in 1957: “The phone arrangements between Bilbao and Manchester that night were as crazy as a Marx Brothers film; we were all cut off so often that one would think we were sending some highly critical political commentary which needed to be censored, instead of a report of a football match. After being cut off several times, Henry disappeared from the room, being told that it would be a further hour before he could speak to the Express again. In a matter of minutes, the sports desk of the Express were on; there was nothing for it but for me to start pushing over some of Henry’s copy until the page boy found him. I heard the pitter-patter of heavy feet in the corridor, and Henry appeared, cigar clamped angrily between his teeth, a huge bath towel draped round his middle, a pool of water collecting where he stood. ‘Give me that phone.’ He dictated the rest of his story shivering like some Roman senator disturbed during his bath night.”
Things were little better in Yugoslavia. Tom Jackson’s match report in the Manchester Evening News cuts off mid-way through, with readers being informed, “All telephone lines to Belgrade were out of order and Tom Jackson’s on-the-spot match report delayed. By half-time United had taken the lead by three goals, although phone communication was still off for a whole hour.”
As a result, brevity was the order of the day. Eric Thompson’s match report in the Daily Mail for a game which saw Manchester United advance to the European Cup semi-final and featured six goals in a three-goal second-half comeback was a mere 15 sentences long.
The emergence of European competition pushed football journalism in a new direction. In an already volatile environment, its proponents were expected to think on their feet, responding to obstacles as and when they occurred, honing the art simply by being the ones doing it. A year and a half after the first English team entered the European Cup, with a mere seven away legs under their belts, eight of the handful of journalists who had covered their progress would be lying dead in the wreckage of an Airspeed AS.57 Ambassador on the outskirts of a village in Germany.
The evening of 19 February 1958 was an emotional one. Only two weeks after Manchester United had manoeuvred their way past a resilient Zvezda in Belgrade, supporters had turned up to Old Trafford in droves to see how their team would fare in a fifth-round FA Cup tie with Sheffield Wednesday. Of the side who had faced Zvezda earlier in the month, seven players had not returned and, within 48 hours of the FA Cup match, another – the great hope of English football, Duncan Edwards – would also pass away. In fact, only two of the team who had survived Munich would find their way onto the pitch that night: Harry Gregg and Billy Foulkes. The rest of the team was made up of odds and ends – almost-retirees, emergency loan players and youth-team promotions.
But it was not only United who had struggled to field a side that evening. Over in the press box of Old Trafford, a similarly hasty assemblage had taken place. There were nine pressmen missing that night, including Frank Taylor who would remain in hospital in Munich for a number of months after the crash. Among them were names as recognisable as the footballers they had once written about: Don Davies of the Manchester Guardian, known more affectionately by his pseudonym ‘The Old International’, Alf Clarke of the Manchester Evening Chronicle, and, perhaps the most illustrious of all, Henry Rose of the Express. As Ian Herbert later wrote of Rose, “The funeral procession for him began at the famous Express building in central Manchester and stretched six miles to the Southern Cemetery. Around 1,000 taxi drivers ferried mourners along the route, all without charge, such was the affection for the giant.”
That night in the Old Trafford press box, there were some familiar faces. Frank McGhee would become the Voice of Sport in the Mirror for the next 30 years. He, though, was nearly a passenger on BEA Flight 609 that fateful afternoon. Archie Ledbrooke had been working on another feature at the time of the Belgrade fixture and the Mirror’s sports desk had contemplated sending McGhee instead. John Arlott of the Manchester Guardian was spared a similar fate when Don Davies asked to go in his stead and Geoffrey Green of The Times had been diverted to cover Wales’s World Cup qualifying play-off against Israel in Cardiff.
“There was a slight note of hysteria outside because the supporters suddenly found they could give their emotions full rein,” recalled David Meek, one of the ingénues who found themselves thrown into breach that night at Old Trafford. “But 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.”
In sports departments around the country, editors had had to promote or re-assign reporters as a response to the Munich crash. Meek himself had been employed by his paper, the Manchester Evening News, as a political leader writer before the disaster. He had been working in the office that afternoon when the reports began coming in. In those days, the Manchester Evening News building had a small hatch through which press dispatches from Reuters and the Press Association were passed. “On that particular day,” said Meek, “I remember them banging the hatch as loudly as they could to alert people that something out of the ordinary was coming through.”
The sudden influx of writers from other departments transformed the sports pages. For example, Archie Ledbrooke’s misgivings about quoting players or managers – expressed as late as 1955 – would prove short-lived. With the influx of reporters from news desks, quotes soon became a staple of football journalism. As Roger Domeneghetti writes, these new football writers “treated matches like they would any other event and began to ask ‘experts’, such as the managers, for quotes to add to their pieces. This innovation stuck and was accelerated, first by the need to keep pace with the broadcast of post-match interviews on the BBC’s new highlight show Match of the Day and then by the tabloid revolution that swept through Fleet Street at the end of the 1960s.”
The impact of the Munich Air Disaster on sports journalism he tragedy also had a structural influence on the industry. In the 1950s, despite the popularity of the game, football was still largely considered peripheral within wider British culture. In The Times, for instance, there was no mention of the events in Munich in the following day’s paper until page eight, at which point an impassive article appeared which focused predominantly on the relative safety history of BAE.
This was an outlier, though. Other outlets dedicated much more space to the tragedy, with the Express eventually using seven journalists in their coverage. The disaster occasioned the first signs of the celebritisation of football within newspaper journalism. On the front page of the February 8 Saturday Edition, the Daily Mail ran the headline “THE WIVES ARE THERE” and sub-headed with “Mrs Busby collapses at bedside”. There followed a series of photographs of wives and girlfriends in the Rechts der Isar Hospital in Munich. Such spreads continued throughout the coverage over the next few weeks.
The disaster pushed football into the front and centre in the cultural consciousness of people around Britain. No longer could it be ignored, viewed simply as a pastime engaged in by people on the periphery: it now impinged upon everyone. The Munich Air Disaster, to quote Roger Domeneghetti again, became “the first story to persuade news editors that sport could have genuine news value”.
The events of that fateful day at Munich-Riem Airport will long be remembered as one of the significant moments in English football. And long may it continue to be remembered. But the wide-ranging impact of the Munich Air Disaster goes well beyond the remit of one football team, its tendrils finding their way into the far corners of the world of football.
It’s easy to view the present day as a matter of fact. Of course, it might be the case that, even without the events of Munich taking place, football would have ended up having much the same sort of prominence within modern life. But, whatever else, the disaster accelerated history along the trajectory that the sport was already on. And that history was as much about the people telling it as the people of whom it was told.
“Eight men got on the plane that day in Munich who never got off.” Hearing that statement, it is only natural that our minds flit to Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Duncan Edwards, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Liam Whelan. But there were eight other men who never disembarked BAE Flight 609, whose deaths would have a similar impact on the world of football: Alf Clarke, Donny Davies, George Follows, Tom Jackson, Archie Ledbrooke, Henry Rose, Frank Swift and Eric Thompson.