On a cold and bitter Tuesday, in suburban Munich, more than 1,000 travelling Manchester United fans stood in silence around tiny, snow-lined Manchesterplatz on the 60th anniversary of the Munich air disaster.
Those fans had travelled from far and wide, from Perth, Australia to Plymouth, England, from Norway to Malta, but mostly from Manchester.
Munich is integral to United’s history and distinguished speakers told the crowd that those players would never be forgotten.
“Manchester United became a reference point in my life as a footballer and of chairman of Bayern Munich,” said legendary Bayern player Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. “Manchester United are more than wins, defeats, titles and lost trophies. Manchester United represents unconditional devotion, great joy and deep mourning. To this day I’m impressed by how the memory of those who were lost is passed on by fans. They provide a wonderful example of how to honour those who are no longer with us – by never forgetting them.”
To Rummenigge, who raised a laugh by saying United were “lucky” in their 1999 Uefa Champions League win against Bayern, the disaster helped heal wounds.
“We all know that relations between England and Germany were not at their best at the time of the crash, 13 years after the Second World War,” he said. “But I have the impression that in the darkest of days for Manchester United, the selfless support and sympathy offered by Munich, in particularly the German doctors at the hospital, the residents and also FC Bayern Munich, made an important social political and contribution to restore those relations.”
Manchester United were represented by former player Denis Irwin, who didn't speak publicly but who told The National: "It's a fantastic turn out, I'm overawed by it. As players, we were very aware of the disaster. I grew up in Ireland where Manchester United are very popular. I heard the stories, but when you join the club you realise what an important part of the history it is. The way the club came back, with Sir Matt Busby and Jimmy Murphy and the romance of winning the European Cup 10 years later shows the belief that Matt had."
Fans began their journeys on Sunday. A flight to Nuremburg on Monday was full of supporters including birthday girl Brenda, 80, and a United fan all her life. A much younger fan showed his newly completed tattoo dedicated to the Busby Babes covering his entire right leg, front and back. On his thigh were the words "A broken heart, A broken dream, A broken plane, A broken team. No words were said, A silent vow, We loved you then, We loved you now."
Most of these fans were not alive when the plane crashed on an icy Munich airfield on February 6, 1958, yet many come year after year, a pilgrimage to men they never knew but to whom they constantly relate. A simple field cross marked the site at the start of this century, but further memorials funded by supporters have be laid, plus one at Bayern Munich’s own museum.
At Old Trafford, Jose Mourinho and his team attended a memorial ceremony, where words were spoken by Alex Ferguson. Liverpool sent legendary player Kenny Dalglish, Manchester City former hero Mike Summerbee.
In Belgrade, Serbia, from where the ill-fated charter aircraft took off before stopping to refuel in Germany, United’s Under 19 team played a game. Nicky Butt and his squad met staff of the Belgrade-based British embassy, Red Star officials and Vladica Popovic, who played in the game against United in 1958. A reception was scheduled in the hotel where United stayed in 1958 – itself already a shrine to the Busby Babes.
United fans had raised over £12,000 (Dh62,000) to have a bench made for the site, with the rest donated to the Libero and Buntkickgut youth football projects in Munich, something the mayor of Munich, Dieter Reiter, was happy to embrace.
Sitting on the new bench, nurse Weber, 86, told of how she’d help tend to the injured players after the crash. She even smiled as she said: “I remember those English boys [in the hospital], they complained about our German tea.”
In Munich, a two-minute silence on the site close to where the aircraft skidded off a runway and crashed was followed by a rendition of The Flowers of Manchester sung by United fan Tracey Malone.
“One cold and bitter Thursday, in Munich, Germany,” rang out loudly. “Eight great footballing stalwarts conceded victory. Eight men will never play again, who met destruction there. The flowers of English football, the flowers of Manchester.”
“In Munich, we will never forget you,” said the mayor, who wore a "Lest We Forget" scarf. Well before the end of an emotional afternoon, the mayor was even singing United songs – happy to be led along by a supporter Tony O’Neill who sang: "We’ll keep the red flag flying high, for Man United will never die."