Magnum opus | From Charlton to Cantona, book charts a Devilish history

First-class seating | Charlton perches on the clamshell box containing the half-meter-square volume. Along with United manager Alex Ferguson, he signed all 10,000 copies. (Kraken Sport & Media Limited)

Manchester, England | The Independent calls them “£imited editions.” These are books seeking the reverence once granted the Gutenberg Bible, instant collectibles demanding coffee tables with reinforced legs. The latest megabook publicity splash concerns the Manchester United Opus, nearly 80 lbs of silk-coated pages with a base price of £3,000.

Such big books already have been produced for Pelé (see 19 Nov 06) and Muhammad Ali. Kraken Sport & Media, publishers of the United opus, plan a similar commemorative for Diego Maradona in addition to volumes on the Super Bowl and on Formula One.

Kraken likely were not thinking during production of Herman Melville‘s dictum that a mighty book deserves a mighty theme. Yet they have enticed Sir Bobby Charlton, as part of the 850 pages, to supply his first sustained recollection of 6 Feb 1958 (“ “I Survived and I Still Feel Guilty,’ ” The Times, 11 Dec 06). The date, of course, is that of the crash of a British European Airways Airspeed Ambassador G-ALZU on a slushy runway at Munich-Riem airport. The tragedy, with Manchester United players, coaches, journalists and other members of the entourage en route home from European triumph in Belgrade, killed 23, including eight of Charlton’s teammates.

Flight 609 was a twin-engined “Elizabethan,” so christened by British European Airways to honor Elizabeth‘s coronation in 1953. “It struck me that it was a plane which took a long time to get off the ground,” writes Charlton. (L’Equipe)

Charlton’s remembrance—he remains a director at the club—nevertheless skirts some thornier, physical associations. He confesses to a sensible survivor’s guilt yet, in dignified fashion, writes of seeing “personal injuries I will never describe.” Charlton was 20 years old, left with lifelong questions such as the reasons for the death of Duncan Edwards (“what a great player, what a great tragedy”), who was 21. “A terrible question crossed [my] mind,” Charlton says. “Would the club survive?”

[I]t’s difficult to talk about any of Munich. I understand that people want to know about it and sometimes I think: “Am I being stupid?” But some things are very personal and that’s why I’ve never talked about what happened that day in this much detail before.

One of the amazing things is that, for a period, I just didn’t remember; I didn’t know what had happened. Obviously, people lying in the snow, that stays with you, but maybe grasping it all was too much. They were young lads, your pals, and there were the journalists you’d got to know. … You would talk about the game with them and when you read their articles, you never thought they were trying to do you down, they were friends really.

There were people on the plane I’d never met before, some fans, some friends of directors, people from the embassy in Belgrade, but we were all thrown together on that runway.

The youthfulness of the United team, called the “Busby Babes” after manager Matt Busby, together with its prowess at home and in Europe, seemed to deepen the tragedy. Certainly, the disaster has added layers of significance to the lives of United supporters. In times of reduced accent on ties by family, class, nation, writes Gavin Mellor in his 2004 essay on the Munich disaster (“ “The Flowers of Manchester’: The Munich Disaster and the Discursive Creation of Manchester United Football Club,” Soccer and Society 5, no. 2), the 1958 crash helped offer a compelling story to bond backers more closely to the club and to each other.

Supporters gather each year on Feb 6, by the memorial plaque at Old Trafford, to sing “The Flowers of Manchester,” lyrics contributed to a folk magazine in 1958 and recorded several times: “Oh, England’s finest football team its record truly great, / its proud successes mocked by a cruel turn of fate.”

In an extensive review of newspaper columns following the crash, Mellor points to a passage from the Daily Mail just two days after the event. Titled “The Day After: I See a City Draw Breath, Live, Die and Sigh as a City,” the unsigned report claimed that Manchester’s identity had become clear.

There it is then. The vast city, the centre of the largest conurbation in the country, apparently without personality, shape or unity.

There it is, its personality suddenly cohering so that even a stranger can sense it. Suddenly taking shape before one’s eyes. Suddenly united and exclusive.

Where, we are so often asked, is the heart of a large industrial town? What symbol gives one a sense of belonging?

Dare one say it? Dare one say that where the symbol once lay in a village inn, or a church, or “the big house,” it now lies in a football team?

In some way, through such media accounts and collective rites of grieving, the 1958 crash came to be seen almost as a precursor to greatness. In the way that destruction of Old Trafford from German bombs during World War II prefigured the club’s recovery, the crash became a touchstone for the club’s eventual European Cup triumph, in 1968, and even for the present day. Mellor comments on “new cultural practices” at Old Trafford, including the terrace singing of “We Are the Busby Boys” and erection of a semi-permanent banner in tribute to “The Flowers of Manchester.” The references occasionally rub rival clubs the wrong way. Some backers of Manchester City derisively refer to the Man Utd supporters as “Munichs,” implying that United has exploited memory of the event to attract sympathy, worldwide media attention and revenue. No doubt similar questions will be raised about publication of Charlton’s account in the Opus.

The reservoir of goodwill that Charlton has established, however, as a World Cup winner and soft-spoken progeny of a working-class family from Northumberland should preempt such comments. No doubt he has suffered, both from the events of Feb 6 and from the aftermath. The myth of the “Manchester Phoenix” created stresses that forced the club in 1958 to continue its FA Cup and European Cup quests, without respite. On 19 Feb 1958, not two weeks after the crash, an FA Cup victory over Sheffield Wednesday was termed a “rebirth.” Charlton teammate Bill Foulkes claims that feelings of the survivors, in particular those who could no longer play or who were not players to begin with, were cast aside. “We should have been paying more attention to the survivors,” Foulkes tells producers of History of Football: The Beautiful Game, “and on people who had died as well. We didn’t. We were too busy getting on with the game.”

Cantona (right) and costar Rachida Brakni in L’Outremangeur. (Copyright © Arnaud Borrel | TFM Distribution)

We do not know if the authoritative opus will reflect these views, but, as an addendum to comments on the book, former United star Eric Cantona has also been in the news to claim his place in the team’s story (David Walsh, “In the Court of King Cantona,” The Sunday Times Magazine, 10 Dec 06). He became another installment in the team’s episodic “rise from the ashes,” helping United, in 1992, to its first league championship since the Charlton years. He would leave in 1997 but certainly made an impression, United winning four Premiership titles and Cantona demonstrating continental flair and eccentricity, earning an eight-month ban for charging the stands to karate-kick a fan at Crystal Palace.

Walsh’s profile describes the 40-year-old pursuing passions of beach football, acting and photography. The Opus will include five of Cantona’s self-portraits. In spite of the “shadow” that follows him from a footballing life, Cantona has earned plaudits for his cinematic work, in particular for the lead role in the 2003 French film L’Outremangeur (The Overeater). Cantona gained nearly 30 lbs to play the part of a police inspector, Richard Séléna, suffering from bulimia; his pact with a female murderer mandates that she dine with him for one year, to keep her freedom.

Cantona’s father was a painter and passed on this creative passion. Says the son:

My dream was to live in the world of creation. In football I did that; now I have other opportunities to do that. The only thing I fear is death.

Sometimes when I take a flight I am a little afraid, because we can die in a plane crash very quickly.

After several minutes of thought, he signs a Manchester United jersey with the words “Ne jamais perdre sa passion!” (Never lose your passion).

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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  1. [...] of its power as pathos have been the numerous reflections in text (see 15 Feb 06) and song. The melodies have not always carried the appropriately mournful sentiments of [...]

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