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.

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