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

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.”

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