By The Way - Weekly Columns
Just over a year ago as my pals and I sat in our local bar, tired and a bit worse for wear after our latest European adventure, a trip to Munich for the 60th Anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster was mooted. The response from the group was positive and our organiser in chief said he’d keep an eye on the flights for us. A few months later our “Aways” WhatsApp group buzzed into life thanks to our favourite low-cost airline flights could be booked for less than the price of a couple of Steins of German lager. Job done. Following United around Europe takes a lot of hard work and planning. Getting tickets is always a challenge, a literal lottery system in most cases and if they are not forthcoming from the club, then home-end tickets are the next best option. This time, of course, no tickets were required and as one seasoned Red said to me somewhat tongue-in-cheek, “the best thing about this trip is there’s no match to ruin it”. As we met in the familiar surroundings of Manchester Airport’s Terminal 3 on Monday evening and sat down to enjoy a severely overpriced pre-flight beer it was obvious we were not the only Reds who had taken advantage of Michael O’Leary’s generous flight sale. The Terminal was full of like-minded Reds, all with their own reasons for embarking on their pilgrimage to honour our dead from a bygone era. What struck me immediately about this travelling United cohort was the splash of colour proudly on display, red and white everywhere with the traditional bar scarf being the most popular accessory. In recent years, the wearing of colours to a match, home or away, has dramatically reduced amongst United’s hard-core support. Football culture is complex and the reasons for this decline could probably fill another article but even as a simple act of self-preservation to not mark yourself out to heavy-handed local authorities or a rival club's more exuberant fans, going away has largely meant no colours. This time of course, as my pal had sagely noted, there was no game to worry about and colours were very much the order of the day. The locals in Nuremberg must have got quite a shock as the Red hordes descended for the evening and our appearance resulted in a question that was to be oft-repeated by our German hosts over the next few days, “What are you all doing here, there is no game?”. It was a fair question and the incredulous looks that followed our explanation that we had all come to attend a memorial service in Munich for our fallen heroes of 60 years ago was also to be repeated by whoever we told. To those of us there, however, the trip was the most natural thing in the world. The next morning and making use of Germany’s phenomenal public transport service, our train had us in Munich before we could finish our coffee and pretzels. On the streets surrounding Munich’s Hauptbahnhof it was apparent even more Reds that initially thought has also arrived for the ceremony and wanting a good vantage point we made our way immediately to Manchesterplatz. On the outskirts of Munich’s vast metropolis lies the sleepy village that once was home to Munich’s first airport and where the devastating events of 60 year’s past took place. In 2004 following an initiative form the local council a new monument had been erected to mark the crash site and the small square containing it had been renamed “Manchesterplatz”. In another incredible show of German efficiency, the local authorities had also made sure that this tiny area is navigable from modern Sat Navs so our bemused taxi driver was pleasantly surprised when he started to pen in “MAN…” and there it was. The idea behind this is to help the constant flow of United fans who visit the site throughout the year, not just at the anniversary and the tributes and scarves that are left are collected routinely by a Bayern Munich fan’s group and moved to their own monument at their new arena. Having added our own tributes to the growing mass at the base of the new monument we walked past the original crucifix marker and then headed out onto the open park and farmland beyond to stand and gaze at the site of the old runway and the actual crash. Most people are well versed in what happened on that afternoon and no doubt will have seen news footage and pictures from the time, but standing there and seeing the proximity of the old site to the houses that are still dotted around the area, I was taken by how affected the local community must also have been. The reports from the time all made mention of how it was the local people from the surrounding houses that were first on the scene and tried desperately to help save the stricken passengers and no doubt their actions kept the death toll down. It was apparent to me that many of the residents would be the same families from that time and that like the United’s fans themselves the will to mark the anniversaries and “Never Forget” had been passed down through their generations also. A United fan’s group had done a remarkable job in organising a fitting ceremony and between moving speeches from Bayern Munich legend, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Dieter Rieter, the Mayor Of Munich, the crowd burst into throes of “We’ll never die” and other fitting United songs. It was a strange juxtaposition of solemnity and raucousness but somehow it just worked. There was music from a Bavarian band and the assembled crowd were introduced to two 90-year-old nurses who had tended to our player’s in a Munich hospital at the time and had come to pay their respects once again. Sitting next to them was an understated elderly gentleman who I discovered was the very surgeon who had operated on Sir Matt Busby in the day’s after the crash, saving his life and very possibly saving Manchester United Football Club itself. The remarkable stories continued one after another and by the time hush descended across the area for a 2 minute silence beginning at 15:04 the time of the crash, over 1,500 people had gathered in this small part of Germany that will be forever Manchester. A beautiful rendition of the “Flowers of Manchester” by Tracey Malone closed proceedings and the assembled masses milled around or slipped away to enjoy some further German hospitality. It cannot be understated how much the Munich Air Disaster shaped the history of MUFC, it could be argued that it was this event that catapulted United as a club into the stratosphere of public attention. The romantic story of lifting the European Cup just 10 years later cemented this, such success born out of desperate tragedy and as the legend grew so did the fan-base. It also changed our support, Sir Alex Ferguson was always keen to instil in new recruits to the team the history of the club, obviously, Munich forms a huge part of that and that happens within the fan-base also. What this shared history has produced is a distinct bond between the team and our supporters that other clubs just do not have. The willingness to embrace this and remember what United is actually all about will always stave off the apathy that has existed for some Reds and all the efforts to sanitise modern football to a bumblegum product, with consumers, not fans, far away from its roots. What I witnessed on that tiny Munich street served as a fantastic antidote to the antipathy that has developed around modern football. The abandonment of colours, the change in fan culture, the constant price rises, away ticket collections, foreign ownership, “punk” splinter clubs, multi-millionaire footballers with little spirit or connection to an area and most recently sketchy video technology that has no care at all for fans who bother to go to a game. All forgotten and for a few hours at least we were United once again. What occurred at “Manchesterplatz” on Tuesday morning was a sign that as long as the right kind of people keep caring and pass these values on, generation to generation, then truly “We will never die”. The notable absence of an official club representative prepared to speak at the event was the only disappointing element of an otherwise uplifting day. Our supporter’s values are in safe hands but whether our club's are remains to be seen.
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