ANGELS IN WHITE
It was a heartbroken Real Madrid treasurers Don
Raimondo Saporta who broke the news of the Munich air
crash to Alfredo Di Stefano. On hearing Saporta
telephoned the player at his home. A call in which Di
Stefano would later recall as amongst the ‘saddest
moments of his life‘.
As news filtered through to Madrid,
the full extent of the disaster shocked Santiago Bernabeu.
He spoke solemnly of: ‘This great tragedy. Of his prayers
for the dead and the survivors. None more than so than his
great friend Matt Busby. Whom by God’s grace had
survived the crash but now hung on for dear life in a
Munich hospital. Twice to be given the last rites, but
Of the eleven Manchester United players whom had lined
up against the Madrilenos in the two legged semi-final,
five lay dead. Roger Byrne, David Pegg, Eddie Colman,
Tommy Taylor and Liam Whelan. Whilst Duncan Edwards
had fought on valiantly for life. A battle he would finally
lose but only after one almighty struggle against the grim
Edwards death touched Alfredo di Stefano intently and he
told of the ‘magnificent impression’ Duncan Edwards had
made on him during the second leg in Manchester.
’Such will to win and power in one so young. None
deserved more the fullness of a great career‘.
What truly moved Di Stefano was being told how even in
his last ailing days, Edwards had called out for his gold
watch presented to him the previous season by Santiago
Bernabeu following the semi-final in Madrid. It was a gift
cherished by Edwards and after a swift investigation, a
taxi was set to the crash site, where astonishingly it still
lay amongst the debris, and was returned to its rightful
Placed into his hand the watch for a short period appeared
to have a revitalising effect on the player, sadly such was
the extent of Edward’s internal injuries, he passed away in
the early hours of Friday 21st February 1958. His sold
gold watch nearby calling time on a footballing colossus.
Respected and feared by the Madrilenos.
Now six lay dead. ‘Los chicos’, the ‘Busby Babes’ were
all but gone.
In an act of wonderful generosity the three times
champions of Real Madrid offered to hand the grieving
Mancunians the European cup for a year, but whilst
stricken in despair United politely refused, thanking in turn
the Spaniards for their deep friendship. For this trophy had
suddenly become so much more for all concerned with
Manchester United and had to be one fought for and won.
Too much blood had already been spilt,
too many hearts broken to accept such an offer.
There was also much talk of Bernabeu loaning United the
heady services of Di Stefano for a season with the Madrid
club paying half his exorbitant wages. Whilst it was
claimed the player was willing, again the Old Trafford club
baulked. Whether through pride or rumours that the petty
pen pushers and insular attitudes of the Football League
refused point blank the notion of a ‘foreigner’ taking the
place of a British player, meant such a sensational
scenario never developed.
Perhaps more disturbing was the League’s shabby at best
decision to ban United from competing in the 1958-59
European cup competition, after being invited by UEFA as
a grateful thank you for their ‘Service to Football’. United
gratefully accepted and found themselves drawn against
Swiss champions Young Boys of Berne, only then to be
informed that their participation had been denied by the
English hierarchy because they were not League
champions. Payback by Football league chairman Alan
Hardaker for Matt Busby going against his initial wishes to
originally compete in the tournament maybe?
But despite such ill feelings directed towards them on
home soil, in Madrid the cup runneth over with
compassion for the Mancunians in their darkest hours. In
an act of extraordinary support they came with a helping
hand. A special memorial pennant was conferred by Real
Madrid to commemorate the destroyed English team
entitled ‘Champions of Honour‘.
On it read the names of the dead players. Of which all
considerable proceeds were sent to Old Trafford. A further
show of Real’s nobility of spirit came that same summer
when they contacted Manchester United offering free
holidays in Spain to Munich survivors with all expenses
But most importantly a series of ‘friendly’ matches
between the two clubs were swiftly arranged. Santiago
Bernabeu not only agreeing to Matt Busby’s plea for help
but waiving the normal £12,000 appearance fee normally
charged by the Spaniards. A meeting took place in Madrid
between Busby and Bernabeu where the United manager
asked if they would consider accepting reduced fees, due
to the cataclysmic effect the crash had placed upon his
A generous Bernabeu insisting that the cash strapped
United should: ‘pay us what you can afford’. With the
Mancunians out of Europe and severely weakened Busby
realised how vital it was they retained the experience of
playing against the world’s best. Therefore both teams
agreeing to treat the games as serious affairs. All would
prove to be occasions with goals galore. The vast majority
being scored by the angels in white.