By Robert McNamara
Manchester United’s failure to reach the Champions league last season for the first time since 1996 plunged the club into crisis. Fans and critics, and most of all, sponsors, needed to be appeased by a number of big-name, big-money signings.
United is a club that simply must compete in Europe but the reason goes much, much deeper than the haze of financial obligations that have to be met in a time when its corporate entity is as big as the football club itself.
Of course, Irish interest means United is often front page as well as back page news here.
Ireland is a peculiar footballing nation in that most supporters prioritise English clubs ahead of teams in our own domestic league - with United being arguably the most supported club on the island.
One of the main reasons for this is the bond built by the endless stream of Irish players who have contributed to the Lancashire side’s history.
Two players, in-particular (pre-George Best), played a huge role in ensuring the link between Ireland and United would never be broken; Dublin’s Liam Whelan and Derry’s Harry Gregg.
The events of the 6th of February 1958 define the club more than any trophy it has won in its history and cemented the affection it enjoys in Ireland.
Today marks the 57th anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster, a tragedy which resulted in eight United players and three club officials losing their lives in their attempt to become the first English club to conquer Europe. 23 people died in total that day, including eight journalists.
Gregg and Whelan were central figures in the United side that season. The team, dubbed the “Busby Babes” due to the raft of talent coming from the club’s youth ranks, were sweeping all before them domestically.
Whelan was a prolific striker averaging more than a goal every two games in consecutive league triumphs in 1956 and 1957.
Gregg had just joined the club from Doncaster Rovers and had immediately established himself as the number one goalkeeper.
Returning from a midweek European Cup tie in Belgrade, United and manager Matt Busby were anxious to get back to Manchester and fulfil a weekend fixture against Wolves in order to avoid sanctions from the English Football League who were opposed to United taking part in the fledgling continental tournament.
A stopover for fuel at a snowing Munich airport saw two aborted take-offs. The passengers became apprehensive but talks of abandoning the flight and returning home by land were decided against by the pilots.
Upon boarding flight 609 for the third time, devout Catholic Whelan declared that he was ready to die.
His words were sadly prophetic.
The third take-off resulted in the Lord Burghley plane leaving the runway at high speed and bursting through a fence before crossing a road and coming to a standstill.
In the confused moments following the crash, survivor Harry Gregg pulled a mother and baby from the wreckage, despite warnings from the pilot to run amid fears of further explosions. He also dragged fellow survivors Bobby Charlton and Dennis Voillet away from the scene.
Gregg went on to play for United in their remarkable run to the FA Cup Final the same year where a depleted United team were defeated by Bolton. He remained at the club until 1966, helping them to FA Cup success in 1963, although he missed the final through injury.
Whelan was not so lucky. He was killed instantly in the crash and the outpouring of grief for him in Dublin saw thousands attend his funeral. He has a bridge named after him in his native Cabra.
The heroics of Derry’s Gregg and the sad death of 22-year-old Dubliner Whelan were huge news in Ireland and ensured United became a club very dear to Irish hearts. The love for the club endures in the modern era with Irish players such as Paddy McNair and Jonny Evans still thriving.
Geoff Bent - 25
Roger Byrne - 28
Eddie Colman - 21
Duncan Edwards - 22
Mark Jones - 24
David Pegg - 22
Tommy Taylor - 26
Liam Whelan - 22
Walter Crickmer – Club Secretary
Tom Curry - Trainer
Bert Whalley - Coach