The bare facts are familiar to football fans the world over. On February 6, 1958, BEA Flight 609 carrying the Manchester United team back from their European Cup quarter final against Red Star Belgrade crashed on take off at Munich airport killing 23 passengers, among them eight of the Busby Babes. The stories of tragedy and heroism behind those headlines are perhaps less familiar. How the team’s 21 year old star, Duncan Edwards sent a telegram to his landlady after the aborted second take off telling her of the flight’s cancellation and assuring her he’d be home the following day. How goalkeeper Harry Gregg battled to drag his fellow passengers from the flaming wreckage to safety.
How manager Matt Busby and others found themselves overwhelmed with guilt simply for surviving – and how an unsung coach, Jimmy Murphy kept the club together as Busby lay close to death in his Munich hospital bed. These tales, among others, are presented in United, the first feature film to tell the human story of this landmark football history.
“It’s the story of the first superstar football club, how boys with so much promise were destroyed by such a random and tragic accident” explains producer Julia Stannard “it’s the human story about what that does to the people involved and their relatives and the community and how you rebuild a team when something like that’s happened.”
A wind that could have swept throughMunich on its journey from the Urals chills the cast and crew as they shoot the final scenes of the movie on a desolate February afternoon in Seven Kings Park, Ilford. Helping himself to a hot drink, David Tennant, who plays Jimmy Murphy, at least has the comfort of a heavy duty Fifties’ tracksuit.
His charges, who include former Skins‘ star Jack O’Connell as Bobby Charlton and Sam Claflin playing the great lost hero of English football, Duncan Edwards, make sure to keep on the move. Claflin came to the project two days after finishing work in Hawaii on the latest Pirates Of The Caribbean and the contrast between that and this £2 million budget picture could scarcely be greater.
But if recent instalments of that franchise are any indicator, an even bigger difference than budget might be that United has a director who knows his story and what he’s trying to achieve. James Strong, whose TV credits include Dr Who and Hustle, has been researching the story for five years.
“We focus on two people” Strong explains later in the relative warmth of a dressing room. “We look at Jimmy Murphy and Bobby Charlton and try to tell this huge story through the lives of these two key players. Obviously, everyone knows Bobby, but Jimmy Murphy was very much an unsung hero. Even Manchester United fans probably don’t realise what he did to keep the club going.”
Murphy, along with the writer and broadcaster John Arlott should have been covering the match for what was then the Manchester Guardian but had the good fortune not to be on the plane as he was managing Wales in a World Cup qualifier. He took over the reins of the club for the rest of the season and led them to an emotional FA Cup final where they lost to Bolton Wanderers 2-0.
“He clearly says, and we got this from speaking to his sons, that he never wanted to be a manager” explains Stannard. “but it falls to him to rebuild the team, the focus is very much on him and also on Bobby who questions what the game means to his life and what it’s done to his team mates.”
Charlton survived while many of his friends perished thanks to the vagaries of fate, a concept which has clearly haunted England’s highest goalscorer ever since. “A lot of the boys decided to sit at the back of the plane because they thought it would be safer” reasons Sam Claflin “there’s a moment on the plane between Bobby and Duncan where Duncan says ‘Are you going to come and sit with us?’ And Bobby replies, ‘I’m just in the middle of a game.'”
“It was at the read through just before we started the shoot that it came home to everyone” recalls Jack O’Connell who plays Bobby Charlton. “There was a horrible atmosphere for that particular scene. It was when it really sank in that a lot of the team had died.”
Aside from the personal tragedies which played out that night in Munich, United also touches on the underlying reasons behind the crash and the clash of wills between Manchester United and the Football League under the insular chairmanship of Alan Hardaker. The Football League didn’t want English teams to compete in the European Cup and had coerced Chelsea the previous season not to take part.
Hardaker, who succinctly outlined his objection to the competition as “Too many wogs and dagoes” promised no fixture flexibility and point deductions if any domestic matches failed to take place. Clearly the pressure this placed on Busby played its part in persuading him to try the take off a third time. When UEFA offered Manchester United the chance to compete in the following year’s competition as a mark of respect, Hardaker moved heaven and earth to prevent it.
“I don’t think many people will realise the pressure Matt Busby was under” James Strong speculates “or what it was to take a team into Europe at that time, at the height of the Cold War and to defy the Football League.”
For Dougray Scott, who cuts a surprisingly accurate figure as Matt Busby, the film has enabled him to explore the United legend’s tortured psyche. “I get the impression he wanted to die” argues Scott, recalling how Busby had the last rites read to him twice “but his wife persuaded him that what the boys would have wanted him to do was go back to football.”
It’s just one of the many intriguing sub plots of an event which occurred on the cusp of the modern era and defined a club which would go on to make its own indelible mark on the history of the game. Given the competing storylines within the film, it’s easy to see the truth in Sam Claflin’s astute summary.
“The amazing thing about this project is that’s it’s not all about football” he smiles “there’s barely any involved, it’s more about the relationships and seeing how these youthful kids grow up to be men.” Make no mistake, this is a movie which is not only for Manchester United fans but for anyone who appreciates and wants to understand history.
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