By Ian GriffithsFollow @@iangriffiths67
One cold and bitter Thursday in Munich, Germany,
Eight great football stalwarts conceded victory,
Eight men will never play again who met destruction there,
The flowers of English football, the flowers of Manchester
Oh, England's finest football team its record truly great,
Its proud successes mocked by a cruel turn of fate.
Eight men will never play again, who met destruction there,
The flowers of English football, the flowers of Manchester
(Two verses from 'The Flowers of Manchester' - a tribute song by The Spinners)
February 6 1958 will, in footballing terms at least, always be a date synonymous with disaster.
On that fateful wintry day, a plane carrying Manchester United's talented and youthful squad crashed on a treacherous Munich runway. In an instant, the very heart of a team lovingly assembled by legendary manager Sir Matt Busby was ripped apart.
"I felt the aircraft suddenly lurch off the concrete runway to the right, onto the grass, with the landing lights flashing by. Then there was a horrendous bang, and in my dazed state I thought I saw the port wheel crashing through a crumpled fuselage," said survivor and journalist Frank Taylor when describing the horror before his death in 2002.
Of the Busby Babes - as United's band of stars had been dubbed - eight had their lives cut tragically short.
In the immediate aftermath tales of heroism, such as goalkeeper Harry Gregg's valiant attempts to repeatedly save fellow passengers, and sheer good fortune emerged, luck epitomised by Sir Bobby Charlton who, despite the carnage around him, was left relatively unscathed. Shock waves resounded around the world.
"It was catastrophic. I could not believe what was happening, but it was fact," Charlton recalled years later.
Few could have imagined the tragedy that was set to unfold when, a day earlier, United had secured a 3-3 draw against Red Star Belgrade to claim a place in the last four of the European Cup, a competition which only a year earlier had seen the rising red tide defeated in the semi-finals by the indomitable Real Madrid.
With five FA Youth Cup titles to their name, not to mention the English Championship in both 1956 (when the team's average age was a mere 22) and 1957, the Busby Babes were clearly on a roll - their Belgrade triumph installing a belief that the Old Trafford outfit were on the verge of adding continental glory to their impressive domestic successes. It was not to be.
When flight BEA 609 crashed after attempting a third take off from a snowy Bavarian airport, 23 lives, including cabin crew, supporters and journalists, were lost, hopes of writing another triumphant chapter in United's history books brutally dashed.
Of the squad that had once promised to conquer all that lay before them, seven - Tommy Taylor, Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Coleman, Mark Jones, David Pegg and Billy Whelan - were pronounced dead in Germany, while the hugely talented Duncan Edwards succumbed a shade over two weeks later, John Berry and Jackie Blanchflower, due to the extent of their injuries, would never play again. Busby himself was critically ill before making a full recovery.
Amid a myriad of what ifs and if onlys, we will, of course, never know what United's immediate future held. However, given the side's already impressive record, logic surely decrees that more honours were just around the corner.
With the likes of Edwards, a scintillating utility player seemingly destined for greatness, Taylor, a prolific striker dubbed the Smiling Executioner' and Dennis Viollet, an equally brilliant forward who survived the crash, in its ranks, the United side that met with disaster was, undoubtedly, on track to dislodge Real as the powerhouse of Europe. On track to become a true force within the world game.
It was a team - built with a far-sighted youth policy - that attacked with vitality, that knew each other's game inside out, each and every part operating like a well-oiled machine under the wily guidance of canny Scotsman Busby. What might have been has never been more appropriate.
Ten years later, United, still under the guiding hand of Busby, claimed the European Cup, a triumphant end to a decade of perseverance that finally enabled Busby to dedicate winning Europe's elite competition to the Babes who perished in 1958.
There had never been a miracle master plan devised by Busby, indeed he asked his players to simply "Pass to a red shirt," or "Express yourselves." Hardly rocket science.
This simplistic yet effective managerial approach, along with the added bonus that the vast majority of the Busby Babes had been blooded together several years earlier - at any given moment they knew exactly what each other was thinking - reaped enormous dividends. United's relentless pursuit of trophies during the late 1950s should, therefore, come as no surprise. Boundless ability coupled with effortless, almost telepathic, teamwork will always be difficult to beat.
The Busby Babes that flourished prior to Munich certainly had the world at their feet, there seemed no end to what they could have achieved. When young lives were taken far too prematurely, when friends were lost, and when families were left to grieve, all that changed. Suddenly, tragically, a great football team - that could have been even greater - was no more. Life, like football, can be a cruel beast.
Several 'Flowers of Manchester' may be gone, but they are certainly not forgotten. May they rest in peace.
(The Manchester United players who lost their lives)
Many who saw him play swear he would have gone on to be the finest footballer ever seen. Dudley-born Edwards made his United debut as a 16-year-old in the 1951-52 season, becoming the youngest player to appear in a Football League game at the time. Broke a post-war record when making his England debut aged 18, and had won 18 caps in total. He died of his injuries aged 21, 15 days after the crash.
The full-back was born in Manchester and made his debut for the Red Devils in the 1951-52 season, and impressed sufficiently to be the captain of Matt Busby's team. In total he made 245 appearances, scoring 17 goals, and died aged 28.
Largely a reserve player, who was kept out of the side by first John Aston and then Byrne. The Salford-born full-back was handed his debut in the 1954-55 season but made only 12 First Division appearances for United. He was included on the trip to Munich only because Byrne was carrying a slight injury. He died aged 25.
Salford-born Colman was the youngest player to die in the tragedy, aged 21. He made 85 appearances, scoring once from right half.
Barnsley boy Jones made his debut in the 1950-51 season, and the centre-half made 103 appearances for the Red Devils and won two league titles. He died aged 24.
A left-winger who won his first England cap nine months before the crash. Played in the 1957 FA Cup final and won two league titles with United, having made his first-team bow in 1952-53. He died aged 22.
Managed 22 goals in 46 games for home-town club Barnsley before joining United for a world-record fee just shy of 30,000 pounds. He had netted 112 in 166 games and he was also a prolific scorer for England, with 16 goals in 19 appearances. He died aged 26.
'Billy' Whelan was an inside forward who joined United from Irish side Home Farm, making his debut in the 1954-55 season. He was United's top scorer with 27 in the 1956-57 season. He died aged 22.