The story behind United’s team that faced Sheffield Wednesday 13 days after Munich Air Disaster

Harry Gregg, Bill Foulkes, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, Duncan Edwards, Kenny Morgans, Bobby Charlton, Tommy Taylor, Dennis Viollet, Albert Scanlon.

The team above represented Manchester United against Red Star Belgrade on the 5th February 1958. The team below represented Manchester United on the 19th February 1958. It was just 13 days after the Munich Air Disaster wiped out the United team.

Harry Gregg, Bill Foulkes, Ian Greaves, Freddie Goodwin, Ronnie Cope, Stan Crowther, Colin Webster, Ernie Taylor, Alex Dawson, Mark Pearson, Shay Brennan.

As you can see, Jimmy Murphy, who had assumed the managers role as Matt Busby fought for his life in a Munich hospital, could only field two players that had survived the crash. He had to fulfill a fixture less than two weeks after the biggest disaster in the clubs history. That fixture was an FA Cup 5th round tie against Sheffield Wednesday with almost 60,000 grieving fans crammed into Old Trafford on a cold February night, just grateful to see their beloved team ready, willing and able to take to the field again.

The team sheet in the programme that night was left blank, as Murphy only managed to get the team together at the last minute. Where did they come from and where did they go? This team could be described as the most important team United ever fielded. This team kept United going in competitive football at a time when others may have folded.

Harry Gregg

25 years of age and had made his United debut just a few months before the game in Belgrade. In fact the game against Red Star was only his 11th in a United shirt. He had not only survived the crash but had played a truly heroic part in saving lives. He pulled a Serbian lady by the name of Vera Lukic from the wreckage to safety, also saving her baby daughter whose name was Vesna and unbeknown at the time, he actually saved a third life. Vera Lukic was pregnant and months later she gave birth to a baby son who she called Zoran. Gregg also attempted to rescue some of his teammates but sadly, many were beyond saving.

How he was able to take his in place in goal for United’s next match is beyond comprehension really. After all the horrors he had witnessed less than 2 weeks before, it must have been traumatic for him to take to the field with an entirely different team. Maybe he felt he owed it to his team mates who had perished, maybe football was his saviour.

Gregg stayed at United until 1966 and amassed 247 games. He suffered long periods of injury during his career and missed out on silverware. Injury kept him out of the 1963 Cup Final team and he didn’t play enough games to qualify for a title medal in the 1964-65 season. When the word hero is mentioned around the corridors of Old Trafford, Harry Greggs name will always be amongst them.

Bill Foulkes

The only other player who survived to take to the field in the next game, Foulkes went on to be a United legend. Similar to Gregg, it’s hard to fathom out how he was able to put all the tragedy to the back of his mind and represent United in such a short space of time since surviving the crash.

Foulkes was already established in the United team and was 26 at the time. He had made his debut over 5 years earlier at the end of 1952. He went on to play 685 games in a United shirt and won plenty of silverware before finishing his career in 1970 and winning the League Championship in 1956, 57, 65 and 67. He also won the FA Cup in 1963 but his crowning glory was the European Cup triumph in 1968. The night when United finally reached their Holy Grail and for those few who had been on the journey from the start, it must have been highly emotional. Bill Foulkes was well and truly one of those stalwarts and truly earned his legend status.

Ian Greaves

Greaves was 25 when this game was played and had been on the books at United since 1953 but didn’t make his debut until a year later. He stayed with the Reds until 1960 but only played 75 games in all that time. He was never a regular but was vital on the night of the cup tie. He may have traveled to Belgrade as part of the squad but injury prevented him from doing so. Then went on to manage Huddersfield and Bolton after hanging up his boots.

Freddie Goodwin

Similar to Greaves, Goodwin had joined United in 1953 and was 24. He stayed until 1960 when he moved to Leeds United. He hadn’t been selected for the squad to travel to Belgrade and he played a total of 107 games for United. He would be described as a squad player these days but that’s all that Murphy had to choose from for the game.

Ronnie Cope

Cope was 23 years of age and had made his debut in 1956. He had been on the books since 1951 and stayed at the club until 1961. He had a very similar profile to Greaves and Goodwin, making 106 appearances before moving on. He was also not selected to travel to Belgrade.

Stan Crowther

By far the biggest story of the team for this cup tie. Crowther was 22-years of age and had played in the Aston Villa team that had beaten United 2-1 in the FA Cup final the previous season. He also played for Villa in a previous round of the 1958 competition, so was effectively cup tied. However, as Murphy was struggling to field a team due to the disaster, Crowther was given special dispensation to play for United. The fact that he was cup tied in the tournament was over ridden and United completed his transfer and got all the papers through just an hour before the kick off. He cost United £18,000 from Aston Villa though and only played 20 games before being sold to Chelsea later that year for £10,000. He was one of the four debutantes to play in this game.

Colin Webster

Came to United from his home town club of Cardiff City as a 20-year old in 1952 and made his debut in 1953 before picking up a League Championship winners medal in 1956. Another player who wasn’t a regular but ill health had prevented him traveling to Belgrade. He was 25-years of age when this cup tie was played and left United at the end of the 1958 season before moving back to South Wales and played for both Swansea City and Newport County. However in just 79 games for United, he scored 31 goals, which is more than a decent return.

Ernie Taylor

Not many players make their debuts for Manchester United at the age of 32 but these we’re exceptional circumstances, and Taylor was one of the four to make their debut in this cup tie. He had started out his career at Newcastle and then signed for Blackpool on the recommendation of Stanley Matthews. He only lasted 22 games after this debut and scored 2 goals in that time. He then moved onto Sunderland to finish his career.

Alex Dawson

He was handed his debut at the end of the previous season as a 17-year-old. He played 3 games that season and was thrown into this United line-up two days before his 18th birthday. He scored on the night as well, which when you look at his goal scoring record isn’t surprising. In 93 games for United he managed 54 goals, a feat you would consider quite staggering. He stayed until 1961, where he moved to Preston and scored 114 goals in 197 league appearances, then got 21 goals in 50 games for Bury and 26 goals in 57 games for Brighton. Quite phenomenal to finish your career with a better than a goal in every 2 games average, especially in that day and age.

Mark Pearson

Another debutant and another 17-year-old to be thrown into the fray. Stayed at United until 1963 but only made 68 appearances in that time, scoring 14 goals. Rumoured to be the original “Pancho Pearson” due to his Mexican appearance.

Shay Brennan

Shay was another teenager to be handed his debut by Murphy that night. He was 19-years-old and would go on to play 358 games for the Reds. He scored 2 goals on his debut in this game playing as an outside left (left winger for you younger folk) but he was a full back by trade. Brennan was pressed into action playing out of position and only managed another 4 goals in the whole of his United career, which lasted right up until 1970. He won Championship medals in 1965 and 67 and was in the team that won the European Cup in 1968.

On a very emotionally charged night, United won the game comfortably 3-0, with a brace from Brennan and the other from Dawson. United managed to reach the FA Cup final this season but were beaten 2-0 by Bolton Wanderers. By the time the final came around, a few more of the Munich injured were fit enough to play and the Cup Final team was as follows.

Gregg, Foulkes, Greaves, Goodwin, Cope, Crowther, Dawson, E. Taylor, Charlton, Webster, Viollet.

So, from the team that played in Belgrade the day before the tragedy at Munich, four players managed to play in the Cup Final less than 3 months later. From the team that kept United going in the fifth round match at home to Sheffield Wednesday, only Pearson and Brennan missed the Cup Final.

Apart from the 8 players that died after the Munich crash, there was mixed fortunes for the surviving players. Harry Gregg and Bill Foulkes were able to play straight away. Bobby Charlton was only 2 games behind them in making his comeback. Kenny Morgan’s did play again very late that season but unfortunately his career was ended. Dennis Viollet was another survivor who managed to play again the same season, going on to amass 293 games for United and score an incredible 179 goals in the process. Albert Scanlon did recover and moved to Newcastle and similar situation arose with Ray Wood. He recovered and moved to Huddersfield. Unfortunately, the injuries sustained by Johnny Berry and Jackie Blanchflower, meant they would never play football again.

The game on the 19th February 1958 will probably never feature in a compilation of United’s glorious victories. But it was probably the most glorious of them all, the rebirth of the team and the Phoenix from the Ashes of Munich.

More Stories Albert Scanlon Alex Dawson Bill Foulkes Bobby Charlton Colin Webster Dennis Viollet Duncan Edwards Eddie Colman Ernie Taylor Freddie Goodwin Harry Gregg Ian Greaves Kenny Morgans Manchester United Mark Jones Mark Pearson Roger Byrne Ronnie Cope Shay Brennan Stan Crowther Tommy Taylor