Manchester will mark the 60th anniversary of the Munich air disaster less than a year on from another instance of gut-wrenching tragedy gripping the city.
A suicide bombing at the Manchester Arena in May killed 22 attendees of a concert by American pop star Ariana Grande and many thousands came together to mourn, pay respects and offer comfort and solidarity.
As is often the case in this footballing hotbed, there was soon a big match to be played. United faced Ajax in Stockholm in the Europa League final two days on from the atrocity back home.
Jose Mourinho’s side triumphed 2-0 and Manchester City were among the first to offer congratulations, tweeting “A City United”.
United’s players posed with a banner endorsing the same sentiment. Then Jesse Lingard, a product of the club’s long-celebrated youth setup, was shown in a social media video singing a terrace favourite poking fun at City.
For Manchester. pic.twitter.com/UgWP5eLQyi
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) May 24, 2017
That prompted a swift return to Mancunian tribalism in some quarters, with Lingard sanctimoniously accused of lacking class. But the chain of events seemed to nicely encapsulate the qualities of an enduring rivalry most worth celebrating – neighbourly sniping and never missing a chance to take the mickey, all the while knowing there is more to unite than divide supporters of both clubs from one of England’s former industrial powerhouses.
These were the terms of engagement in Manchester on that fateful day, February 6, 1958, when seven brilliant young footballers – the great Duncan Edwards would die 15 days later in hospital – were among an eventual 23 casualties of the crash on Munich-Riem’s slush-covered runway.
United had already earned the derogative nickname of “the Rags” that City fans chortle to this day, having flirted with bankruptcy in the 1930s. A decade later, after German bombs wrecked Old Trafford, their neighbours opened up Maine Road as a temporary shared home.
Those struggles either side of World War Two were long forgotten by the time Matt Busby built his all-conquering 1950s side. Half a century before Messrs Guardiola and Mourinho took up residence, Manchester was England’s undisputed footballing capital in 1956, with City goalkeeper Bert Trautmann famously playing on through a broken neck to secure FA Cup final glory against Birmingham City at Wembley.
United were already First Division champions and would retain their title the following season. Three in a row and mastery of Europe were on the cards before tragedy struck.
Last year, photographs of City and United’s Argentinian players partying together went viral and close bonds between players from either camp are nothing new in Manchester. It was one of the factors that meant Munich cut so deeply.
Eddie Colman was Edwards’ half-back partner under Busby, his pleasingly lithe playing style earning him the nickname “Snakehips”. He was also best friends with City reserve goalkeeper Steve Fleet.
“On the night of the crash, I met with [Colman’s] family and we waited for news,” said Fleet in recollections of the disaster reported by football historian Gary James in the Manchester Evening News 10 years ago.
Over the years I have written a lot about the Munich air crash & so today and tomorrow I’ll share a couple of the articles I wrote in 2008 for the 50th anniversary of the crash. This one was for the @MENSports and looked at the events from a MCFC perspective. @RobIrvine99 Thanks. pic.twitter.com/drVC6c3mjz
— Gary James (@GaryJamesWriter) February 5, 2018
“None of us had a telephone, so the only way we could find out what was happening was by going to the off-license down the road and calling United. I went to do it, called Old Trafford and that’s when I was told he’d gone.
“Les Olive [United’s club secretary] asked me to tell his parents – something you never think you’ll have to do, especially at that age. Eddie was going to be my best man. I couldn’t believe he’d gone.
“Moments like that change your life. They make you realise what’s important.
“I had to go back to the house then and tell Eddie’s parents. His dad didn’t believe me. He couldn’t accept it. He went to the off-license and made another call. It was awful.”
The dark days immediately after Munich are littered with tales of such heart-wrenching poignancy and also witnessed Manchester and its football clubs holding one another close, keeping themselves upright when it felt too painful to stand alone.
Trautmann, according to James’ account, offered to help with translations and contacts in his native Germany as the grim news continued to filter through to Old Trafford, while City rejected UEFA’s proposal that they take their neighbours’ place in the European Cup. Instead they joined fellow sworn-rivals Liverpool in encouraging approaches for their players from United, who had fixture obligations to fulfil.
Then, as now, the worst of times encouraged the best of compassionate human qualities. The tiny minority of City and Liverpool fans who still feel Munich is a legitimate topic for terrace humour would, in an ideal world, be sobered by this shared history.
The 50th anniversary of the tragedy fell on Manchester derby weekend, with an impeccably observed minute’s silence at Old Trafford mercifully surpassing some of the grimmer expectations of the tribute.
Today we remember those who sadly lost their lives in the Munich Air Disaster. pic.twitter.com/S3ShBYVyeq
— Manchester City (@ManCity) February 6, 2016
In the decade since, City’s altered reality has placed the clubs back in direct competition during an era of 24-hour news, debate and tempestuous media, both new and old.
After a December derby defined by spats, parked buses and hurled milk cartons, last weekend’s Munich tributes at Old Trafford and Tuesday’s anniversary give a welcome moment for reflection upon where the barbs, banter and backbiting sit within the city’s football lineage.
The jokes Lingard and Raheem Sterling enjoy on England duty are probably not so different to those Colman might have shared on Fleet’s wedding day. In Manchester, there will always be common ground between red and blue and the horrors of Munich should always starkly illustrate these ties that bind.
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