Feb. 6, 1958.
For Britons old enough to remember, the date is the saddest in the nation’s sports history.
On a third attempt to take off after re-fueling in Munich, Germany, the airliner thundered down a snowy runway, plowed through a fence and into a house. Eight Manchester United players and 15 other passengers were killed.
The team, nicknamed the “Busby Babes” after manager Matt Busby, was one of the best young clubs in Europe.
The players - many hung over from a night of celebrating - were heading home from Yugoslavia after reaching the semifinals of the European Cup following a 3-3 tie with Red Star.
Myth suggests they might have won the European Cup that year after losing to Spain’s Real Madrid in the 1957 semifinals. An even bigger one has the team helping England win the 1958 World Cup.
Nine journalists were among the 44 on the plane, and eight were killed. The lone survivor was Frank Taylor, who documented the account in his 1983 book, “The Day a Team Died.”
Another survivor was Bobby Charlton, who later helped England win the 1966 World Cup. He later was knighted, like Busby, and is now a team director at Manchester United.
“There isn’t a day that goes by I don’t remember what happened and the people who are gone,” Charlton said. “The fact that the players are not here and are never going to be judged is sad. They’ll never grow old.”
Charlton attended a memorial service Friday in Manchester on the 40th anniversary of the crash.
Of the eight players killed, the legend of Duncan Edwards looms largest. At 21, he was regarded as the best young player in Europe. He lingered in a Munich hospital for two weeks before dying Feb. 21.
“Compared to Duncan, the rest of us were just like pygmies,” Charlton said. “He was the greatest.”
The other players killed were Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Tommy Taylor, Liam “Billy” Whelan, Mark Jones, David Pegg and Geoff Bent.
“They began to be successful at a time when football was still the game of the people,” Cole Morton wrote in the Independent on Sunday.
“Admission was cheap and crowds were huge… . The (queen’s) coronation made England feel like the center of the world in 1953, but the national side was in crisis - already shamed by defeat against the United States (in the 1950 World Cup).”
German investigators concluded the crash stemmed from icy wings, although later investigations suggested slush on the runway was a factor.
“I don’t suppose anyone will ever pinpoint the exact cause of such a tragedy,” wrote Taylor, the surviving journalist. “In all accidents such as this, one is left with the unhappy conclusion that a combination of factors piled up one upon the other.”