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By Julian Shea

The Busby Babes
Eight Manchester United players died in the Munich air crash
Just in case anyone has any doubts, a quick look at the record books will prove why Manchester United's Busby Babes hold such a place in footballing folklore.

In 1956, they went through the season unbeaten at home and won the league championship by 11 points.

In 1957, they were champions again, by eight points, scoring 103 goals in the process.

In February 1958, they were fourth in the table, but a run of one defeat in 13 games hinted that a hat-trick of titles was not beyond them.

Then on 6 February, the club experienced the darkest day in its history.

After a stop-over at Munich on the way back from a European Cup tie in Belgrade, the plane crashed, killing 23 passengers.

Among the dead were eight United players, four of them full England internationals.

As the 50th anniversary of the Munich aircrash approaches, the legend of that team continues to grow.

BBC Sport summariser Jimmy Armfield played alongside and against some of the players who died at Munich, and says their mythical status is well deserved.

The Munich memorial clock at Old Trafford
A clock at Old Trafford shows the time of the disaster

"For my generation of footballers, who knew them all really well, the crash was our Kennedy assassination moment," he told BBC Sport.

"It captured the nation."

The eight United players who died in the crash were Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Duncan Edwards, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Liam Whelan.

Byrne, Taylor, Edwards and Pegg had all been capped by England, and Whelan was a Republic of Ireland international.

And while much is obviously made of Manchester United's loss, Armfield, who made his England debut the year after the crash and was in the 1966 World Cup winning squad, said the national team also suffered.

"They had two or three players who would have made an incredible difference to England," he said.

He was a big powerful man, but more than that he was technically gifted and had a great shot - we've not had a player like him in my lifetime

Armfield on Duncan Edwards

"Byrne was the best full-back in the country and Edwards was the best footballer in Britain at the time.

"Colman and Jones were emerging players, and Pegg was a left-winger who would have played for England.

"If they'd all been available for the 1958 World Cup and more particularly in 1962 and 1966 - I'm thinking particularly of Edwards, who would have lasted until 66, and Colman - then England would have had a lot more to say in those two World Cups.

"I played with Edwards in the Army team, he was a football giant," he said.

"The person who was in what would have been in his place in the 1966 World Cup-winning team was probably Martin Peters, but Edwards could have played anywhere.

"He was a big powerful man, but more than that he was technically gifted and had a great shot - we've not had a player like him in my lifetime.

Armfield remembers the Busby Babes style as "just a surge forward," and appropriately, their final appearance in Britain was a thrilling 5-4 win over Arsenal.

Edwards is remembered in his home town of Dudley
A memorial to Duncan Edwards at St Francis's church in Dudley

"The secret was their blend," he said.

"On one wing you had Berry, who was a quick dribbler, and on the other you had a great passer in Pegg.

"Taylor was an old-fashioned centre-forward, behind him Whelan was all motion, then there was Colman, who was a good passer, Edwards, who was a powerhouse, and behind them a strong back line."

Although he was born in Manchester, Armfield spent the whole of his playing career at Blackpool.

He clearly remembers the moment the news broke.


"I heard about it on the radio in the café across the road from Blackpool's ground where we used to go after training," he said.

"I thought I'd misheard it at first, but unfortunately I hadn't.

"We were stunned. The whole Manchester area couldn't talk about anything else, but it spread far beyond Manchester and captured the nation.

"It was front page news, every day they were giving us progress reports on the people in hospital, giving us news on whether they were dying or had a chance of surviving. It was horrible."

Former England captain Jimmy Armfield
Armfield played against and alongside some of the victims

Whilst in the modern era matches may well have been suspended, in a society still recovering from war, the world kept turning and 13 days after the crash, United were back in action against Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup.

"People were used to tragedy," said Armfield.

"They were all children of the war, they remembered the hard times and rationing, and we were just coming out of that when it happened. We were starting to move towards something better."

That team, which had already won two league titles, was also moving Manchester United towards something better when it was cut off in its prime.

Ultimately, United fans had to wait 10 more years to reach the ultimate goal which the Babes had been denied, as they won the European Cup in 1968.

And for all their achievements, it is the sense of what could have been, both for club and country, that keeps their legend alive today.

"The Babes were emerging as probably the best team we'd produced since the war when it happened, and there were still better things to come," said Armfield.

"I came into the England team in 1959, and it would have been a much stronger team with three or four of those players in it.

"It would have altered the next few World Cups. Edwards would certainly have been there in '66. You never know..."

Story of Munich air disaster
04 Feb 08 |  Man Utd
Busby Babe remembers
30 Jan 08 |  Welsh
Minute's silence for Munich crash
28 Jan 08 |  Football
Man Utd to honour Munich victims
06 Dec 07 |  Man Utd
Babes' autographs fetch £12,000
04 Oct 06 |  Manchester
Charlton unveils Munich memorial
22 Sep 04 |  Manchester


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