By Oliver Holt
Imagine Bobby Moore never lifted the World Cup on that glorious day in 1966. The little detail about how the England captain wiped his hands on his way up to the Royal Box because he didn't want to make the Queen's white gloves muddy? Imagine they never happened.
Imagine Stanley Matthews hadn't been around to transform the 1953 FA Cup Final. Imagine no George Best. Or no Denis Law. No Colin Bell. Imagine there had never been the great Everton triumvirate of Ball, Harvey and Kendall. Imagine Charlie George had never scored that goal in the 1971 Cup Final and laid down on his back on the Wembley turf. Imagine no Kevin Keegan at Anfield in the 70s. Imagine if Liverpool had never won the European Cup in Rome in 1977. Imagine Kenny Dalglish had never played south of the border.
And then maybe you begin to understand. Then maybe you begin to realise what happened when that plane crashed in Munich on its final doomed attempt to take-off on February 6, 1958.
Slowed by slush on the runway to the point where it did not have enough speed to get off the ground, the Elizabethan smashed through the perimeter fence, slammed into a house and careered on for another 100 yards, spinning round until it came to a halt. And in those terrifying, terrible moments, a great slice of English football history was lost to us forever.
What they might have been. What they might have done. It's the torment that tortures the families and friends of any young man or woman taken before their time. And in this case of the Busby Babes, the wondering and the dreaming has been done by a nation of football lovers for half a century. A team was wiped out when it stood on the verge of greatness. Obliterated as it was about to do things no other English team had done before.
If eight of the Busby Babes had not lost their lives as a result of that crash, we would have had a different history, a different set of football icons. Matt Busby's young team was going for a third successive League Title after winning it in 1956 and 1957. That would have given them a special place in history. Who knows whether they might have won four, even five on the trot.
They were pioneering English involvement in the European Cup too. They were on their way back from completing an aggregate victory over Red Star Belgrade when they stopped to refuel in Munich. Nothing is certain but they may have become the first British side to win the competition, long before Celtic managed it in 1967. They might have built a dynasty at Old Trafford that outshone that established at Real Madrid.
What has tantalised football historians more more than anything is the loss of Duncan Edwards, the great colossus of Old Trafford. edwards was 21 when he died, fighting on for 15 days after the crash despite severe internal injuries that gave him no right to survive for that long. But by then, the United number six had already won 18 caps for England at a time when there were far fewer international matches than there are now. If he had survived, he would have been 29 in the summer of 1966. The chances are he would have been part of Alf Ramsey's team that beat Germany. Chances are, it would have been him lifting the World Cup, and not Moore. Chances are there would have been five players in the England 100-club David Beckham is starving to join. Add Edwards to Peter Shilton, Moore, Bobby Charlton and Billy Wright.
Chances are too, that Ryan Giggs would be chasing a Manchester United appearance record a little further away from his grasp than Charlton's is now. Edwards had already played 177 times for United when he was killed. Charlton said Edwards was the only player who ever made him feel inferior. "Compared to him" Charlton said, "rest of us were like pygmies."
And so all we can do is wonder what Edwards might have achieved and preserve him and Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Liam Whelan in our minds as men who might have conquered the world. They still left an enduring legacy to United of course. Not just in what they had already achieved before their deaths. But in the mystery and tragic romance they lent the club from February 6 onwards.
The Munich air crash made the Busby Babes into a team of James Deans, forever young in our memories, forever puffing out their chests in pride. Not withered by age or hobbled by the kind of humdrum injury that could end a career half a century ago. And because of that, because Busby fought his way back to health after being read his last rites and helped his team to rise again, United have a claim to be the most famous club in the world. It was Munich and the club's resurrection after it, the emotion of the renewed pursuit of the European Cup culminating in that triumph against Benfica at Wembley in 1968, that gave the club its mystique.
In a way it was Munich that gave George Best his platform, Munich that allowed him to take the grand stage as the heir of the Babes, the man who finally allowed Busby to achieve the dram his team had died chasing. That was what turned United into the self-styled "biggest club in the world". That was what made them the Beatles of world football. That was what spawned the commercial power they have now. That's why they have a bigger, wider fanbase than any other English club.
Manchester United and English football were robbed of part of their histories when that plane crashed at Munich 50 years ago. But the Legend of the Busby Babes, the dream of what they might have become and the memory of their youth and their promise lives on and on.