copyright Tom Clare 2008 for Red News - read more of Tom's stuff in future or back editions of the fanzine http://www.rednews.co.uk
Friday February 1st, 2008
It was around 2p.m. on Friday February 1st, when my wife Cheryl slowly halted the car outside the entrance to Departures at Terminal C, in Houston’s George Bush International Airport. The afternoon was warm, around 81 degrees and it was quite pleasant. I unloaded my baggage from the back of our Chrysler Pacifica SUV car, kissed Cheryl goodbye, and then proceeded inside to check in. That formality was completed in just a few minutes and I was then directed through the security gates, immigration control, and finally into the Departure Lounge itself.
I was in a happy, relaxed, but expectant mood as I made my way down to the Gate for my flight to London’s Gatwick Airport. On the short walk down I purchased my obligatory coffee from the Starbuck’s stand in the Lounge’s refreshment area. Down at the Gate I settled into a comfortable armchair and began to read Bobby Charlton’s latest book “My Manchester United Years” as I waited for the call to board the Boeing 777 aircraft.
The huge Lounge was sparsely littered with people and when it did come time to board, it was pleasant to find that there would only be 136 passengers traveling. I took my seat by the window in row 33, just behind the port wing. When the aircraft doors closed, I found that I had a row of seats all to myself and this meant that during my journey, whenever I wanted to, I would be able to stretch out and relax comfortably during the anticipated 10 hour flight. The aircraft moved away from the stand and taxied out towards the main runaway, slowly moving forward as it took its place in line behind other aircraft that were also inching forward ready to take their turn for take off.
We were just 22 minutes late at 4.12p.m., when the Captain of the wide bodied Boeing opened the throttles and allowed the aircraft to thunder its way down the runway. I could feel the surge pushing me back into my seat as the giant airframe gathered more and more speed and then lifted gracefully up into the sky. We traveled in a north easterly direction towards Shreveport in Louisiana, climbing higher, and higher, until the aircraft achieved its cruising altitude of 36,000 feet. Below us was a bed of billowing thick white cloud. Embedded into the back of the seat in front of me was a video console, and this began showing the map of our route to London and also lots of data about the journey ahead. I relaxed and started to read into Charlton’s book. 15 minutes into the journey, the aircraft Captain interrupted over the audio system and announced that due to really strong tail winds, the flight time to London would now only be approximately 8 hours.
1 hour after take off, Dinner was served and with it, a complimentary bottle of Chardonnay. It washed my pot roast meal down well, and after the flight attendants had cleared the meal trays away, I pulled down the window shades, put a few pillows behind my head, and stretched out along the three seats at my disposal. I closed my eyes and my thoughts turned towards my visit to England, and to Manchester in particular. The main reason for my journey back to the city of my birth was to attend the 50th Anniversary Commemorations of the Munich Air Disaster which were scheduled to be held at my beloved Old Trafford stadium the following Wednesday, February 6th.
February 6th, 1958, is a date that is ingrained not only in my head, but also chiseled deep upon my heart. It is a date that has had a profound and significant effect upon my life, and there was certainly nowhere else in this whole wide world that I was ever going to be at 3.04 p.m. on that date in 2008, other than at Old Trafford, Manchester. In my life I have witnessed many, many things; suffered personal anguish and also tragedy; but that day and date back in 1958, and the events that happened at the end of a slush filled runway in the Bavarian capital of Munich, has lived with me ever since. It will never ever go away. For myself, and the many thousands of United supporters of my generation that are still living, the memories of that fateful day 50 years ago are still all so vivid, all so clear, and are cemented rigidly within us. The scar that has been left behind by those memories has never ever healed – and it never will. We will carry it with us until we draw our final breath.
As the aircraft sped through the night, I lay thinking about the years that had led up to the Munich tragedy. All too clearly, the ghosts of my past returned. My thoughts went back to all those balmy days and all those great games that I had watched that wonderful Manchester United team take part in. The memories flooded me with a strange kind of warmth as my memory returned to the emergence of a team of young boys and men who would capture the nation’s hearts and imagination. They were the seed, the blossoming flower, and the inspiration of my young life. It was to be my very first love affair in life. As most first loves generally do, it was to end in heartache, but one that would last a lifetime. I gently drifted off into a sound sleep.
I awoke about 90 minutes before our scheduled landing time just as we approached the West Coast of Ireland. The excitement inside me was just like that of a child who was making his first trip by air. My nose pressed against the window glass as the lights of Galway glistened below. We flew on across the Emerald Isle and on over Dublin, before crossing the Irish Sea, banking to the right, and a few minutes later we approached the Avon estuary and started the descent towards Gatwick. Just a few minutes later and we were in the descending path and I could see the lights of the landing strip as we banked and came around for the final run in. It was still dark as we lined up with the runway and I could see out to my left the banks of planes glistening like fireflies as they too were descending for their landing.
We touched down smoothly, deplaned, and then went through immigration and customs without any delay. By 7:15a.m. I had left the South Terminal, collected my rental car, and was on the slip road down on to the M23 heading towards London. Daylight came very quickly as did the bright sunshine. I was in a happy, happy mood and negotiated my way on to the M25, passing Heathrow before joining the M4, which took me into Central London. Traffic was very light and I came down through Earls Court, Knightsbridge, and turned left around Hyde Park and drove up to Marble Arch before turning left again and down the Bayswater Road to the Thistle Hotel where I was staying that evening.
I pulled up outside the hotel, removed my bags from the boot, went inside the hotel and put them by the Reception Desk. Returning to the car to move it, I found a Traffic Warden just placing a ticket on the windscreen of the car. It was as though he had been watching for a victim the speed with which that parking ticket had been completed. Nonplussed, and to his horror, I just ripped the thing up, put it in a nearby trash can, got into the car and moved it to a nearby car park. The look on that Warden’s face as I pulled away was priceless!
After a quick shower and change of clothes, it was off to the tube station and on to Finsbury Park to join up with Aidan and the gang at the Toll Gate pub. I arrived there about 11:15a.m. and as I opened the door, there was Aidan’s smiling face and firm handshake to greet me. It was wonderful to meet him in the flesh, a more committed Red you could never wish to meet, and a wonderful person as well. After introductions all around, a huge big breakfast was put in front of me plus a nice cool pint of John Smith’s Smooth. The banter was good and all sense of tiredness had left me. We were joined by a fellow named “Billy” who had traveled down from Eccles and he was a great character. It turned out that he had a spare ticket for the game against “Spurs that afternoon, and very quickly, with Aidan’s help; we were able to get Repoman sorted out much to his delight. Some six pints later, “Billy” and I left the Toll Gate (after having “one for the road”) and got a cab supposedly to a pub on High Road, Tottenham. We were dropped just outside of White Hart Lane and upon enquiring from various “locals” as to where the said pub was situated; we were met with some rather quizzical looks and strange stares! Eventually, we found the place and the place was rocking with Reds. Repoman waiting there and it was nice to see Barney, and Fergus and his wife, who were very kindly supplying my ticket for the game. Another eleventeen pints and then it was off to the match. The walk up High Road was interesting to say the least and by the time we got to our entrance gate at the Lane, my bladder was overflowing and my back teeth were floating! There was marked police and security presence at United fan’s entrance, but this was negotiated without a problem and after a mad dash to the toilet, it was up to my seat just as the game had kicked off.
That United didn’t perform well that afternoon is well documented. It was a lethargic performance and whether or not the trip to Saudi Arabia had taken its toll was debatable. I hadn’t been to White Hart Lane for quite some time and it had considerably changed in appearance. It seemed much tighter than when I remembered it and obviously, capacity had been halved. As usual, United’s support was vociferous throughout and kept behind the lads all the way through. Something was needed to give the boys out on the pitch a push because things just weren’t happening. Just when all seemed lost, Carlos came up with the equalizer in the dying seconds and it was such a joy to see the looks on the “spurs fans faces – fans who had just a few seconds earlier been taking the piss out of United’s support. Although I think that it would be fair to say that we didn’t deserve to win that game, neither did we deserve to lose it and a draw was a just result for both teams in the end.
After the game it was back to the pub, and further imbibing of nectar. It was great to spend time with Barney and everybody else who came up and introduced themselves to me. By this time I was certainly talking “broken biscuits” and as time passed, eventually Repoman and I found out that we were the last two in the back room of the club! We left the pub and the walk up High Road to the tube station was negotiated without me falling over although I must have resembled John Cleese’s “Minister of Funny Walks!”
Repoman left me at Kings Cross for his journey back to The Fens, and I felt quietly content as I sat there to continue my journey to Queensway. How I ended up out at Hounslow West is something that I’ll never know! I fell asleep and when I eventually woke it was a little bit of shock! I had to leapfrog out of the carriage as once again my bladder was running over and once relieved, I had to get the tube all the way back into town. It was almost 11p.m. when I emerged from Queensway tube station and by this time I was starving. So gathering a KFC meal I made my way back to my hotel and must have looked quite a sight staggering through the hotel lobby with a chicken leg in my mouth! That I slept soundly that night is an understatement, but it had been a wonderful day and one I shall always remember.
The following day, Sunday, I was up at 7a.m., showered and changed, and on the road for my trip up to Blackpool where I was to stay a few days with my sister. Nothing on the road hardly and I arrived in Blackpool just after midday. By this time the jet lag was kicking in and I was in bed early and again slept soundly.
Monday 4th February I had a number of appointments with various media people at Old Trafford, and after completing those, I was able to visit with some close friends in Manchester. Tuesday I was at Old Trafford again and spent three wonderful hours or so in the company of Tony Smith. Again it was so good to spend quality time with such a wonderful guy who bleeds “Red”. We talked about a myriad of things, wandered around, and shared a coffee together. Tony is unquestionably one of the most knowledgeable guys when it comes to United that I have ever met.
Wednesday 6th February, was the day that my visit to Manchester was really all about. For the past year or so, it had been a date that I had been looking forward to even though I knew that my emotions would probably get the better of me when it finally came around. It’s a date etched into the hearts of all United supporters, but for people of my age and era, it’s a date that we recall with such clarity. It is so hard for me to take in that it was 50 years ago that the tragedy happened – it still seems as though it was just yesterday. The recollections, the images, the pain, are still there and none of it will ever go away.
I left Blackpool that morning and drove to Manchester Airport to collect Mango off his flight from Dublin. I was held up in traffic a little on the M60, but found him, waiting in the arrivals area. We then drove to the Manchester Crematorium and met with Clair, Nat, Thornton Red, Big Bren, Red Bear, Leeds Red, Mattweeden, Nick and Duncan. The Book of Remembrance was inspected and then we moved off to the Jewish section in Southern Cemetery. This was really important to me personally as I always feel that Willie Satinoff is the forgotten man of the tragedy. We found his resting place and Clair placed a single red rose upon it. I explained to everybody the significance of Willie Satinoff and just why it is that he should never be allowed to be forgotten. It’s always been a source of irritation to me that the Club has never done anything to recognize Willie. The only supporter to travel on that ill fated trip, it’s my opinion that there should be a plaque of some kind in his memory somewhere at the stadium.
We then went on into Southern Cemetery and to Sir Matt and Lady Jean’s resting place and paid our respects there. From there it was on to Weaste Cemetery and a visit to Eddie Colman’s resting place. This is a place that really does envelope me with great sadness as it brings back so many, many memories. Not only of a wonderful, vibrant, talented young player, but also of the so many times that I had made the journey on foot as a young boy, from my home in Chorlton upon Medlock, just to stand in front of that stone. There used to be a beautiful Italian marble statue of Eddie that rested alongside the gravestone. It was in his image as he was passing the ball. His family had it specially commissioned and it really was a beautiful, work of art. Sadly, in the not too distant past, that statue was vandalized, and how anybody could do a thing like that is beyond my comprehension. One day, I would love to see that statue replaced.
After leaving Weaste Cemetery I had to go off to Old Trafford as I had some appointments there with various media outlets. It was around 12:30p.m. when I pulled into Sam Platt’s car park and then went on foot to the stadium. Already, there were a large number of people milling about on the forecourt. It was obvious that there was going to be a huge turnout for this occasion. It was good to meet up with so many other Red News stalwarts, and great to see Tiptoe, Clair, and Mango get the flags out and tied to the television gantry. It gave something to the occasion, a fact not missed by the mass of media people there who flocked around them.
20 Legend turned up with his father Chris, and it was so good to meet them at last. I can’t thank either of them enough for the generosity which they showed to me. Not only had Dave fixed me up with tickets for me and my friends for the “derby” game, but they also made sure that I had a ticket that would allow me entrance to the actual memorial service. Chris had put together a portfolio of things for me, cd’s of pod casts, newspaper cuttings and pictures – a wonderful gesture.
The crowd on the forecourt increased and at 2:20p.m. I made my way around to the entrance and inside to the Manchester Suite where the memorial service would be held. There were strict security measures in place and my ticket was checked four or five times before I actually entered the suite. The place was almost full and you could sense the solomness of the occasion. I looked around and was not surprised to see that most of the attendees were in my age group. At 2:45 p.m. exactly the service began. The children’s choir sang a beautiful song depicting life. The club Chaplain began his eulogy and then at precisely 3p.m., the Munich candle was lit. It was at this point that emotions began to get the better of people and I include myself in that. As Gary Neville’s trembling hands began to light the individual candles commemorating the 23 persons lost on that sad day, the memories, and the tears, came flooding back. One by one the names of those lost were read out, and as I looked around me, men openly wept. Like me, they too were recalling days of a long lost distant era; of young boys and men who gave their lives for the club which they so dearly loved. Their faces were there before us, all too real, and the hurt and the pain returned once again. I looked on towards the survivors sat at the front; Harry Gregg, Bill Foulkes, Albert Scanlon, Kenny Morgans, and Sir Bobby Charlton. I could not comprehend what must have been going through their minds at that precise time. Nor could I think what the survivors families who were also present must have been going through. The last name was read out at precisely 3:04 p.m. and the minutes silence ensued. On the big screens scattered around the Suite’s walls, we could see the thousands of fans packed onto the forecourt outside, heads bowed as they too stood in quiet, solemn remembrance. The tears ran down my face but I felt so proud of the fact that those dear boys will never ever be forgotten. Despite there being some divisiveness in our support these days, for that powerful poignant minute in time, we were all as one – United in everything that we stand for, what we do, and who we are. It was a huge show of unity to the millions of people watching not only in the United Kingdom, but also throughout the rest of the world. It embodied just what being a Manchester united supporter was all about. It was an oh! so powerful minute that I will remember for the rest of my life.
After the minutes silence and the reading of the lessons came the remembrance of those wonderful times back in 1953-1958. Some great moments captured on film that again brought all the memories flooding back. Harry Gregg was in great form as Eamonn Holmes talked to him about his memories not only of that sad day, but also of his short time playing with those dear boys. He was so effervescent in his enthusiasm. We must never forget the part that the big, volatile, Northern Irishman played on that dark day when his courage and heroism saved a lot of lives.
Next up was little Nobby, and again, it was so wonderful to sit and listen to the little fella’ as he recalled his memories, especially those of his very early days as a young boy at the Club. It’s when you listen to these guys that you really begin to understand just what it means to be a part, however small that might be, of Manchester United. The love of the club just flows from them.
Sir Bobby Charlton also spoke and told some great stories – stories from when he was just a young boy growing up at the Club. People can say what they like about Bobby, but for me he epitomizes Manchester United. I sat there remembering that young boy that I first met in 1955, and recalled his youthfulness, his boy next door image, his happy and impish personality.
The most pleasing thing for me though was that all three ex-players that spoke, recounted the part that James Patrick Murphy played in not only laying the foundations in the club with Sir Matt, but the job that he did in keeping the club afloat after the tragedy. Young Jimmy Junior spoke and recalled that in those dark days after the disaster, the Murphy family hardly saw anything of Jimmy such was his dedication to the enormous task that faced him. Jimmy Murphy is often forgotten as is the part which he played in United’s history. The debt that Manchester United owes to him for his dedication, integrity, and his enormous loyalty must never be forgotten.
The survivors and David Gill left the Manchester Suite at the end of the service and celebration to open the Munich Tunnel. I left the suite and joined Chris on the way out and we retired to Samuel Platt’s to join friends. It had been a wonderful experience just “being there”. It was the only place that, I, Chris, and the many others of our era could ever have been at 3:04 p.m. on February 6th 2008. 50 years may have passed, but our memories have never dimmed, nor has our love and deep affection for that wonderful team of young men and boys. They really were “our heroes.”
After a few pints in Platt’s, Mango, Repoman, and myself left for the Manchester city centre. Mango and I checked in at our hotel and then went to a Mexican restaurant on Portland Street and feasted on a hearty meal. Unfortunately I had to leave them to go and do a tv interview but shortly after 10p.m. I was back with them again at the Paramount Bar on Oxford Street, where Red Bear and Mattweeden had joined them. For the next few hours we chewed the cud talking about the great United teams and things United in general. It was great to spend such quality time with young people who are so enthusiastic about Manchester United and it did take me back to my own youth. Their thirst for knowledge about not only United, but the game in general reminded me so much of myself when I was their age.
The following day, Thursday 7th February, I went back to Blackpool and spent the day with my sister and her family. Friday morning I left after saying my goodbyes and moved down to Manchester. I had arranged to meet people at the Cocotoo Restaurant on Whitworth Street that evening. It turned out to be a great time. Good food, good wine, good ale, good conversation, but most of all, great company. We were joined by Guvser later on and two of his Danish counterparts. After the meal we once again made our way to the Parmamount Bar where we stayed deep in conversation and imbibing Guinness until we were asked to leave at 2a.m.! From there we meandered back to the Britannia Hotel where the Danish lads were staying for more talk and more Guinness! I will always recall all the quiz questions thrown at me between 3-4a.m!!! I left the Britannia at just after 4a.m. and went back to my hotel for some well earned sleep!
The Saturday I spent taking care of some admin matters. I also visited the Central Library in Manchester and found the true story about the Phoenix badge worn on the shirts of the 1958 FA Cup Final team. It was rather ironic to find that when I returned back to my hotel room, there was a message waiting for me from Tony Smith saying that he had also been to the Library and had found the same story a few hours before me. That evening I relaxed with friends and had dinner at Croma’s Restaurant just off Albert Square. We then spent the rest of the evening in Yate’s Wine Lodge in Portland Street, and that was quite an experience!
Sunday was “derby” day and I had arranged to meet people at the stadium. I arrived at 11a.m. spoke to Barney, Big Liam, on the way down SMBW. Met with Repoman and then went over to Platt’s for a pint with Red Bear, Mattweeden, Tipto, Clair, Kerry, CovRed, Tamsen, and a few others. We then went back to the stadium for the singing of “50 years” and “The Flowers”. Pete Martin did a wonderful, wonderful job and the crowd participation was terrific. Aidan sorted my last ticket for me nd we then went into the stadium.
There had been lots of misgivings in the weeks leading up to the “derby” about whether or not the Manchester city fans would observe the minutes silence before the game. Personally, I never had any doubts that they would. The atmosphere built up and then we heard the wail of the pipes as the Lone Piper led the teams out of the tunnel and onto the pitch. It was a moment that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and a shiver reverberated down my spine as the stadium joined in with “We’ll Never Die, We’ll Never Die.” The scarves held aloft by all the fans was a truly awesome sight. The respective managers at the head of their teams led them to the centre circle, and after both of them had laid their wreaths on the centre spot, the whistle was blown for the minutes silence. It was a very poignant moment and was observed by both sets of fans impeccably – again with scarves held high. One of the most moving moments that I have ever experienced, and again, unashamedly, I wept.
That we didn’t perform well in the game and lost 1-2, didn’t really surprise me. We weren’t really in the game or at the races that afternoon. To be honest, I had expected it. Maybe the emotion of the whole week transmitted itself to the players and I can understand that. I did not feel the disappointment that day that I have felt on the days of our other defeats this season. Immediately after the game I left for Gatwick where I stayed overnight.
The following morning I boarded Continental flight CO5 for Houston, and as I crossed the Atlantic, I had time to reflect on what a wonderful 10 days I had experienced. There are just so many people to thank for making my time what it was. Aidan and Shane, Fergus and his good Lady, Dave Field and his father Chris who I can never repay for their genoristy, Barney, Mango, Tony Smith, RedBear, Clair, Nat, Mattweeden, Thornton Red, Big Bren, and those of you too many mention who I got to meet. It proved to me just what Red News is all about, and what supporting the greatest club in the world means. Thanks so much everybody it is a visit that I’ll always remember, and without you, it would never have been the same.