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Munich '58: a city United
by Ian Cheeseman
I’m not a Manchester United fan and I wasn’t born when the United team of 1958 was lost in the Munich Air Disaster. I am a Mancunian though and have therefore learned about the events of that February day through the anniversaries ever since.
A city United: Ian Cheeseman in Munich
I know that the generation before mine weren't able to travel as easily to away games, so many of them watched City at Maine Road one week and United at Old Trafford the next, though usually preferring one club to the other.
There are not many football supporters who have split loyalties these days and I’m no exception – I'm a committed fan of Manchester City who is lucky enough to also be the sports journalist who commentates on all the club’s games for BBC Radio Manchester – a dream job.
As it was: the Munich air disaster
I'm aware that the Munich air crash had a profound effect on those who were affected by it, either directly or simply as football fans or indeed human beings.
How could it affect me, especially as I'm a City fan? It didn't but I respected those to whom it mattered and frowned on those who sang cruel songs at derby games or disturbed the 'minute's silence' down the years.
Then in November, last year, it became personal. I was asked to travel to Munich to commentate on the UEFA Cup tie between Bayern Munich and Bolton Wanderers. While I was there I was also asked to visit the memorial to the Munich Air Disaster in the town of Trudering and see if anyone was still around who remembered the events of that terrible day.
Herr Memmel at the old Munich memorial
I stood on the street corner closest to the farmer’s field where the plane came down. There are houses just 50m from the accident scene. It was a cold, dark, rainy evening. As I stood there I tried to imagine the scene all those years ago. I didn't want to think about it for too long, I've seen too many disaster films and found it all too vivid in my imagination and these were real people I was thinking of.
I arranged a meeting with Hermann Memmel, a Bavarian politician and lifelong football fan who had campaigned for a permanent memorial at the crash site. For years a religious monument close to the crash site had been, and is still, used by those touched by the accident as a focal point for cards, flowers and scarves laid their to honour those who perished.
Herr Memmel helped to persuade the officials of Bayern Munich and the City’s Mayor to become involved along with Bobby Charlton, Alex Ferguson and United secretary Ken Merritt. The permanent granite memorial was unveiled in September 2004, just a few metres from the wooden cross, which is also still used as a memorial.
Herr Memmel remembers the day of the accident. "I was a young person and a football fan and it moved me tremendously. When I heard about it I came here by bike. I couldn’t get too close because barriers had been put up by the time I got here but all that were there could see the sadness and horror of what had happened there.
"I think the memorial and inscription will always provide a bond between Manchester and Munich and we often think about this terrible disaster that touched us all."
Herr Memmel then introduced me to a retired farmer who lived 300m from the crash scene. Johann Wieser was in his home as the plane came down.
Johann Wieser was first on the scene
"I didn’t see the accident but I was one of the first people there. It was really bad weather. There was 30cm of new snow. There were small snow storms and as I came to the place where the disaster took place a few passengers had already come across the field. Some were already close to death. They were badly injured but with their remaining energy they tried to walk until they stumbled to the ground.
"The plane burned. The plane had crashed through a house. Many of the passengers there were dead. The pilot was still sitting in the plane. A few individuals were alive but of course there were many dead people.
"The fire brigade came at once, from the airport, just a kilometre or so away. The emergency doctor came. The people with burn injuries were taken to the hospital the "Rechts der Isar". Three local fire brigades attended, they put the fire out with foam, but many didn't survive this disaster, as you know. The plane didn't crash, it just couldn't get into the air properly as it started to take off and went where the house was between two chestnut trees. The two wings of the plane were torn away and the house fell immediately.
Crash site: where the plane came down
"There was a woman in the basement. She was ironing. Nothing happened to her, the plane was so fast. The woman stayed alive, yes she lived.
"For me it's like it happened last winter. Yes I can remember it very well. When I use the nearby letterbox I always think about that terrible night. I'm in charge of caring for the memorial. They were all young people of the football team who died. It was a very, very bad story.”
When you’ve been there - I also visited the site of the old airport, though only the control tower remains - the whole experience becomes more personal. I might not be a Manchester United supporter or be old enough to have memories of 1958 but I will honour all those affected by the Munich Air Disaster as if I was there myself.
The Manchester derby – United against City at Old Trafford – seems a very appropriate fixture to take place so close to the 50th anniversary – a chance for ALL of Manchester to show its respects.
last updated: 08/02/2008 at 12:48