Man Utd make emotional return to Belgrade stadium where Busby Babes played fateful final game before Munich air disaster

WHEN Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s young players line up in the Partizan Stadium tonight the poignancy will not be lost on the football world.

It was in this Belgrade stadium 61 years ago the Busby Babes did just that for the final time.

Man Utd make emotional return to Belgrade stadium where Busby Babes played fateful final game before Munich air disaster5 Man Utd return to Belgrade to play in the same stadium as the Busby Babes in their fateful final gameCredit: Getty
Man Utd make emotional return to Belgrade stadium where Busby Babes played fateful final game before Munich air disaster5 The Majestic Hotel where the Busby Babes stayed still standsCredit: Majestic Hotel Belgrade

The Munich air disaster the following day claimed eight of the players' lives, two who survived would not play again, while manager Matt Busby was twice given the last rites.

They had drawn 3-3 the previous night with Red Star Belgrade to advance into the semi-finals of the European Cup.

The game was played at rivals Partizan’s ground rather than Red Star’s outdated "Avala" home.

Sprinting into a 3-0 lead in 31 minutes with a brace from Bobby Charlton and one from Denni Viollet they would be pegged back level with three second-half goals from Red Star before the hour mark.

But United’s 2-1 win from the first leg would see them through. That night they eventually returned to the Majestic Hotel in the city centre.

The hotel is still here and open for business. Its opulence is apparent although the grandeur has faded.

As one review says it may "not be the Ritz Carlton but it is comfortable". You could get a room last night for £66.

When United stayed there it was the jewel in the crown of the former Yugoslavian capital.

Following the game the United players had joined their Red Star opponents for an official banquet.

Many of the younger players went on to enjoy the night, or the early hours, at a nightclub called The Crystal. It’s no longer there.

MEMORIES LIVE ON

Others in the party preferred to go back to their hotel. Little did they know when they woke up the next day — February 6, 1958 — it would be their last.

Memories of the Babes’ stay is still remembered here at The Majestic. A picture of them gathered at dinner is still on the wall by the hotel entrance.

A copy of the menu from their last evening meal of veal ragout cream soup, pork roulade stuffed turkey, perch, mixed salad and ‘omelet surprise’ will be on show today.

While there is no official monument to the players at the Stadion JNA, an official party from United were due to visit there this morning to lay a wreath.

At the Red Star Belgrade museum you can see the pennant Roger Byrne presented them with before kick-off in the first leg.

The Stadium itself has had different names. It is now the Partizan Stadium but was previously known as the JNA Stadium.

Partizan fans prefer to still know it as Fudbalski Hram or "The Temple of Football".

There were 55,000 there that night to see one of the greatest English club sides. Since being converted to an all-seater stadium it now holds 32,710.

Still its distinctive bowl remains a lasting reminder of former times. The black and white backdrop to the famous picture of the Babes in Red.

Of Duncan Edwards tucking his shirt into the front of his shorts, of Mark Jones hands behind his back staring straight ahead.

Man Utd make emotional return to Belgrade stadium where Busby Babes played fateful final game before Munich air disaster5 Eight players were killed in the horrific Munich air disasterCredit: Getty
Man Utd make emotional return to Belgrade stadium where Busby Babes played fateful final game before Munich air disaster5 Man Utd will return to the very same stadium to play Partizan BelgradeCredit: Getty

Goalkeeper Harry Gregg who was pulled from the wreckage and survived the crash, looks at the ground deep in thought.

Captain Byrne looks back down the line proudly at his team-mates, striker Viollet looks back.

The following day shortly after 3pm, following a refuelling stop off at Munich, the "Elizabethan"-class Airspeed Ambassador made its third attempt at take off in thick snow and slush. It didn’t get off the ground.

Eight United players were among the 23 of the 44 passengers who died — Byrne, Jones, Geoff Bent, Eddie Colman, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Liam "Billy" Whelan.

The 21-year-old Edwards fought for his life for 15 days in a Munich hospital before he too succumbed to his injuries.

Jackie Blanchflower and Johnny Berry would never play again.

United have since been back to the city and stadium once for a competitive game, eight years after the air disaster in 1966.

They lost a European Cup semi-final 2-0 and could only win 1-0 at home in the second leg.

Sir Matt almost packed it in after that, believing they would never win Europe’s greatest club prize.

He was persuaded to stay on and two years later they did.

Man Utd make emotional return to Belgrade stadium where Busby Babes played fateful final game before Munich air disaster5 The Busby Babes dined in the hotel the night before their fateful accidentCredit: Getty

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Of the players, only Charlton, 82, and Gregg, who will be 87 in three days, survive to this day.
Sir Bobby, still a club director, has not made the trip for tonight’s game.

The Majestic is sold out. And the United fans staying there will raise a glass in the bar to those who woke in the hotel on February 6, 1958 but never got home.

To a great side who lined up together for the final time.

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