seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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The Munich Air Disaster

munich-air-disasterThe Munich air disaster occurs on February 6, 1958 when British European Airways Flight 609 crashes on its third attempt to take off from a slush-covered runway at Munich-Riem Airport, West Germany. On the plane is the Manchester United football team, nicknamed the “Busby Babes“, along with supporters and journalists. Twenty of the 44 on the aircraft die at the scene. The injured, some unconscious, are taken to the Rechts der Isar Hospital in Munich where three more die, resulting in 23 fatalities with 21 survivors. Among the Manchester United fatalities is inside forward Liam “Billy” Whelan who was born in Cabra on the northside of Dublin in 1935.

The team is returning from a European Cup match in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, having eliminated Red Star Belgrade to advance to the semi-finals of the competition. The flight stops to refuel in Munich because a non-stop flight from Belgrade to Manchester is beyond the Airspeed Ambassador‘s range. After refuelling, pilots James Thain and Kenneth Rayment twice abandon take-off because of boost surging in the left engine. Fearing they will get too far behind schedule, Captain Thain rejects an overnight stay in Munich in favour of a third take-off attempt. By then snow is falling, causing a layer of slush to form at the end of the runway. After the aircraft hits the slush, it ploughs through a fence beyond the end of the runway and the left wing is torn off after hitting a house. Fearing the aircraft might explode, Thain begins evacuating passengers while Manchester United goalkeeper Harry Gregg helps pull survivors from the wreckage.

An investigation by West German airport authorities originally blames Thain, saying he did not de-ice the aircraft’s wings, despite eyewitness statements to the contrary. It is later established that the crash is caused by the slush on the runway, which slows the plane too much to take off. Thain is cleared in 1968, ten years after the incident.

At the time of the disaster, Manchester United is trying to become the third club to win three successive English Football League titles. They are six points behind League leaders Wolverhampton Wanderers with 14 games to go. They also hold the Charity Shield and have just advanced into their second successive European Cup semi-final. The team has not been beaten in eleven consecutive matches. The crash not only derails their title ambitions that year but also virtually destroys the nucleus of what promised to be one of the greatest generations of players in English football history. It takes ten years for the club to recover, with Busby rebuilding the team and winning the European Cup in 1968 with a new generation of “Babes.”


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Birth of N.I. Footballer Robert Dennis “Danny” Blanchflower

danny-blanchflowerRobert Dennis “Danny” Blanchflower, former Northern Ireland international footballer and football manager, is born on February 10, 1926 in the Bloomfield district of Belfast, the first of five children born to John and Selina Blanchflower.

Blanchflower is educated at Ravenscroft public elementary school and is awarded a scholarship to Belfast College of Technology. He leaves school early to become an apprentice electrician at Gallaher’s cigarette factory in Belfast. He also joins the Air Raid Precautions and, in 1943, joins the Royal Air Force after lying about his age. By 1946, after a trainee navigator course at St. Andrews University and further training in Canada, he is back at Gallaher’s in Belfast and building a reputation as an outstanding footballer.

Blanchflower signs with Glentoran F.C. in 1946 before crossing the Irish Sea and signing with Barnsley F.C. for £6000 in 1949 at the age of 23. He transfers from Barnsley to Aston Villa F.C. for a fee of £15,000 and makes his First Division debut in March 1951. He makes 155 senior appearances for Villa before being bought by Tottenham Hotspur F.C. in 1954 for a fee of £30,000. During his ten years playing at White Hart Lane he makes 337 League appearances and 382 total appearances.

The highlight of his time with the Spurs comes in the 1960–61 season, while serving as captain, the Spurs win their first 11 games and eventually win the league by 8 points. They beat Leicester City F.C. in the final of the FA Cup, becoming the first team in the 20th century to win the League and Cup double and a feat not achieved since Aston Villa in 1897.

In 1962, Blanchflower again captains the Spurs team to victory in the FA Cup in 1962, narrowly missing out on a second double when they finish a close third in the league behind Ipswich Town F.C. and Burnley F.C. In 1963, he captains the team to victory over Atlético Madrid in the final of the European Cup Winners’ Cup, making Spurs the first English team to win a European trophy.

Between 1949 and 1963, he earns 56 caps for Northern Ireland, often playing alongside his brother Jackie until the younger Blanchflower’s playing career is cut short as a result of injuries sustained in the Munich air disaster of February 1958. In 1958, captains his country when they reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup.

On December 4, 1957, he captains the Northern Ireland team against Italy in Belfast in a bad tempered game that comes to be known as the “Battle of Belfast.” Blanchflower attempts to keep the peace as the game turns nasty.

Blanchflower announces his retirement as a player on April 5, 1964, having played nearly 400 games in all competitions for the Spurs and captains them to four major trophies.

Following his retirement as a player, Blanchflower coachs for the Spurs for a number of years. Manager Bill Nicholson intends for Blanchflower to be his successor but, when Nicholson resigns in 1974, Blanchflower is passed over in favour of Terry Neill. He leaves the Spurs and becomes manager of Northern Ireland for a brief spell in 1978 before being appointed boss of Chelsea F.C. The team wins only three of fifteen games under his charge and he leaves the team in September 1979.

On May 1, 1990, Tottenham holds a testimonial match for Blanchflower at White Hart Lane, but at this point he is in the early stages of what is later diagnosed as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. He is eventually placed in a Staines nursing home where he dies as a result of pneumonia on December 9, 1993, at the age of 67.

Blanchflower’s hometown of Belfast has honoured him with an Ulster History Circle plaque, located at his childhood home at 49 Grace Avenue, recognising the late sportsman as one of the greatest players in the history of Tottenham Hotspur FC.