They gathered, one by one, because they had been told something was going on that involved Manchester United and, this being the anniversary of the Munich air disaster, potentially one of the Busby Babes.
For most of the people in attendance, the details did not become clear until they arrived at Manchester crematorium to be handed an order of service with a picture on the front showing Roger Byrne, United’s captain on that catastrophic day at Munich-Riem airport in 1958.
One man was wearing a top paying tribute to “the Flowers of Manchester”. Another wore a red and white tie showing the names of the 23 people who lost their lives, including eight members of Matt Busby’s team, after the British European Airways flight 609 crashed off a slush-filled runway.
“This event was kept secret for a good reason,” Steve Donoghue, of the Stretford Enders Worldwide fans’ group, told the 20-strong gathering. “Given the number of people who would be going to Old Trafford to pay their respects (for the Munich anniversary), we knew we would inundated if everyone knew this was on. We had to be mindful that we have only a small space.”
All became clear as Iain McCartney, the author of Byrne’s biography, climbed a stepladder to pull back the rectangular piece of velvet cloth that had been covering the newly created plaque to honour the former England international.
Byrne, who had 33 England caps, was the oldest player, aged 28, to die in Munich and McCartney had decided something had to be done when he found out the club’s former captain, raised in Gorton, east Manchester, did not have a memorial plaque — or anything at all to mark his final resting place.
“Roger was the only one of those players who lost their lives on that cold winter’s afternoon in Germany who did not have a permanent memorial where supporters could visit to pay their respects,” said McCartney.
For McCartney, founder of the Manchester United Graves Society, this became a personal mission on behalf of a player who had helped United win league championships in 1952, 1956 and 1957, as well as leading them to Wembley for the 1957 FA Cup final.
As well as writing his book, Roger Byrne — Captain of the Busby Babes, McCartney had got to know Byrne’s widow, Joy, and was well aware of the tragic story about how she discovered a few days after Munich that she was expecting their first child. Her son was named Roger Jr but died, aged 53, in 2011.
“This (plaque) is something special for me,” said McCartney. “Roger Byrne would undoubtedly have captained United to further success had it not been for Munich, something that was also to rob him of fatherhood, as his wife waited on his return to tell him she was pregnant.”
Stretford Enders Worldwide had raised money at a Christmas auction, without breaking the secret that it was to fund the plaque, and the event was timed deliberately so everyone could then attend the annual Munich remembrance service outside Old Trafford, three miles away.
“For six decades, the other Busby Babes have had a place where family, friends and fans can pay their respects,” said Donoghue. “All these years, our captain, Roger, was missing from that list. Nobody knew where he was, until recently. Well, not anymore. Today is the day — February 6, 2024 — when all our fans, and all his remaining family, will have somewhere to visit.”
The Munich air disaster: The crash – ‘Christ… we aren’t going to make it’
(Header photo: Barratts/PA Images via Getty Images)