Today marks the 63rd anniversary of the Munich air disaster which killed 23 people, including eight of Man Utd’s Busby Babes, but this year the act of remembrance will feel very different.
When Pete Martin sings the Flowers of Manchester it will sound quite similar.
When the Rev John Boyers speaks from underneath the Munich plaque it will look quite similar.
But the 63rd anniversary of the Munich air disaster today will be like none that have gone before it.
For the past 21 years a memorial service has been held at Old Trafford, initially on the date of the anniversary, February 6, to a smattering of fans who wanted to pay their respects. Now there are two services every year, one on the anniversary and one an hour and a half before kick-off on the nearest home matchday.
But this year that will not be possible. The cold grip of Covid-19 will deny families of the 23 victims – including eight members of Sir Matt Busby’s squad – and United supporters of the act of communal remembrance.
Yet over the last 10 months we’ve become accustomed to altering how we live our lives and to finding new ways to work, shop and communicate.
Today there will be a new way of remembrance. The memorial service, starting at 2.55pm, will still be broadcast free on MUTV, on United’s website and social media channels and on Munich58.co.uk.
As usual Mike Thomas will make his opening and closing remarks, Kady Cavanagh and Steve Douglas will read poems, Pete Martin will sing Flowers of Manchester and Pride of Football and the Rev Boyers will bring it all together.
Over the previous two weeks they’ve all visited Old Trafford separately to record their pieces and on Saturday it will all be brought together for the annual memorial service.
We wanted to do something, we had no doubt that we couldn’t let it pass without doing something,” said Thomas, who runs the Munich 58 website and helps to organise the service every year.
“We left it as long as possible but I think the reality was that they were never going to let a crowd gather at Old Trafford.
It’s obviously different that we’re not going to be standing there with a couple of thousand people joining in the singing.
“We’ve marked it every other year and we didn’t want to not do something, there was no reason we couldn’t at least do something. It’s going to be surreal but it will be poignant as always.”
Rev Boyers is United’s former club chaplain and remains close to the club. He is involved in the service every year and this will be no different, having already recorded his words at Old Trafford.
“We can’t have that sense of unity and coming together this year, but on the other hand if it’s being sent out as a pre-recorded remembrance event it’s going to reach far wider than just the four corners at Manchester United,” he said.
It’s sad for the local supporters, because many of them like to come to the area near the Munich clock and the Munich plaque and remember, but on MUTV the world can see it.”
Martin has been performing Flowers of Manchester and his own song Pride of Football at the memorial service for years. This year he was stood in the corner of the Stretford End and the Sir Bobby Charlton Stand and he knows how different it’s going to be.
It’s going to feel very different. I’ve done a few live gigs on Facebook, the strangest thing the first time I did it I sang the first song and it was silence, I’ve never had that before in 50 odd years of singing in public,” he said.
“The acoustics were brilliant next to the Stretford End, it was amazing in a way, it was a week last Monday, a lovely sunny day.
“They’ve recorded both songs completely but I think they’re going to put some archive shots of players in there as well. They’re doing a lot of work on it.”
As is always the case on the home game nearest the anniversary, there will be a minute’s silence at Old Trafford before United play Everton on Saturday night, while the two captains will also lay wreaths.
Usually, the ‘We’ll Never Die’ banner that immortalises the eight Busby Babes killed in the crash is carried above the heads of fans in the Stretford End, but this weekend it will be placed over the empty seats, while there will be a banner remembering each of the players hanging over the hoardings of the second tier.
United normally invite the families of those Busby Babes who died at Munich to the nearest home game, but that is not possible this year – although the club have been in contact with them and stressed they remain in their thoughts.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer knows his United history and he wants his side to mark the anniversary today with a performance fitting of the occasion.
It’s only the fourth time the game is played on the actual anniversary and it’s important that we put on a fitting performance and hopefully we can honour them with the result,” Solskjaer said.
“It’s such an important part of our history and the spirit of the club. We have spoken to the players who come into the club, who’ve not been here and are part of this anniversary.
“It’s a big day for everyone and it has always been an emotional day for everyone. Hopefully we can put the team out that shows the Man United spirit. We have six or seven of the academy graduates and hopefully they’ll lead us on.”
Martin, an Old Trafford season ticket holder, knows the emotions come kick-off time will be different from normal.
“It’s going to feel very poignant on a matchday with an empty Old Trafford. It’s about collective remembrance really. It won’t feel the same watching on TV,” he said.
It’s normally about sitting shoulder to shoulder with 75,000 fans, even the visiting fans are great every year.”
While watching a pre-recorded memorial service and listening to a minute’s silence at home, it will be impossible to escape the reality that all of this is happening because our own lives have been turned upside down by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Rev Boyers, who was a nine-year-old boy growing up in Grimsby when the crash happened and can still remember his own mum saying “their poor mothers” when the news came on their 12″ TV that evening, knows it’s important to still remember those who lost their lives in the Munich air disaster, but he won’t be ignoring how the last 12 months have affected us all either.
“Most of us know of people who have died this year, some of us have had people very close to us who have died,” he said.
I mentioned in the service that in the past year I’d been asked to take three funerals for people who had worked at Manchester United and had died. I suggested in the script that all of us would have known people who have died and maybe as well as remembering those who died in Munich 63 years ago maybe we could also take a moment to remember people who were part of our family and our friendship who have died this year.”
As ever, Rev Boyers thoughts will be with the families who lost their loved ones.
It hit Manchester United, it hit England, but most of all it hit the families. It’s easy for supporters to come and remember because a member of the team has been lost, but the real pain is felt by the families,” he said.
“That’s true in these Covid times as well. It’s more than 100,000 families that have been affected this year, 100,000 mums, dads, daughters, sons, uncles, aunties, cousins, damaged and hurt because of what this disease has brought to us.
“So that’s why we had in the stuff we recorded a little time to remember the pain of these days as well as the pain of Munich.”