06 February 2008

'If this is the end, then I'm ready for it'.

55c Stamp issued by An Post, the Irish postal service, 4 February 2008

On 6 February, 1958, a British European Airways flight crashed in Munich after attempting to take off during a blizzard. Twenty-three of the forty-four passengers died in the crash, including eight Manchester United football players returning from a European Cup match against Red Star Belgrade in Yugoslavia.

A twenty-two year old, Liam Whelan, a member of the Republic of Ireland national team and one of Manchester United's most talented young players, was one of the fatalities.

Liam, from Cabra in Dublin, began his playing career with Dublin's Home Farm Football Club. His skill as a footballer was obvious and, at just eighteen years of age, he joined Manchester United. After a couple of seasons, he was playing regularly for United's first team and was regarded as one of their best players.

The stamp is based on a photograph of Liam Whelan with the clock commemorating the disaster, located at Old Trafford, Manchester, in the background. The first day cover depicts members of the Manchester United team leaving for the European Cup match in Belgrade. Included is Harry Gregg (second from the right), from Northern Ireland who survived the disaster. Both the stamp and first day cover were designed by RMG Target, with additional typography by Steve Simpson.

'If this is the end, then I'm ready for it'.

These were the last words of Liam Whelan who died 50 years ago today and who is buried near my parents. Only last year I learned that when they were both around 14 Liam rescued a close friend of mine who had got into difficulties in a swimming pool.

The average age of Manchester United's players was only 22. One who was only 21, Duncan Edwards, from the English Midlands, was considered by many to have the potential to become perhaps the greatest footballer ever. He died 15 days after the crash.

These young men were earning only £15 a week, about 25 percent more than a tradesman could earn. Endorsements could bring in a little more income for a few talented players whose career would end for most at 35, if not earlier. Their counterparts today are often spoiled millionaires. Imagine if the top players in the Philippine Basketball Association were paid only the same amount as a public school teacher, or if the members of the New York Giants or the Boston Red Sox were limited to earning little more than a bus-driver. That’s how it was with these young men who filled stadiums week after week.

Those who knew him describe Liam Whelan as a ‘devout Catholic’. I know that he sent his mother some money for her to go to Lourdes. 11 February 1958 was the centennial of the first apparition of our Blessed Mother to St Bernadette. Mrs Whelan, a widow since 1943 when Liam was 8, used the money instead towards a beautiful statue of Our Lady of Lourdes over the grave of her son. I pass it each time I visit my parents’ grave.

Clearly young Liam Whelan had his life focused on what was most important. He was ready to meet death. I spoke about him at Mass this morning. I see Lent as a time to focus on the essentials, God’s love for us sinners, the hope that the life and death of Jesus offer us, the necessity of acknowledging our sinfulness to enable God’s love to break through.

But the deaths of so many talented young men still leaves a deep sadness among those who saw them play and followed their fortunes. I was feeling that sadness quite heavily this last week but it has lifted now. The February issue of The Word an article, A Sporting Tragedy, in which John Scally speaks for me : ‘Their funerals were like no other. Most funerals are a burial of someone or something already gone. These young deaths pointed in exactly the opposite direction and were therefore the more poignant. Normally we bury the past but in burying Liam Whelan and his colleagues, in some deep and gnawing way we buried the future’.

You can listen to a wonderful interview with Harry Gregg, one of the survivors, on Bowman Sunday Morning on 27 January. To hear the programme, go to this page, then click on the link titled 'Programme 4 Sunday 27th January'.For the start of the United item, you will have to move the dial to 24 mins 30 seconds. On 3 February the interview is continued in the first part of the programme, which includes the voice of Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, a genuine Manchester United fan, recalling how he heard the news of the tragedy as a seven-year-old. (H/T Brendan Allen.)

The Daily Telegraph has a short video in which Sir Bobby Charlton, another survivor, recalls his team-mates. (If you don't see the thumb-size picture on the right, type 'Munich remembered' into the 'search'.)

May all who died as a result of the tragedy 50 years ago today rest in peace.


Therese said...

A good post, Father. And a good man. May God bless others through him.

Woodie said...

Yes, a good post and a wonderful new blog from a fellow member of the Irish diaspora (this one hails from Canada.) I hope you change your mind about infrequent postings.