Liam Whelan’s death in Munich air disaster a tragic note in Ireland and Man United’s shared history

Monday marks the 65th anniversary of the Munich air disaster which killed one of Irish football’s all-time greats

Glasnevin Cemetery: when the tour is over and tea in the café has been taken, in the foyer you can buy a James Joyce fridge magnet. It declares: “Whatever else is unsure in this stinking dunghill of a world, a mother’s love is not.”

Across Finglas Road in the St Paul’s section, near the entrance on the right, a white grave has engraved on its base: “Erected by a loving mother.”

Above it are the words: “In loving memory of my dear son Liam Whelan.”

The love of mothers is rarely in doubt; but still, the double assertion of it on Liam Whelan’s tomb shakes you.


The grave also mentions Whelan’s status as a Manchester United footballer and that he died in the Munich air disaster on February 6th, 1958 – “aged 22 years”.

Monday marks the 65th anniversary of the crash which killed 23 people, including eight United players, and there will be sombre ceremonies in Manchester and Munich and elsewhere.

These will be of scale; what visiting Whelan’s grave and the bridge named after him in Cabra on a midweek February morning underlines is that within this and other tragedies is devastating personal loss.

Whelan’s mother Elizabeth didn’t just lose a prolific inside forward of natural balance, the top scorer in England’s most thrilling team, she lost a son. She had already lost a husband, John, when Liam was eight, and she had seven children. She was entitled to spell out her love.

Sometimes it can feel as if professional football has a contractual relationship with a maudlin grief industry in this post-Diana world, where to be seen to mourn is as important as the mourning itself. Another black armband, another minute’s silence interrupted by applause.

But remembrance can be sincere and respectful, too, and when each event is stripped back to its origins, there lies loss. It can be of degrees – Manchester United lost their season at Munich, Jackie Blanchflower lost his career. Liam Whelan lost his life.

We should remember that, or we should not forget it and when in Cabra, round the corner from St Attracta Road where he was born and grew up, you stand on Liam Whelan Bridge overlooking the Luas, you do remember.

Manchester United fans will not forget because Munich is such a piece of the club. Old Trafford lost three senior staff as well as their eight players.

“Aged 22″. It was the youth of those players which cut so deeply. David Pegg was Whelan’s age. Duncan Edwards and Eddie Colman were 21. Mark Jones was 24, Geoff Bent, 25, Tommy Taylor 26 and Roger Byrne 28. They were so young. Matt Busby’s Babes.

And they rippled with talent. Taylor, for example, had scored 16 goals in his 19 England appearances. Edwards, even at 21, had 177 United games under his belt, plus 18 for England. He was so good he made his United debut aged 16.

No wonder they thought the future was theirs. It was. Manchester United had already won the league title in 1955-56 (by 11 points) and in 1956-57 (by 8 points) scoring 103 goals of which Whelan, top scorer, got 26.

So in ‘57-58 Busby’s Babes were chasing down a league treble and that season’s defence of the title began at home to Leicester City. It was 3-0. Liam Whelan scored all three.

He got five more in September and kept the scoreboard ticking over in October and November. And he was not a striker.

Bobby Charlton, who shared digs with Whelan in Manchester, looked at the Dubliner, who was two years older, and Dennis Viollet and worried how he could ever be selected ahead of them. Charlton is arguably the greatest English footballer of them all.

In his autobiography he recalled United being in Switzerland during the 1954 World Cup and the Brazil squad turning up to one of their games. United won 9-1. Whelan stood out to the point Brazilian club officials asked about his availability.

“We heard they wanted to take him back to South America,” Charlton said.

“Viollet was the cutting edge, the wielder of the rapier. Matching the effect of Billy Whelan, the man so admired by the Brazilians, was a different but no less demanding challenge for me.

“The Dubliner was tall and nothing like as quick as Viollet. His forte was to scheme, to shape possibilities with his skill and excellent vision. Yet Whelan scored so many goals from midfield he would be a wonder of today’s game.”

These are words to be cherished by Whelan’s extended family and by Irish football. If we remember, then Whelan is not a distant black-and-white image staring politely back at us.

He mattered and it should bring some comfort, just as Harry Gregg’s message to the Whelan family brought some in 1958. “Well, if this is the time, then I’m ready,” Whelan said as the sluggish aeroplane tried lift-off again at Munich-Reim airport.

Gregg was just past his 26th birthday. It was only six weeks earlier when United had made him the most expensive goalkeeper in the world. Then Munich.

As Kevin Breathnach’s remarkable essay, Tunnel Vision, says, 1958 was the city’s 800th anniversary. Munich was wondering whether to remember and how to remember, given its recent past as a focal point of Nazism. Erase it altogether? That leads on to the philosophical question of erasure as a form of permanence.

Breathnach’s interest is personal. His grandfather was Liam Whelan’s older brother. On Manchesterplatz in Munich, Breathnach thinks of Glasnevin and the family lore he listened to.

It is part of a long red thread connecting Irish players, north and south, to Manchester United – in Belfast’s City cemetery on the Falls Road lies the first, John Peden, who was transferred from Linfield to Newton Heath in 1893. As with Whelan, it says so on his tombstone.

The pride is understandable. It was and is so hard to make it as a professional footballer, never mind one for Manchester United. Even non-United fans can appreciate that.

Liam Whelan made it. He made the Irish team, too, and from the bridge in Cabra the floodlights of Dalymount Park are visible above the redbrick streets of Phibsborough.

It was where he won the last of his four caps, in May 1957. It was against England. The Irish led 1-0 until the last minute and you can imagine Dalymount in fever. Then England equalised, the old ground emptied and Liam Whelan shook hands with four England men he knew so well – Roger Byrne, Duncan Edwards, Tommy Taylor and David Pegg.

They were all there.