WE ALL know the sad tale about the world-beating football team making their way back home after a European Cup match against Red Star Belgrade in early February, 1958, refuelling in Southern Germany before heavy snow and engine problems combined with catastrophic effect.
Even those of us not born for another decade – irrespective of club colours – can name many of those who died, not least the eight Manchester United players among the 23 who lost their lives on board BEA Flight 609.
But what of the 19 who somehow survived that awful winter’s night? We all know Bobby Charlton’s story and those of a few others and what they must have gone through. The story of the team’s rebuild is one of legend and will forever be retold, with good reason. Yet there were others too, including Kenny Morgans, who died at the weekend at the age of 73.
Morgans – or Ken Morgan as he was known everywhere other than Old Trafford, rather confusingly – played on the right flank in the 3-3 draw against Red Star, and has been asked to retell his tale many times over the years, a harrowing first-hand account about the repeated failed take-offs, the air of foreboding, the changing of seats, and concern as the pilot tried again. He remembered hitting the fence at the end of the runway, then blacked out.
Six hours after the crash, two German photographers at the scene discovered the unconscious Morgans in the remains of the fuselage, the search for survivors having been called off for the night. He was the last retrieved from the wreckage, pushed into the luggage hold at the back by the force of the crash and cut out of his new Italian suit by rescuers, having suffered head injuries.
It was three days before he regained consciousness in hospital. He woke up alongside Albert Scanlon, Bobby Charlton and Ray Wood, thinking the other players would be in the next ward. Soon after, he learned the truth. He returned home by train in the end, along with fellow United star Dennis Viollet, spending a week at home before returning to training and match action.
Morgans played several games in that year’s FA Cup run but was over-looked for the final by stand-in boss Jimmy Murphy, who felt he’d done too much too soon after the disaster, despite having planned to ‘play my heart out for the players that died’. It was a decision that broke his heart, but he did however play a fortnight later in the European Cup semi-final home leg victory over AC Milan at Old Trafford, and hailed man of the match.
Swansea-born Kenny, a Welsh schoolboy and Under-23 international, was just shy of his 19th birthday when he took his seat on that ill-fated flight, having been signed by United on leaving school in 1955. This highly promising right-winger was appointed captain of the youth team and made his first team debut barely three months before, brought in by Matt Busby in an effort to freshen up his side.
Understandably, Morgans appeared to lose his way after the crash, losing the passion for the game, missing his team-mates who had died. Despite the encouragement of assistant manager and fellow Welshman Murphy, he was allowed to leave Old Trafford in 1961, having made just 23 appearances.
He returned home to South Wales for a fresh start, going on to play for Swansea Town (now City) and Newport County, finally enjoying his football again by then under Billy Lucas, scoring 46 goals in 141 appearances.
Former Manchester Evening News reporter David Meek felt Morgans shouldn’t have returned so quickly after the crash. He said: “Given that eight of his team-mates had died in the crash, and two others were so badly injured that they’d never play again, I think Kenny must have felt some pressure to get back playing for them as soon as possible.
“Even though physically Kenny made an almost instant recovery, psychologically you could see he’d lost his spark and his hunger. Back then terms such as post-traumatic stress hadn’t been invented; though that’s clearly what he’d been suffering from.
Peter Stead, historian and Swansea City fan, added: “I’m not sure if it was injury, or simply struggling to cope with the attention of being the main man in the team. Kenny always struck me as a very magical yet frail character, both as a man and a player.”
He moved on again after just three years, finishing his professional career with three years at Newport, seen as ‘up there with the very best of them’ at Somertons Park by long-term County fan Ron Jones.
He said: “He was too good for Newport. He’d stand around for 88 minutes admiring his looks, and then whoosh! Someone would pass him the ball and you couldn’t see him any more – he was that fast!
“He had all the talent in the world, but I honestly don’t think his heart was in football after Munich. He scored hatfuls of goals for us, but I don’t think he was even 30 when he decided to jack it in.”
After retiring from the pro game in 1967, Morgans – who Peter Stead described as ‘charming and eloquent as ever’ after attending a recent Swansea centenary dinner – spent a spell as a publican, initially running a hostelry in Pontypool while player-boss of Cwmbran Town. He later became a trader in supplies for merchant shipping.
Morgans was the very epitome of what the game was about then, yet I wonder just what horrors he must have replayed in his mind for all those years. And while Duncan Edwards and co have remained (rightly) revered in higher circles, Morgans was just trying to get on with his life.
Nowadays of course, we talk of bitter rivalries between United and … well, just about every other team really. At times, it seems to be all about pettiness, inflamed passions and too often over-hyped contempt for those on the pitch with their over-inflated wages and out of all proportion squabblings.
But Morgans and his Old Trafford team-mates belonged to a different era, and we can learn a lot about the best aspects of the game from them. This Busby Babe was just one of many young lads who had a taste of the big time before tragedy struck and everything changed. However, his passing should bring into context all that is good about football and sport in general. And Morgans should never be forgotten.
With thanks to Andrew Taylor, historian at Newport County and author of Look Back in Amber: Memories of Newport County AFC.
This Malcolm Wyatt article first appeared on the http://www.sportnw.co.uk website, and appears here by kind permission.