When British European Airways Flight 609 crashed on its third attempt at take-off in the snow at Munich on February 6, 1958, it took the lives of eight of Manchester United’s footballing stars. Two more were so badly injured they never played again.

The disaster wiped out a nationally loved young team, nicknamed the Busby Babes after the club’s legendary manager Matt Busby, who also nearly died in the crash.

Now, 53 years on, the tragedy and its aftermath is being recreated in BBC2’s United, the first major TV drama to delve into the emotional effect the crash had on the surviving players, club officials and fans.

It was the equivalent of most of the stars in today’s Manchester United squad, such as Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs and Rio Ferdinand, being lost in one accident.

‘It seems totally unfair, random and ghastly,’ says former Dr Who star David Tennant, who plays coach Jimmy Murphy, the man given the seemingly impossible task of rebuilding the team.

‘It is almost inconceivable that a team should be at the zenith of their footballing achievements one moment, and in the next they are obliterated. But the team struggled back to the top, against all odds.’

And as the film flips back two years to 1956, to show Busby building his young team and teenager Bobby Charlton fighting for his place in it, their excitement is all the more poignant.

But it’s not all grim viewing — there are many lighter moments of understated humour as the film takes us back to a very different footballing world.

One player puffs on a pipe before going on the pitch, while Bobby is warned by his brilliant team-mate and England regular  Duncan Edwards not to tell girls he is a footballer as they will be put off because — with even the best players’ wages capped at 20 a week in 1958 — there was no money in the game!

Edwards, a prodigious talent at only 21, would die of his injuries two weeks after the disaster.

The team were on their way back from a European Cup tie in Belgrade when their plane had stopped in Munich to refuel. The aircraft developed a technical problem and take-off was abandoned twice.

With snow starting to fall heavily, many of the 44 passengers and crew assumed they would have to spend the night there. But with the threat of having league points docked if they were not home for their next match, one final, fateful, attempt to get home was made. The plane skidded on slush, crashed into a house and split into several parts.

The film’s main focus is on Murphy and Charlton, portrayed by Jack O’Connell (of Skins and the crime thriller Harry Brown fame).

Tennant explains: ‘Murphy hadn’t been on the plane because he was back in the UK, managing Wales. But when it came to rebuilding the depleted United team, the job went to him because Matt Busby had been so badly injured in the crash.

‘Jimmy must have wanted to grieve, but he resisted the temptation to chuck it all in.

Part of what I like about this story is I’d never heard of Jimmy Murphy, which is shocking considering what he achieved.’

Survivor Charlton went on to become one of England and  United’s most prolific goal scorers, and was awarded a knighthood. O’Connell says: ‘When I was asked to audition for the part, I felt queasy because he is such a sporting hero’.

The actor immersed himself in Charlton’s world — reading  everything and watching every documentary he could lay his hands on. ‘I was always bearing in mind who I was playing,’ he says. ‘As soon as I put Bobby’s clothes on I became him.

He came from a time of the stiff upper lip. Back then it was still Great Britain; they had just come out of a war so you couldn’t feel sorry for yourself. I’m not sure people have that kind of resilience any more.

‘Although he was not in hospital for long after the crash there were physical signs of the trauma he had been through — he lost a lot of his hair. But he focused on playing his best for United.

‘I will take lessons from Bobby’s resilience throughout my life.’

The whole ‘team’ of actors — Busby is played by Scottish Mission Impossible actor Dougray Scott — spent a day at Manchester United going through the archives.

Although Sir Bobby declined to become involved, he did send a letter wishing everyone good luck.

They also talked to Harry Gregg, the goalkeeper regarded as the hero of the air crash for going back to the burning plane to carry out survivors, and to Murphy’s sons.

Tottenham boss Harry Redknapp, who saw the Babes at their last domestic game against Arsenal, explained to them what an impact the young team had on all footballing fans. ‘He talked about being utterly inspired by this extraordinary young team that was unlike anything seen before,’ says Tennant.

He adds: ‘I get the sense that what happened in Munich in 1958, how the team coped with it and how they came back from the brink, was possibly the beginning of United as the kind of world football team they are today.’

With the typical capriciousness of British weather there was snow when the cast and film crew didn’t need it during the four weeks of shooting last December and precious time was taken thawing the set. But for the one scene when they needed snow — the crash — there was none, so it had to be created by machines.

‘It was freezing cold and we were in shorts — I’m not embarrassed to admit I wore skin-coloured tights for some scenes because I was so cold,’ says O’Connell.

He adds that Tennant and Scott were always treated with respect by the young team mates — just as they were on the screen. ‘In between takes, they still had this air of authority, as if they really were football superstars,’ says O’Connell. ‘We are all young actors and I felt I was almost taking notes watching them.

‘David was so prepared that he could turn his character on and off in a second. And it was interesting to watch Dougray turn into Busby, he had a whole different stature —  he would have one shoulder higher than the other, just like Busby. ’

Derby-born O’Connell took lessons with a vocal coach to perfect Charlton’s Northumberland accent. ‘We were steadfast in trying to be as accurate as possible,’ says director James Strong. ‘We used an exact replica of the plane and even had the same material on the seats.

‘We had a screening a couple of weeks ago for the relatives and everyone was hugely complimentary.

‘The most important thing for us was to help this story to live on. Munich’s legacy is that from then on football became truly international,’ he adds. ‘Manchester United were England’s pioneers when it came to the European game and after the tragedy the European Cup was made part of our footballing calendar.’

O’Connell adds: ‘This story is not just a heart-wrenching tragedy, but it is also about heroes you can only take inspiration from. I know I will.’

United is on BBC2 on Sunday  at 9pm

Source: The Daily Mail 24th April 2011