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Paul Hayward
The forgotten Munich victim
21:00pm 11th January 2008

Shortly after a German inquiry had blamed him for 23 deaths in the Munich disaster, 50 years ago next month, the pilot of the twin-engined Elizabethan that became a twisted coffin for so many of the Busby Babes was hit by a bill from his employers.

To Captain James Thain's grief and indignation at the German finding was added an unexpected insult. The letter from British European Airways contained an invoice for the cost of his airline cap, which had disappeared in the wreckage of the 'Lord Burghley'.

This week, Manchester United announced pre-tax profits of £59.6million on gross turnover of £245m, but it was the more poignant sum of 10 shillings and sixpence that snagged in the mind as Britain's wealthiest club set the scene for a 50th anniversary commemoration on February 6.

The revelation about Capt Thain's cap hits the bookstands next week, with the updated version of John Roberts' definitive The Team That Wouldn't Die — The Story of the Busby Babes (Aurum, £8.99).

Thain is the forgotten 'victim' of the crash that shaped United's tradition of courage and defiance, although at least he was still alive to fight for 11 years to clear his name.

As darkness enveloped Thain's house beneath the Heathrow flight path, the captain sat Roberts in an imaginary pilot's seat and recreated the three aborted takeoffs.

In this tight space, it is sufficient to say that the most chilling instant, the moment that broke 23 families and changed English football forever, comes when Thain's co -pilot, Kenneth Rayment, exclaims: 'Christ! we won't make it!' and the Elizabethan hurtles through a fence, across a road and into a house before rebounding into a hut that contained a truck packed with tyres and fuel.

To be brief, Thain was blamed for not ensuring that ice was removed from the wings, but was able to prove, with the help of experiments and evidence from a similar crash in America, that slush on the runway had prevented the Lord Burghley becoming properly airborne.

He lost his job with BEA in 1961, aged 40, was 47 when he was finally exonerated and was 53 when he died from heart trouble.

All this detail flared back to life as United announced plans to mark the deaths of Duncan Edwards, Roger Byrne and Tommy Taylor, who were among the eight players killed, as well as club officials and journalists, and as anxiety spread about the potential for disrespect when United play Manchester City in the first postanniversary tie, at Old Trafford on February 10.

Once you have praised City and Sven Goran Eriksson for writing to the 3,000 Sky Blue fans who will visit the red citadel for the most sensitive of Manchester derbies, you run up against the question of how such a pre-emptive diplomatic exercise should be necessary in the first place.

Any civilised person would run a mile from the proposition that old tribal rivalries would justify the despoiling of the occasion by City's supporters. It would take a reptilian heart not to at least shut up and keep still while the families of those lost were being honoured.

Anniversaries are often tortured affairs, especially when they reach 50. They are a tender groping for the right way to keep a tragic past alive in a booming present. And, of course, no one will need to look further than the august, silvery figure who saw so many of his friends die in the snow, or in hospital later, and who returned to his Munich memories with such devastating force this year in his autobiography. Sir Bobby Charlton fuses yesterday and today.

The Team That Wouldn't Die turns out to be an apposite title. It says it all. Enter a room with the current first-team squad and you see the ultimate proof that United's spirit, their raison d'etre, survived the tangled metal.

The lost keep coming back. They returned as Best, Law and Charlton, then as Hughes, Cantona and Robson, then as Giggs, Beckham, Scholes and the Nevilles, and now as Rooney and Ronaldo.

Matt Busby filled the great chasm of February 6, 1958, with the commodity that had been lost, along with Capt Thain's cap. He filled it with talent, courage, faith. For these past 50 years United have seldom deviated from the religion of attacking football, delivered with zest, style, class. And who can resist the symmetry of Busby almost morphing into Sir Alex Ferguson, who heard the call, in the early Nineties, to continue Busby's work with homegrown boys, the very reincarnation of the Babes.

There is an astonishing concentration of individual artistry in Ferguson's current squad. As the marathon of commemorations gets under way, we probably all sense that the greatest tribute to Duncan Edwards or Tommy Taylor will be Cristiano Ronaldo in full symphonic flow, Wayne Rooney rampaging through the middle or the peerless Ryan Giggs writing his name ever deeper into the great Old Trafford story.
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