Frank Taylor

"Rechts der Isar" are three words of German that went straight into the English language in February 1958 without many of us being quite sure what they meant or how to pronounce them.

We knew it was the name of a hospital, the one where the severely injured and the nearly dying were taken when Manchester United attempted a third take-off at Munich after stopping to refuel on their way home from a European Cup match at Red Star Belgrade. "Rechts", we learned, meant "right", as in river bank. "Isar" was the river’s name, an Alpine gusher racing through the city’s heart en route to joining the Danube.

This was where Frank Taylor, who died, aged 81, last month, would spend months of pain that, although he never inflicted these troubles on his colleagues, remained to some extent throughout his life.

United’s plane was an Elizabethan with a spotless safety record, as they all had, flight 609 Zulu Uniform, or as Frank called it later, "Tomb", remembering the flames and the airframe breaking and spinning in circles.

Matt Busby (the knighthood was years away) lay in the next bed and seemed in even worse shape – although Frank’s catalogue of damage would make anyone wonder by what miracle he survived to be known worldwide as the only sports writer to live through the Munich disaster. He totted up the damage in his book, The Day a Team Died.

"Left side of my head split open. A wound needing 21 stitches with the old thick catgut thread. Nine broken ribs and double fracture of a shoulder. The left arm hung helplessly; the left ankle and leg were smashed; the foot being bent backwards. What about the right foot? All but severed."

He heard Duncan Edwards, living only by the help of a kidney machine but not aware of death’s closeness, asking about the time of the coming Saturday’s kick-off.

Peggy, Frank’s wife, arrived from Manchester as quickly as possible. He was still in the intensive care unit but taking a more alert notice. He asked about his closest friends: George Follows (Daily Herald), Henry Rose (Daily Express), and Archie Ledbrooke (Daily Mirror). Briefed beforehand by the Isar’s staff, Peggy said: "They couldn’t fit everyone in here. They’re in another room." It was too soon for Matt and Frank to hear of deaths. They would spend months in the hospital (almost five months in Frank’s case) before learning the full toll of casualties.

In many cases, death or survival seemed as capricious as a raffle. For instance, Henry Rose, so eager to get home for that evening’s Manchester Press Ball and never imagining, as he fretted at the delays, that the first duty of the MC, a young man called Jimmy Savile, would be to cancel the function and black out the Plaza ballroom.

Henry Rose was the No.1 name in the city’s sports corp and the first to be buried. His cort?ge was unprecedented. 1,000 city taxis, virtually the whole fleet in line from the Express office in Great Ancoats Street, refusing to charge fares for taking their packed passengers free to the Jewish Southern cemetery. The only proviso being that they had to be both male and hatted.

During the journey, I mused on fate’s quirks. In the First World War, Henry, a 17-year-old frontline soldier in the London Rifles, was saved from drowning in a Flanders shell-hole. Now fate had chosen to kill him as he neared a deserved retirement.

Comrades defying enemy fire to form a search party had been the saving of Henry and, in the same way, Frank Taylor was saved by his brave friends, Harry Gregg, the goalkeeper, and Peter Howard, a Daily Mail photographer. These two gave him the gift of continued life but were beyond saving him for active sport. He had been an even-time sprinter as an RAF aircraft fitter, the double champion over 100 and 200 yards of British Forces in the wartime Middle East and regarded as a possible for the 1948 Olympics, the Austerity Games at Wembley.

But marriage, settling-down and building a home came first for so many of us once out of uniform. Frank was no different but fortune didn’t pour into his lap. It was provincial papers for him, first in his home town of Barrow, then a bigger stage at Sheffield and, at last, when thirtyish, a break into the nationals – except that his daily folded less than two years after Munich. This was the News Chronicle, whose staff, glaring at the boardroom, ascribed the failure to "thrombosis – which is circulation impeded by clots".

His pension vanished with his paper. He kept afloat by writing seven books, including his own (unquestionably most authoritative) story of the crash. The Daily Mirror stretched out a helping hand and Frank responded with some 20 years of well-informed columns, inside stories and pointers to a string of future stars, most perceptively Torvill and Dean.

His contacts and influence were strengthened by his presidency, stretching over almost 20 years, of the Association of European Sports Writers and their world body, the AIPS. Frank was awarded an OBE, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Medal and the chairmanship of Wombwell’s renowned Cricket Luvers Society.

His name will survive in our business through two national journalist sons, Andrew (FT) and Alastair (The Sun) but they may not be all. For we do not know yet about the six grandchildren.

Mike Langley

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