Munich anniversary demonstrates the special bond between Man United and its supporters
Over 1,000 Manchester United fans stood in the cold around Munich's tiny Manchesterplatz on Tuesday to pay their respects during the 60th anniversary commemoration of the Munich air crash.
They listened as Bayern Munich legend and chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said: "Manchester United are more than wins, defeats, titles and lost trophies. Manchester United represents unconditional devotion, great joy and deep mourning. To this day I'm impressed by how the memory of those who were lost is passed on by fans. They provide a wonderful example of how to honour those who are no longer with us -- by never forgetting them."
Some of those fans listened as Dieter Reiter, the mayor of Munich, spoke with great emotion while wearing a United scarf.
"I've never experienced anything like that before," said Reiter, who sang along with the United songs. "The mixture between a football stadium with fan songs one moment and then the next, absolute silence. And then the unbelievable respect the fans suddenly showed. Something like that only can work when people are behind it with their heart and soul. It's remarkable the depths of emotions shown by the fans here today."
He listened as Tony O'Neill, a former United hooligan, spoke with passion amid silence, chants of "We'll never die, we'll never die" and a Bavarian brass band. He Listened as Mancunian Tracey Malone sang "The Flowers of Manchester" before dispersing to enjoy German hospitality.
But who were the people in the crowd? Many were from Manchester, where United come from. Many no longer go to games for a variety of reasons, but turned out for the trip to Munich, with their small lapel badges of the Munich clock. Planes from England were full of fans, yet many came from further afield.
There was Lars Morten Olsen, 58, from Norway, who has travelled to United games since 1977. "Munich is all that Manchester United is about," he said, "we're nothing without that history. We should never forget the club's history and the crash is a very important part of that."
From Europe's southern extremity, there were the two Joes from the Maltese Reds, the oldest United supporters' club founded in 1959 after the air crash.
"The disaster was the turning point for the name Man United around the whole world; after it they became worldwide," said Joe Glanville, who went to the 1963 FA Cup final and hasn't missed any cup final since. The Maltese Reds have a spacious clubhouse where hundreds of fans watch every United games.
From the far west of England there was a group of fans from Plymouth. "I started supporting United after the Munich air crash," explains the 69-year-old John Voaden. "I read about this brilliant young team in the Plymouth Herald and a famous game between Arsenal and Manchester United. It captured my imagination.
"I can remember sitting in a cloakroom at school crying my eyes out when I heard that Duncan (Edwards) had gone and I still feel really emotional right now mentioning it."
There was Lyle Crompton, 18, now of Perth, Australia, where there is a substantial Mancunian expat community. Crompton was born in Manchester. He came with his grandfather and his grandfather's friends.
"We watch the games in a pub in Perth. Due to the time difference, the games can be on at 3am," he said. "There can be 150 of us cramped in there watching the game." Grandfather Chris watched on, proud that the story of the Busby Babes was being passed down from generation to generation. The beer halls of Munich were packed with Reds singing. With their widening girths it wasn't always an edifying sight, but there were no doubts about the atmosphere in there.
In Salford, fresh flowers on the grave of Busby Babe Eddie Colman were from fans in the USA. In Belgrade, Serbian Reds like Zoran Milosavljevic and fellow fans carried a flag with the words "Love Unbreakable 6 Feb 1958" into United's Under-19s game. They hoped for more fans from the various online United clubs in Belgrade, but opined that they were from the PlayStation generation, where going to games in real life was a more alien culture, even when United's U19s were playing in their neighbourhood.
United's global support may be something that other clubs try to emulate, even Manchester City, whose fans have long mocked United's popularity outside Manchester. But that global support is often mocked.
Sometimes it's easy to see why. A glance at social media sees United fans furious when the team has the audacity not to win a game or sign the players they want, yet the always angry don't post for all. United have long enjoyed a vast global support, long before the club even became successful in the modern era. Munich was a reason and the rise to European victory which followed. Is there another story so incredible in football?
Success attracts converts, too, yet some of United's greatest fans are from nowhere near Manchester. They're brilliant fans who make vast commitments to the club they love -- and get called a glory hunter for their efforts as they do. Efforts which extend to a constant struggle for tickets given the supply is outstripped by the demand.
Was Lars, who started going in 1977 a glory hunter? Or Joe in Malta, a man who would become friends with United players after his first game in 1963? Or John in Plymouth in 1959. It was tragedy, not glory, which drew them into the United family.
The jibes continue. There's not a game that goes by where fans don't sing "We Support Our local team". Huddersfield Town fans were the last to sing it on Saturday. That's Huddersfield, whose average home crowd was 12,631 in 2016. It's now twice that after they reached the Premier League. Now that's glory hunting.
United's support is vast and varied, it's local and loyal, international and inspiring. And it travelled in vast numbers to Bavaria this week, leaving Rummenigge to later tell German television: "Thousands of Manchester United fans from all around the world descended on Munich, I've rarely seen something so emotional."
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.